ST. JOSEPH, MINN. — Jerry Wetterling began his Tuesday morning walk in darkness, a ball cap and gloves shielding him from the wind. Along the rural road, past the ditch that remains etched in Minnesota's memory, to the park. By the time he reached the rock — Jacob's rock — sunlight streamed through the old oak trees.

He settled into the rock's curves and closed his eyes.

Wetterling, 66, makes this trek twice a week, taking a quiet moment to "put out some extra Jacob vibes," he said. Especially in October, he said. Especially this year — the 25th since his son, Jacob Wetterling, was abducted at age 11.

From the rock, bookended by trees planted in Jacob's honor, power lines lead to the road where, on Oct. 22, 1989, Jacob, his younger brother Trevor and best friend Aaron Larson rode their bikes to the Tom Thumb store to rent a video. As they headed home, a masked man with a gun appeared. He told the boys to lie face down in the roadside ditch. One by one, he asked their ages. One by one, he ordered them to run to the woods and not look back.

Except Jacob. Jacob he kept.

In the 25 years since that Sunday night, Jerry and Patty Wetterling have tirelessly fought to protect children from a similar fate. Patty helped change the landscape of missing children, from sex offender registries to police training. The share of missing children recovered has grown from 62 percent in 1990 to 97 percent today, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which counts Patty as its board chair.

Their fight for others still includes their hope for Jacob. They've done hundreds of interviews to drum up information. They've searched for answers alongside investigators who have vetted some 50,000 leads — tips, connections and even false confessions.

In the quiet moments, they admit to exhaustion. Frustration. And a fear they resist — that they will never know what happened.

"It's an unfathomable benchmark," Patty Wetterling said, her voice growing quiet, "and I don't know what to do with it.

"For the first time, probably, I'm stumped."

'Where are you, Jacob?'

In the basement of the Stearns County Law Enforcement Center on Tuesday, Patty Wetterling again addressed a dozen cameras.

"There's a lot of people who need answers — beyond just our family," she said, flanked by Jerry and men from the Sheriff's Office and the FBI. "The entire state needs to know what happened to Jacob."

She looked into the camera: "Where are you? Who did this?"

The group announced six new billboards with a photo of Jacob, at age 11, and what he might look like today, at 36. "Still missing," the signs say.

Patty Wetterling, 64, kept picturing this basement room after Jacob's abduction, when it housed a packed call bank for the hundreds of tips pouring in. The Sheriff's Office got its first computer to manage the leads. They gave the Wetterlings a bulky block of a cellphone to keep in touch.

Phones and computers top a list Patty made for this anniversary — 25 things that have gotten better. Databases. Amber Alerts that, if Jacob went missing today, would pop up on every electronic billboard around. Team HOPE, a parent-to-parent support program. She doesn't mention it, but several are projects she started or pushed.

Then there are names: Elizabeth Smart, rescued after nine months. Shawn Hornbeck, found after four years. Jaycee Dugard, who was missing for more than 18 years.

Back when Jacob was kidnapped, people never heard about kids being found years later, Patty Wetterling said. The stories buoy her. "These kids are out there."

"More long-term missing children are being recovered today than ever," said John Ryan, president and CEO of the National Center. From 2009 to 2013, more than 160 children were found who had been missing for 11 to 20 years. Another 42 had been missing for more than 20 years.

"We at the National Center never give up hope," he said.

Three-fourths of children recovered during those five years had been missing for two years or less. About 3 percent of the 5,100 children recovered had been missing for 11 to 20 years. Just 1 percent were found after 20 years.

Closer now to answers?

The Tom Thumb convenience store is now a veterinary clinic. New houses have popped up nearby. But the site of Jacob's abduction remains remote. Seeing it for the first time, Joy Baker was struck by "how devastating it all was."

"How can a child disappear from that road?" she asked last week.

Baker, who lives in New London, Minn., began blogging about the Wetterling case in 2010. Digging through newspaper archives, she came across reports of attacks on boys in Paynesville, Minn., about 30 miles south of St. Joseph, in the late 1980s. She brought the articles to Jared Scheierl, 38, who has long believed that his own abduction and sexual assault in Cold Spring in 1989 could be related to the Wetterling case.

With the Paynesville reports, he saw similarities. "His demeanor, the low, raspy voice," Scheierl said. "The threat of a knife or gun. The ages of the kids. …"

Baker has passed along leads to the Wetterlings and introduced them to Paynesville victims.

Largely because of her work, "Jerry and I both feel like we may be closer than we've ever been to finding answers," Patty said. "She has stirred up a lot of energy."

Detectives who first dug into Jacob's disappearance have retired. Two Stearns County sheriffs have left office without answers. Leads have emerged, faded and sometimes reappeared.

In 2010, investigators dug earth and ash from a farm property near where Jacob was taken — property that had been searched twice before. But forensic tests led to no arrests.

"It seems like we get closer and then fall backward again," said Sheriff John Sanner.

His investigators have a "relatively small [group of people] we are far more interested in than others," he said. "They've all been, in some way, woven into this investigation over 25 years."

His office remains committed to solving this case, he said. "The community and the family need to have answers. And they've waited far too long."

The Upper Midwest "lost its innocence" the day Jacob was abducted, said Sanner, a 35-year-old sergeant at the time. "It changed the way we raised our children."

'A hard time of year'

Over the years, the Wetterlings have marked the Oct. 22 anniversary with prayer services, a public service announcement, a concert. Once, they released 10,000 balloons.

It's tough to plan, said Alison Feigh, one of Jacob's classmates who is now program manager for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. "Every year, we hope there's an answer before the 22nd."

This time Jerry thought about weaving white ribbons — like those wrapped around mailboxes in St. Joseph in 1989 — through the branches of an ash tree planted for Jacob in front of North Junior High in St. Cloud. Once a sapling, it's grown taller than the school itself. "The branches are almost too tall to reach," Jerry said.

Patty Wetterling often thinks about who they were before — "just an average family you wouldn't even notice." She was a stay-at-home mom, Jerry the local chiropractor. He was the prominent one, then, his face on a billboard. "Everybody knew Jerry," she said.

After Jacob's disappearance, Patty became the spokeswoman. The national advocate. The two-time candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.

"I changed from being just quiet little me to this," Patty said. "And I don't know who this is, sometimes. Sometimes it's hard. You get really strong because you have to survive. And sometimes I don't like that. It feels hard. Or cold."

She began to cry. "I am so tired," she said, as a kind of apology. "It's a hard time of year."

As director of sexual violence prevention for the Minnesota Department of Health and board chair for the National Center, Patty Wetterling speaks all over. This month, she took the stage at the Mall of America for a conference on "Changing the Conversation about Today's Pornography." She traveled recently to Brussels, Belgium, and to Albany, Minn.

In the Q&As that follow her talks, someone always asks about Jacob.

'A big sadness'

Jerry Wetterling still wears a white "Jacob's Hope" button like the one pinned to him in the first photographs: Jerry and Patty stoically holding a photo of Jacob, with his big smile and blue eyes. Jerry's glasses are smaller these days, his hair grayer.

They are grandparents now.

In 2009, when the oldest of their six grandkids was 5, Patty fashioned a book to tell them about the uncle they have never met. Called "Jacob's Hope," the little blue book begins with family snapshots of the four siblings. Their arms around Mickey Mouse. Beside a bunny made of snow. Blowing out birthday candles.

"And then, something happened that is a big sadness in our family," it says. "A mean thing happened to Jacob." A photo of the family, ripped apart.

The grandparents have used the book to talk about what happened "hopefully in a way that doesn't have them terrified or scared," Jerry said. He expects the conversations to deepen as they get older. "I'm sure that curiosity will grow, and we'll have some long chats and probably some hard chats."

The book ends the way it started — with smiles. Weddings, dogs and babies.

"We think our kids have done really well, considering," Jerry said. Good jobs, joyful children and "soul-mate" friends. Trevor, who didn't leave Jacob's side when he was younger and had trouble sleeping when he was gone, moved to Colorado, where he could be himself after years of being labeled as Jacob's brother.

His son shows up in the book's final pages: Jacob.

"Baby Jake will grow up and be unique and special just like you are," it says. "He will also help us remember our missing Jacob.

"Whenever we see him, our hearts will smile."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168