ST. JOSEPH, Minn. – The remoteness of the road overwhelmed her. Standing beside it, Joy Baker couldn’t make sense of what had happened there two decades before: Jacob Wetterling, 11 years old, taken by a masked man, never to be seen since.
Baker had been 22 at the time of his abduction, “not much older than a kid myself.” But in 2010, looking down that road, she thought of her two sons.
“I stared at that spot,” she said, “and suddenly felt this urge to understand exactly what happened there.”
Baker, now 48, began writing about the Wetterling investigation on her blog, “Joy the Curious,” launching a process of tireless questioning that Patty Wetterling, Jacob’s mother, credits with uncovering new possibilities in the case “way before anyone was really paying attention.’’
Those questions led Baker to a farmhouse on that road in rural St. Joseph. That in turn brought her to nearby Cold Spring, which steered her to Paynesville, farther southwest. There, through newspaper archives, interviews and tips, she started tallying attacks in the 1980s in which a man — sometimes wearing a mask, once wielding a knife — would approach or accost boys, often groping their groins.
Investigators have now made official the questions Baker raised in 2013: Might the Paynesville attacks be connected to the kidnapping and assault of a Cold Spring boy just months before Jacob Wetterling’s abduction? Might they be linked to Jacob?
In October, authorities named a former Paynesville man who lived within blocks of the attacks a “person of interest” in the Wetterling case.
DNA evidence tied Daniel James Heinrich, 52, to the Cold Spring assault and didn’t rule him out from a Paynesville attack, though it ruled out 80.5 percent of the population. Though he could no longer be charged in the Cold Spring case — the statute of limitations had run out — he was charged in federal court with receiving and possessing child pornography, after a search of his home turned up binders of photographs. Heinrich, who was questioned soon after Wetterling’s kidnapping, has long denied involvement in that crime.
Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner declined to comment last week, citing the active investigation. But in the past, Sanner has said that his office knew about at least some of the Paynesville attacks long before Baker wrote about them.
Investigative teams routinely speculate about whether different crimes might be related, he said last year. “The difference is, she’s speculating and playing it out on a public stage, where anybody can read it.
“We have a much higher bar, and our bar is proof and fact.”
But Patty Wetterling believes Baker’s research into what authorities have since dubbed the “Paynesville assault cluster” pushed a possible link to Jacob’s abduction to “the top of the pile.”
Other things might have driven the case to this point, Wetterling said, “but from my vantage point, I see her as being absolutely pivotal to what’s going on right now.”
When I first started writing about Jacob three years ago, I was hopeful that I could somehow make a difference. I really believed if I could talk to the right people, get the facts straight and keep the conversation going, that maybe someone somewhere might hold the key that could unlock this 24-year-old mystery.
— Blog post, Oct. 22, 2013
Baker’s blog began with a very different mystery: an old beach house on Longboat Key, Fla.
Each year, on family vacations, Baker would walk along the shore and wonder about the “ramshackle, weather beaten house” and its past lives. She delved into the history of the Villa Am Meer, chronicling her findings online and trading tips and memories with readers.
After that story, Baker searched for a new subject, deciding against an unsolved murder. She began looking into Jacob’s disappearance and weeks later, in 2010, investigators began digging up a half-dozen truckloads of dirt and ash from a farm property near where Jacob was taken, a property that had been searched twice before. (Forensic tests of that farm later turned up no evidence.)
“It seemed like such a hopeful, big break in the case,” she said. “I decided it must be a sign.”
At the time, Baker was in the midst of “a full-blown midlife crisis,” she said. After two decades running an advertising agency, Baker wondered whether she ought to be writing. So she sold half the business and, alongside other projects, dug into Jacob’s case.
Baker studied aerial photos of the road. She researched who lived along it. Then she stopped, nervous about her sons, who are now 19 and 20 years old. But a phone call from the man who lived on the farm across the road from the abduction, long called a “person of interest” in the case, renewed her interest. She arranged a meeting between him and a man named Kevin (whom she identifies only by first name in her blog), who as a 21-year-old had followed the cops to the crime scene on the night of abduction, leaving behind tire tracks.
Through the years, law enforcement had created a “sort of adversarial” relationship between the two men, said the man living on the farm, who asked that his name not be used. So “for her to get us two together” was a feat, the man said. “She’s very intuitive, very cognitive about connections and how things and people go together.”
The three met at a Panera Bread in St. Cloud and talked for three hours. Baker then recounted their stories on her blog with maps, dates and details.
Why, she asked, would these two men agree to talk to her, “a wannabe writer/investigator?”
“Because I agreed to tell their stories in their own words, and to tell them honestly,” she wrote. “No time or space constraints. No deadlines. No ratings wars … I was in it for the right reasons, and they could tell.”
The assault took place just ten months before Jacob Wetterling was abducted, in a town less than 10 miles away. And like Jacob, Jared’s abductor was never found.
— Blog post, Aug. 11, 2013
Baker’s work “really started to click” after she talked with Jared Scheierl, the Cold Spring boy who is now 39. Baker found him with the help of her genealogy skills and one key fact, reported in the press: Scheierl was kidnapped six days before his 13th birthday.
On a January night in 1989, Scheierl was walking home from the Side Cafe when a man forced him into the back seat of his car. He told him he had a gun. After driving for 15 minutes, the man stopped on a gravel road and sexually assaulted Scheierl, wiping his mouth on the boy’s sweatshirt.
After releasing him, the driver told Scheierl “not to look back or he would be shot,” according to court documents.
Ten months later, after Jacob was abducted, investigators thought it was “entirely likely” that Scheierl’s abductor might have been responsible, said Al Garber, the FBI supervisor in charge of the Wetterling investigation in 1989. Scheierl was questioned repeatedly and asked to view a dozen lineups, until he was broken down, he said.
When Baker contacted him in 2013, just days after his father died, it had been years since he had spoken publicly, and then using only his first name. But for some reason, he talked.
“I like to think she balanced emotions and information,” Scheierl said, asking not just about his assault but other parts of his life, including his grief over his father’s death. “She would not only listen, but she also cared.”
After Baker stumbled upon a 1987 article in the Paynesville Press about a handful of attacks against boys there, Scheierl reached out to victims in the small city where he now lived. “He introduced himself as a victim himself,” she said. “He bravely laid it all out there.”
Baker, now head of marketing and public relations for a Willmar hospital, spent weekends researching tips and suspects, passing along what she found to the sheriff’s office. In the past few years, she’s received close to 500 tips. She enters each into a database. She keeps little paper, digitizing documents, and there are no suspect photographs or timelines taped to the walls of her office of her home in New London, Minn. It’s decorated, instead, with a vintage typewriter and colorful art. One print reads, “She knew the answers would come with time and love.”
It’s hard to explain why I keep at this. For the past four years, I’ve been searching for Jacob Wetterling … a boy I’ve never known, from a town I had barely heard of.
— Blog post, July 15, 2014
Before the dozen TV news cameras showed up, before more than 150 residents took their seats, Baker and Patty Wetterling stood together in the Paynesville High School auditorium. Baker showed Wetterling what she had set up — a box for tip sheets, a microphone for questions. The pair smiled, recalling the phone call that led to the event that was about to begin.
“I think we were both a little punchy that night,” Baker said.
“I think we had the same idea,” Wetterling said, “which is weird.”
The idea: host a gathering in Paynesville to offer support to victims, request help from residents and assure families that today, police would thoroughly investigate similar attacks. The Wetterlings took the stage that night, while Baker worked in the background — talking quietly with residents, ushering victims away from the media. She introduced Patty to the sound guy, the police chief, a victim’s mother.
“There’s no ego involved,” Patty Wetterling said later, of working with Joy. “There’s just Joy, trying to follow her heart and do what she can to help.”
Baker first met Wetterling in 2012, at a charity fundraiser in Willmar, introducing herself and her blog. The next day, they spoke by phone. “I hung up and thought … oh my God, she probably thinks I’m a stalker,” Baker said. “I was right. She did.”
But Wetterling found the information Baker had gathered “jaw-dropping” and her style “respectful.” Pretty quickly, she trusted her. So she understands why survivors do too.
Baker has helped Wetterling organize a room full of boxes in her home, filled with materials about the case. She has become someone Wetterling can laugh with, joking in a way that might seem “very odd or dark” to outsiders, Wetterling said. She has entered a small group Wetterling’s therapist refers to as “my snuggle group.”
Becoming close with the people she’s writing about has made Baker’s work more meaningful, she said, but also trickier. “When I was just a little amateur sleuther, and they were all just names on paper, it was easier, in a sense.”
Now, after all our endless hours of research, interviews, phone calls, texts and e-mails, Jared finally has his guy … Emotionally, I have been all over the place. Happy, sad, pissed, confused, exhausted … you name it.
— Blog post, Nov. 7, 2015
In late October, the FBI, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office held a news conference: Searching Heinrich’s Annandale house for evidence of Scheierl or Wetterling, investigators found computer folders and 19 three-ring binders that contained child pornography.
But the criminal complaint goes beyond child porn: DNA evidence found on Scheierl’s sweatshirt matched Heinrich, it says. Tire marks found next to the Wetterling abduction scene were similar to impressions taken in 1990 from Heinrich’s 1982 Ford EXP. A shoe print, too, corresponded in size and style.
The complaint also details eight Paynesville attacks, pointing out that Heinrich lived within a mile of each. A call Friday to Heinrich’s attorney was not returned.
Baker retreated to her parents’ Christmas tree farm along the Rum River, where she grew up, too overwhelmed to discuss the case with the media. She was happy that Scheierl had answers. Sad that the statute of limitations had run out. Confused about the case’s details.
She was also reluctant to become a part of the story, hoping to keep the focus on the victims.
Baker continues to get tips. On her blog, she keeps posing questions. Now, they’re about Heinrich, whose name she had come across but never investigated. What cars did Heinrich have access to, and when? Was Heinrich stalking Scheierl, or did he happen to see a group of kids, then wait to see if any would walk home alone?
Then there’s the location: Why Cold Spring? And if it was Heinrich, “What in the world,” she said, her eyes wide, “was he doing on that dead end road in the middle of nowhere in St. Joseph?”