The abduction of Jacob Wetterling in 1989 haunted a generation of Minnesota parents and children, shaking their sense of security. When Danny James Heinrich confessed 27 years later to killing him and led authorities to Jacob’s remains, the pain and fear were revived for many.
In the wake of the release of the investigative file last week, we asked how it affected you. Here are some of those responses, edited for space and clarity.
“Our family farm was about 10 miles from where Jacob was abducted. The biggest effects were the feeling of not being able to trust anyone, and, if St. Joseph wasn’t a safe place to raise a child, was there any place in the world that was safe?”
Mary May, Bemidji
“The biggest change? We locked our doors from then on out. We always looked over our shoulder. We learned that there were evil people in this world, and that unfortunately, bad things happened to good people.”
Nikki Lavin, St. Paul
“Before Wetterling, but especially after, my parents would write my name on my articles of clothing. To this very day, I still write my name on articles of clothing, especially in my military career. … For me, the most chilling part of the whole case was when the child’s body was located and his jacket said, ‘Wetterling.’ It’s like … because that child was wearing his name, his identification was immediate.”
John Hoff, Midwest City, Okla., formerly of Alexandria
“I was 11 in October of 1989. My sister was a student at St. Ben’s and helped put up posters looking for Jacob. Now I have 7- and 9-year-old boys. When I lose sight of them at a playground, I panic probably more than the other mothers around me. I’ve recently let them start walking the dog around the block, and I’m sick with worry until they come back. They don’t understand my paranoia, and neither do other mothers around here. After I tell them about Jacob, they understand. But I don’t think anyone just hearing the story understands how deeply it affected Minnesotans of all ages.”
Meghann Battles, Denver
“I grew up in the late 1970s/early 1980s in Stillwater. I recall going pretty much anywhere around town without concern or worry 24/7. Now, as an adult raising a daughter and two stepsons in Stillwater, I constantly worry about them and their safety, even when they ride their bikes to the nearest convenience store. Because of what happened to Jacob, we always, always tell them to stick together, not go alone, avoid contact with strangers, and to protect themselves. Jacob’s disappearance stole our innocence, for generations.”
Brad Hovland, Stillwater
“Jacob Wetterling disappeared at the time my second son was born. This event, followed by seeing missing children on milk cartons, was the beginning of my education in how many children were missing. My children all learned a secret code word that anyone needed to know if they were to go with someone. They learned that they needed to see me so they knew that I could see them and be safe. When my children went to school, their elementary school was the first one in the state to have intruder drills (‘Mr. Green is in the building.’). This was so controversial then, but so mild now in comparison.”
Elizabeth Wehrwein, St. Paul
“I moved in January 1989 to Kansas. I was 12. I used to live in northern Minnesota. I still had family and friends there, and we used to ride bikes like Jacob and his friends did. After moving, we came up to see family around Christmastime. We used to see the posters at the rest areas. I have those drawings burned into my brain. There WERE bad people in the world. Even in the place I still loved and still do love.”
Jason Czerniak, Lawrence, Kan.