PAYNESVILLE, Minn. – Patty and Jerry Wetterling stood before about 150 residents of this small central Minnesota town and thanked them for speaking out about the attacks in the 1980s that suddenly have been linked to the abduction of their son Jacob in 1989.
They asked for help in finding answers about what happened to their 11-year-old, who was taken from a rural road near their St. Joseph home.
Then they hoped for healing.
“In some bizarre way, Paynesville and St. Joe have kind of been interconnected through all of this,” said Jerry Wetterling. “And we all know we are going to come out better for it on the end of it.”
“I want this to be about all of us healing,” Patty Wetterling said. “You’re not alone. We’re not alone.” And the victims who have spoken publicly are not alone, she added.
The Wetterlings organized the meeting in the Paynesville High School auditorium on a foggy Sunday evening to help residents rocked by revelations about crimes committed here in the 1980s.
In October, authorities named a former Paynesville man, Danny Heinrich, a “person of interest” in the unsolved Jacob Wetterling abduction from a location about 30 miles northeast of Paynesville.
Authorities also are investigating Heinrich for a series of earlier attacks in Paynesville, which occurred within blocks of his residence at the time.
Those “heinous attacks” don’t define the victims or the community, Paynesville Police Chief Paul Wegner told the crowd.
Many of those entering the auditorium, lined with garlands, wreaths and a brightly lit tree, took blank forms for tips and comments that Patty Wetterling promised she and Jerry Wetterling would read.
Suzanne Thorson, 52, arrived early. She lives in nearby Hawick but works at a clothing company in Paynesville, where “everybody’s talking about” the news about Heinrich.
“I just really hope that they’re able to get some answers,” Thorson said, noting that she came mostly out of curiosity. “For Jacob … for everybody.”
The gathering arose from Patty Wetterling’s desire to help the community move forward. Victims can feel “absolutely paralyzed — frozen,” she said by phone last week. The Wetterlings have tried to stay quiet since the announcement that authorities were investigating Heinrich in Jacob’s abduction, not wanting to disrupt the investigation. But that’s been difficult, Patty said.
“I can’t stay stuck,” she said. “And I have spent 26 years going into different communities and trying to address the fear and the reality of what we know about missing and exploited children.
“I just felt, here’s something we can do.”
Heinrich, 52, was charged in October in federal court with receiving and possessing child pornography. DNA evidence has linked Heinrich to the kidnapping and sexual assault of a Cold Spring boy, authorities said. Other DNA evidence didn’t rule him out from a Paynesville attack, though it ruled out 80.5 percent of the populace.
Eight attacks in Paynesville, detailed in court documents last month, reveal a clear pattern: A pudgy man, sometimes wearing a mask, would approach adolescent boys as they walked or biked home, then grope them over or under their clothing. Several of the boys were told to keep quiet or they’d be killed.
A few of those boys, now grown, have questioned whether law enforcement did enough.
To Troy Cole, the meeting was an acknowledgment, decades later, of the horror he experienced in Paynesville as a 13-year-old.
Cole was biking home from a pizza place when a man yanked him off his bike, pulled him into some pine trees, threatened him, groped his crotch and then cut off a lock of his hair with a knife. Cole thought he was going to die.
Cole reported the attack to the Paynesville police but believes they didn’t take him — or his friends, some of whom were also molested in separate incidents — seriously.
“We feel we were abandoned back then,” Cole said Sunday in the lobby of the high school. It took 27 years for a detective to call Cole, he said. “If law enforcement didn’t take it seriously for 27 years, I have.”
Having the Wetterlings speak in Paynesville is “an honor and a nice gesture,” Cole said. Since having a child himself, he’s better understood how heart-wrenching it must have been to have a child disappear.
Just before the meeting began, a friend brought Cole to meet Jerry Wetterling. Patty joined them, shaking Cole’s hand.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done,” she said.
Wegner hopes that Sunday’s conversation makes clear to victims that today’s force would vigorously investigate similar claims.
“The things that happened 30 years ago don’t define who they are, and they don’t define who we are,” Wegner said. “We are a strong and supportive community that continues to move forward.”
Patty Wetterling urged residents to share what they know about Heinrich, or Jacob, who hasn’t been seen since that October night. “If somebody has — out of fear — not told anybody, it’s time,” Wetterling said by phone. “It’s time to come forward. Nobody’s going to judge.”
Members of the media were asked to leave the meeting so that Patty could talk privately with survivors and community members.
Patty and Jerry have met with some of the Paynesville victims before. They’ve had coffee together. A few years back, they had a bonfire. Patty offered them “a listening ear,” she said. “They went through a lot, and I don’t think anybody understands the journey unless you’ve gone through it.
“It’s not something that happened a long time ago.”