Jacob Wetterling continues to hold the attention of a nation a year since he was kidnapped by a masked gunman in St. Joseph, Minn. Jacob has become "the national missing child."

The white ribbons still hang from virtually every mailbox, street sign and telephone pole along the main road through St. Joseph. A gas station in the center of town displays a large sign that reads, "Leave
a light on for Jacob."

In Chicago, Milwaukee and other cities around the nation, sketches of an unidentified prime kidnapping suspect remain posted on convenience stores and restaurants. The posters have endured, even though investigators are less confident in the sketch than they once were.

A year since he was snatched by a masked gunman, Jacob Wetterling continues to hold the attention of a nation that typically has a short attention span for crimes, including child abductions.

Only a few reported child abductions by strangers in the 1980s gained the notoriety and generated the public response of the Wetterling case, according to the FBI and advocates for missing people
and their relatives. The frequency of unresolved abductions by strangers was overstated in the early 1980s, but recent estimates put the number at about 700 since 1984.

"He became a national missing child," said Ernest Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

From the beginning, the Wetterling abduction involved elements that made it highly unusual or unique among suspected kidnappings by strangers in the United States.

Unlike most unsolved child abductions, the Wetterling kidnapping had accessible witnesses. Jacob's brother and friend were with him at the time and recalled the crime in detail: A masked gunman on a
small-town road snatched a boy riding a bicycle. The FBI hasn't been able to find another case with those characteristics.

Moreover, the boys' account gave the crime the credibility often lacking in other reported child abductions.

There was the location: a middle-class neighborhood in a small Midwestern town. "A parent's greatest fear - if it can happen in St. Joseph, Minnesota, then it can happen anywhere," Allen said.

Then there's Jacob's mother, Patty. Refusing to consider the possibility her son might be dead, she has appeared on talk shows and gone on speaking tours to keep his name in the public consciousness. She's accessible to reporters. This week she fought to get his story on a syndicated television show about crime.

All the publicity has helped generate more than 40,000 tips to a police task force that investigated hundreds of suspects and potential suspects. But there have been no confirmed sightings of Jacob, no
ransom demands and no identifiable prime suspect.

"We've eliminated dozens of people who really looked fully capable of committing that crime," said Jeff Jamar, head of the FBI for Minnesota and the Dakotas. "The greatest frustration here is we don't
know what happened to an 11-year-old boy. That's been so . . . heartbreaking."

Nevertheless, investigators said they are convinced the abductor is a loner with a strong drive to molest children. He probably used a gun after previous efforts to abduct children with less force failed.
"Our behavioral science people tell me that because of the drive, it's very likely that the person will attempt it again," Jamar said last week.

The abduction occurred at about 9:15 p.m. on Oct. 22 as Jacob, his 10-year-old brother, Trevor, and 11-year-old companion, Aaron Larson, were returning to the Wetterling home from a Tom Thumb convenience store where they had rented a movie. They were halfway home when a man wearing dark clothing and black boots walked out of a long gravel driveway leading to a farm.

"He had a mask - it looked like pantyhose - on his head," Trevor said. "He told us to get off our bikes or he'd shoot. We did what he said. We laid in a ditch and he asked our ages."

After the boys told their ages, "he looked at Aaron's face and he told me to run to the woods as fast as I could," Trevor said.

Aaron said, "He told me to run, too, or else he'd shoot."

Just before they began running, "We saw him grab him (Jacob) by the arm," Trevor said. When they looked around several minutes later, Jacob and the masked man were gone.

The task force continues to check five to 10 tips a week and new information about old leads. Recently, a traveler reported a boy resembling Jacob at an airport in Amsterdam, Netherlands. "Amsterdam is a center for pornography, so it has to be checked," Patty Wetterling said.

Leads have surfaced suddenly, only to fade in importance shortly thereafter. Within days of the abduction, investigators were tracking 100 potential suspects and looking for a red Chevette seen near the Tom Thumb. There was a suspicious brown van and a report about a man putting a boy who resembled Jacob into a white Chevrolet.

In Roberts, Wis., the attempted abduction of a 13-year-old boy bore striking similarities to the Wetterling case: A man with a black ski mask yelled, `Get in the car,' to a boy who ran away. Later, a boy in Monticello, Minn., described a similar incident.

There were grotesque twists. Someone called the Wetterlings, claiming to be Jacob, but Jerry Wetterling doubted that the caller - whose voice was tape-recorded by authorities - was his son. A mutilated body was found in the Mississippi River in St. Paul, prompting a day of public speculation that strained the nerves of the Wetterlings. The body turned out to be a corpse taken in a grave robbery and dismembered. Two days before Christmas, more than 1,000 people called WCCO Radio after hearing a rumor that Jacob had been found alive in Texas.

In a major development last December, the FBI released a sketch of an unidentified man it believed kidnapped Jacob and molested a 12-year-old boy from Cold Spring, Minn. The burly white man was
reportedly wearing military-style fatigues and a baseball cap. The sketch was circulated throughout the nation.

But this week authorities downplayed the significance of the sketch and the connection with the Cold Spring case. "I don't think it would help us now," Jamar said of the sketch. "We don't want to focus
on that drawing as that being the guy. We don't want to limit ourselves to that."

Despite widespread stories about missing children, abductions by strangers in which the victim is never found are relatively rare. There have been 687 such cases reported nationwide since 1984, out of 25,000 missing-child cases tracked in one study. Others are runaways or involved in custody disputes.

Sometimes parents are implicated in foul play, so parents usually are questioned. The task force interviewed Patty and Jerry over several days. Patty and Jerry said they were given polygraph tests this summer and passed; the FBI said it doesn't comment on whether it gives polygraphs in particular cases. But Jamar said the parents, who were at a party the night of the kidnapping, have never been suspects.

Over the past year, St. Joseph, pop. 3,000, has rallied around the family. Students from nearby colleges joined a search the day after the abduction, and thousands attended church benefits or hung posters on car antennas. People from across the Upper Midwest volunteered to stuff envelopes with pictures of Jacob.

A volunteer effort to publicize the abduction has evolved into an organization that has raised $350,000 in donations. The Jacob Wetterling Foundation now splits its time between Jacob and other missing-child cases. It soon will spend 70 percent of its time on other children. The foundation organizes events and sends millions of fliers to police agencies, professional associations and other groups. It also offers a $200,000 reward for information leading to the safe recovery of Jacob. Monthly expenses of $20,000 are used to rent basement offices in St. Joseph, pay salaries of two full-time staff members and postage and printing costs.

The number of volunteers has declined over the months. But on any given day, four or five volunteers stuff envelopes with reward fliers for Jacob and a summary of his kidnapping.

Only a few cases have that kind of lasting impact, said Allen of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In most high-profile cases, children vanish from a place considered safe: a paper route,
shopping mall or Christmas party.

Melissa Brannen, a 5-year-old, was abducted in suburban Washington, D.C., after a Christmas party last year. Thousands of leaflets, posters and bumper stickers were distributed and reward money
was raised. Home videos of Melissa singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" were shown in theaters and video stores.

The case of Adam Walsh, 6, killed in 1981 after he disappeared from a shopping mall in Florida, became a subject for a TV movie. Johnny Gosch, 12, a newspaper carrier in Des Moines, Iowa, vanished in 1982 while on his route.

The past year has strained the family life of the Wetterlings. "We want to make certain we see to the other children's needs and to our needs as a couple so our family stays intact," Jerry Wetterling said.
"It is difficult to accomplish." (The Wetterlings have two girls in addition to Jacob and Trevor.)

Sometimes the spotlight is unwelcome. "One time I was speaking and a group of kids wanted my autograph," Patty Wetterling said. "I said, `I'm sorry, I'm just Jacob's mom.' There's a distortion here."

Likewise, she was furious this week about an item in the Star Tribune column "CJ," which described her as worried about how a magazine would treat a "groundless rumor" about her son's
disappearance. "We're living through hell. . . . This is not `Who's Who in Minnesota.' They're making it sound like I'm some celebrity. . . . I've given speeches, been on TV, because I love this kid."

Meanwhile, Jerry has gone back to work as a chiropractor and spends time tracking 30 leads from psychics around the nation "to keep myself open to any information that could lead us to where Jacob is."

Few children kidnapped for extended periods by strangers return alive, Allen said, but the Wetterlings profess optimism. "It has crossed my mind that he's not alive, but I don't really believe that," Jerry said.