Van still haunts St. Joseph residents
by Stuart Goldschen
Among the thousands of leads gathered, investigated and filed away by police authorities in the case of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction, one stands out and still haunts St. Joseph residents.
On Nov. 4, FBI agents investigating the abduction released a sketch of a van believed used in an attempted abduction of a 10-year-old St. Joseph township boy last summer. A composite sketch depicting a man believed to be driving the van was released Oct. 27.
Information for both sketches was given to authorities by the boy involved in the attempted abduction. His name and address have been withheld for his protection.
The news of the attempted abduction and the publication of the two sketches fueled speculation of a connection to Jacob’s disappearance and the hope that a solution was at hand. No further information on the van has surfaced, however, and the lead remains dormant.
The news vanished from the media almost as fast as it appeared when new leads and composite sketches sent investigators on different trails. But St. Joseph residents remain concerned as more information comes to light.
Members of three rural St. Joseph families recently told the Newsleader that they had seen a van matching the description of the vehicle involved in the attempted abduction. One boy said a man in a similar van took his picture and drove away.
Although investigators are aware of those incidents, they have not been able to locate the van or the driver and are not now actively searching for them.
FBI spokesman Al Garver told the Newsleader that although there were “no further leads at this point,” it was “still important tot locate the van.” He said investigators would respond to any new information they might receive.
“This is a van used in an attempted abduction in St. Joe, and we need to, if we can, find the van and find the person,” Garver said. “There’s no indication that it’s connected to the Wetterling case, but we haven’t given up that possibility.”
Meanwhile, St. Joseph residents wait and watch, their antennae ever more receptive to the movement around them.
They’re looking specifically for the van in question, described as a tan 1970s model Ford with rust on the bottom, a white bumper and a cracked, blue bug deflector in front. The utility-type vehicle has six-ply bias blackwall truck tires, two rear windows and possibly side windows.
The driver was described as a white male in his late 20s with glasses and dark brown hair in bangs, dark eyes, slim build and fair complexion.
The attempted abduction took place in early July in an isolated rural St. Joseph residential area. The FBI said the man driving the van approached the 10-year-old boy, asked him his age and told him to get in the vehicle. The boy fled and the man drove away.
The incident was not publicized at the time and investigative measures were routine until Jacob was abducted Oct. 22 and a connection was suspected. More than 1,500 calls about the case swamped the Stearns County Law Enforcement Center when the sketch of the van was released.
Since Jacob’s abduction, the members of three other rural St. Joseph families said they saw a van similar to the one depicted in the published sketch. Two of the families live near the boy who was accosted.
The names and addresses of those witnesses are also being withheld for their protection.
An 11-year-old boy of one of the families said he saw what he thought was the same van while fishing on a lake dock near his home about two weeks after the attempted abduction he said the van stopped in front of the dock and the driver leaned out of his window to take a picture of him.
“I turned around and looked at him and he backed up, turned and got the heck out of there,” the boy said. He said the man had black hair and was holding eye glasses while he snapped the picture.
The boy said he was too scared to tell anyone of the incident, including his parents, because “I was afraid something would happen to me if the word got out,” He first revealed his experience in December to FBI agents who questioned boys in District 742 schools about strangers who might have approached them.
Another boy in the same neighborhood told his parents he saw a similar van on the same day of the attempted abduction, although he did not notice the driver. He said he was riding with his grandfather when the van assed them near his home.
The boy’s father, who was concerned that the police didn’t investigate the attempted abduction more thoroughly at the time said: “the thing that bothers us is that not much time was spent on the thing that happened out here in the time it happened because nothing really happened.”
The mother of a third family, about seven miles away from the others, said she noticed a similar van almost every day for three months. She said it parked across the street from a new home they were building for three hours almost every day during June, July and August.
The woman said she saw the van come each day about 6 p.m. after she and her family arrived to work on their house in a rural St. Joseph farming district. it remained there until about 9 p.m., she said.
The woman said she never saw the driver of the van and wasn’t sure if the person was in the van all the time it was parked.
She said it was “freaky,” but she didn’t consider it serious enough to call the police. Only after Jacob’s abduction and the publication of the sketches did she inform the special Task Force in St. Cloud.
“He wasn’t on our land and he didn’t do anything, but I would always say, ‘oh, there’s that van again,'” the woman said. “I would watch him and he would just sit there. he wouldn’t move. I used to think he was hunting, because that’s how long he sat.”
The woman said”a slew of kids” were always playing outside with her four children while she, her husband and friends worked on the house. She said it was scary to think what could have happened.
“Nothing has happened,” she said with relief. “But what happened to that van? And why was he sitting there for three months, and as soon as we were permanent residents there and the kids weren’t playing outside then he’s not there anymore?”
Why, indeed, all of St. Joseph wants to know.