The parents of Jacob Wetterling, whose 1989 abduction was thrust into the limelight again recently when authorities identified a “person of interest” in his disappearance, scheduled a community meeting on Monday to help Paynesville residents cope with recent developments in the 26-year-old cold case. But the event was cancelled due to heavy snow.
The event, planned by Patty and Jerry Wetterling, was meant to be cathartic for an area that has been haunted by the 11-year-old St. Joseph boy’s disappearance.
Jacob was snatched by a masked man with a gun while riding his bike to a store one night with friends. The identification by police last month of a man possibly having a connection to the case, as well as child sexual assaults in Paynesville, thrust the area in the spotlight once again, renewing hope that the crime will be solved.
“Since the [announcement], our lives and yours have been thrown together in a state of chaos,” the Wetterlings wrote in a statement to the community. “Our hope is to connect with the residents of Paynesville for a night of sharing and healing, so we can all move forward with positive energy and a renewed hope to find answers.”
Daniel James Heinrich, a former Paynesville man who was charged in federal court last month with receiving and possessing child pornography, is considered a person of interest in Jacob’s disappearance. DNA evidence has linked him to the 1989 kidnapping and sexual assault of a 12-year-old boy in Cold Spring.
Authorities are exploring whether Heinrich is connected to a series of unsolved Paynesville assaults that preceded Jacob’s abduction in St. Joseph. Heinrich, now of Annandale, Minn., lived within a block of those attacks. He remains in jail.
Stearns County officials had invited the FBI to Monday's cancelled meeting so residents would know what type of information they’re looking for, said Paynesville Police Chief Paul Wegner.
The Wetterlings coordinated the event for locals, who have been barraged by media in recent weeks, and now-grown sexual assault victims who have been asked to relive traumatic experiences.
“They have an opportunity to sit down, reach out to the community and provide whatever support possible to people and let them know the resources available,” Wegner said.
The Wetterlings were going to share resources through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, where Patty serves as board chairwoman. The public would also have the opportunity to raise any questions.
Anyone with information about Jacob’s disappearance is asked to call the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office at 320-259-3700, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.