by Dennis Dalman
Twenty-five years is a very long time for an 11-year-old boy to remain missing, but the parents of Jacob Wetterling are not giving up on finding him, and neither is law enforcement.
Jacob’s mother said she hugs him when he comes back home to her in her dreams.
A “Find Jacob” billboard campaign was announced at a press conference Oct. 14 at the St. Cloud Law Enforcement Center. Six “Still Missing” billboards have been placed along busy roadways in the general area of Wetterling’s abduction, which happened Oct. 22, 1989. One was put up along CR 75 near St. Joseph, not far from the former convenience store Wetterling, his brother and a friend had visited on bikes shortly before Jacob’s abduction by a masked gunman on their way back home. Billboards have also be placed in Paynesville, Cold Spring, several on Hwy. 23 and a digital billboard near the intersection Division Street and 33rd Street in St. Cloud.
The billboard features a bright-red band on top with words in white saying “STILL MISSING.” Under that is a black band with the words “Jacob Wetterling. Call with any information” and large numbers-words that say “1-800-THE-LOST.” On the left of the billboard is a photo of Jacob in 1989. On the billboard’s right is a computer-generated portrait of how Wetterling might look today, at the age of 36.
1-800-THE LOST is the toll-free phone number of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Alexandria, Va. Any calls to the center will be instantly forwarded to the proper law-enforcement authorities.
John Ryan, one of the speakers at the press conference, is president and CEO of NCMEC.
“We’ll never stop searching, and we’ll never give up hope,” Ryan said about Wetterling.
The parents of Jacob, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, also spoke.
“Where are you, Jacob?” asked Patty. “We love you, and we’ll always hold you in our hearts.”
She said there is no evidence to show Jacob is not alive and not coming home.
“I still maintain the hope,” she said, adding that she has had dreams, while sleeping, of holding a grown-up Jacob during a joyous homecoming.
It is not farfetched, Ryan said, to believe that long-lost children can be located alive. In the past five years, the NCMEC has helped locate 160 children who had been missing for anywhere from 11 to 20 years and 40 children who had been missing for more than 20 years, Ryan noted.
Patty Wetterling also noted in the past, about 25 years ago, the NCMEC helped locate only about 64 percent of missing children. In recent years, that has increased to 97 percent, she added.
Billboards have been used many times in seeking children who went missing or who were abducted. Ryan said the most recent use of a billboard by the NCMEC was in Virginia about a month ago when University of Virginia student Hannah Graham went missing, which is a suspected abduction.
Patty Wetterling echoed Ryan’s optimism in finding Jacob and/or other missing people. In 25 years, she said, there have been enormous changes in society, including increasing awareness through the media, schools rearranging parking lots near playgrounds where molesters might lurk, school call-back policies whereby officials check if students are absent unexpectedly, the management and registration of paroled offenders and advances in technology. When Jacob was abducted, not all police and sheriff’s departments even had fax machines. At the press conference, Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner noted his department did not even have a data computer back then.
In the days, weeks and months following Wetterling’s abduction, Sanner said law-enforcement agencies local, state and federal checked out more than 50,000 tips. To this day, he said, every tip is traced.
“When we get a tip, we treat it (the Wetterling case) as if it happened yesterday,” rather than 25 years ago.
Recently, a TV documentary about Wetterling (John Walsh’s The Hunt) generated more than 100 potential tips or concerns from people nationwide.
Jerry Wetterling also spoke at the conference, urging people to listen, to keep their ears open to overhear bits of conversation in public, such as at cafes. Many cases are solved, he said, because somebody overheard something that didn’t seem quite right or that raised concerns enough to report it to law enforcement.
“Somebody out there knows,” Patty said.
The Wetterlings thanked people who have been supportive for so many years and who have succeeded in making children safe, including law enforcement, the media, schools, teachers, caregivers, moms and dads, aunts and uncles, and courageous victims of abuse who have spoken up and shared their stories.
“You have all made a difference, and I am so grateful and humbled by your support.”
Other speakers at the conference were Chris Golomb of the FBI (Minneapolis Division); Wade Setter, superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension; Mark Devore, general manager of the Lamar Advertising Co. in St. Cloud (which donated the billboards); Kelvin Miller, corporate president of communication for Lifetouch Photography (which also donated its services for the billboard campaign); and Alison Feigh of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center.
Other contributors to the billboard campaign are the Outdoor Advertising Association of America and Circle Graphics.
photo by Dennis Dalman
Patty Wetterling addresses the media and law-enforcement officials during a press conference Oct. 14 at the St. Cloud Law Enforcement Center. At right is her husband, Dr. Jerry Wetterling. The purpose of the conference was to announce a “Find Jacob” billboard campaign on the 25th year of the 11-year-old St. Joseph boy’s abduction.
photo by Dennis Dalman
This is a scaled-down version of the “Find Jacob” billboards that have been placed up in St. Joseph, St. Cloud, Cold Spring and Paynesville.
Jacob’s photo is shown age-progressed to 35 years. Jacob is a white male with brown hair and blue eyes. He was last seen at 9 p.m. Oct. 22, 1989. He was with his brother and another friend when they were threatened at gunpoint by an unknown individual. Jacob has a mole on his left cheek, a mole on this neck and a scar on his knee.
photo by Tara Wiese
This commemoration stone is embedded at the foot of “Jacob’s Tree of Hope” next to the former Kennedy Elementary School, at which 11-year-old Jacob was a student.
photo by Tara Wiese
Once just a seedling, this stately tree was planted 25 years ago next to what was then Kennedy Elementary School in honor of Jacob Wetterling after his Oct. 22, 1989 abduction. This “Tree of Hope” reflects the hope that has been kept alive for so many years by those who long for the day when Jacob comes home. Jacob, who would be 36 years old now, was a student at Kennedy.