Patty Wetterling may be retired from offering her unique parent’s perspective on missing child investigations for AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program (AATTAP) and National Criminal Justice Training Center (NCJTC) classes—but in a way, she’s still teaching.
Her newly released memoir, Dear Jacob: A Mother’s Journey of Hope, is practically a 336-page course on her nearly 27-year quest to find her missing son, Jacob, with the help —and sometimes hindrance—of local, state, and federal law enforcement. (Read her bio here.) Patty speaks frankly about what went right and what went wrong during the years. And for a few officers involved in the case, “it may be a harsh read,” she says. “But it was important that I provide an honest perspective. There are many lessons that law enforcement can learn from the book.”
Dear Jacob is Patty’s movingly personal take on the events leading up to and following Jacob’s abduction on October 22, 1989, in St. Joseph, Minnesota. That day, as night began to fall, her 11-year-old son Jacob, his 10-year-old brother, Trevor, and their friend, Aaron, 11, were riding their bikes back to the Wetterling home from a nearby convenience store when a masked gunman emerged from the roadside. Ordering them into a ditch, he asked each boy his age before telling Trevor and Aaron to get up and run toward the woods. “Don’t look back or I’ll shoot,” he told them. Ultimately, they did look back, and Jacob and the man were gone.
What unfolded was a search that would last nearly three decades—and become one of America’s highest-profile child abduction cases.
In the early days of the investigation, the Wetterling family saw “amazing community and investigative support,” Patty says, noting, “Compared to what many parents experience, we had the sun and moon and stars” in large part because an FBI agent happened to have a son in Jacob’s class. “It was personal for him.” The agent called the Minneapolis bureau, which sent an agent to help oversee the search effort for about six months. “Plus the Stearns County sheriff at that time helped us in every way—we had dogs, horses, the National Guard, you name it. But one by one, the resources, and ultimately our contacts, went away,” she says.
Meantime the Wetterling family endured extortion attempts, erroneous psychic visions, and “horrifyingly false leads,” Patty says— including one from a tipster who said Jacob had been abducted by a satanic cult and was sacrificed on Halloween.
As the case appeared to be going dormant, Patty did her best to keep Jacob top of mind for every investigator connected to it. She also dedicated herself to helping other searching parents. In 1991 she joined the board of directors for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), serving as chairperson for three of her 27 years with NCMEC, and co-founding its parent-to-parent support program, Team HOPE. She also helped create national policy change through her advocacy work.
As time passed, leads dwindled, communications ceased, and staffing turnovers occurred—along with missteps and missed opportunities.
Despite her national efforts, back in Stearns County, Jacob’s languishing case was almost unbearable. Whenever Patty was working with NCMEC or meeting with lawmakers in D.C., “I felt relevant, impactful—that my work was truly making a difference,” she says. “Yet in my own hometown I felt powerless, insignificant, and somewhat brushed aside” while trying to get updates on her son’s case.
Then, in 2013, a Minnesota blogger introduced herself to Patty at a fundraising event. Joy Baker, a writer and marketing consultant, had written about Jacob’s case several years earlier for her blog, JoyTheCurious.com. Patty was unaware of Joy’s work, but learned that Joy had recently received new insight into the case from a man named Jared Scheierl. Nine months before Jacob’s abduction, Scheierl, then age 12, had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a man who, after releasing him, told him to run and not look back or he would be shot.
When Scheierl decided to share his story publicly, other victims came forward, and new leads were generated. Joy also befriended the man the sheriff had identified as a “person of interest” in Jacob’s abduction, and helped him share his side of what happened that night.
“It was important for him to clear his name and also find out who took Jacob,” Patty says. Though Joy’s approach seemed unconventional, Patty ultimately realized that she was “reaching all kinds of people with her blog that never have been reached using traditional media.” And “between Joy’s investigative skills and Jared’s desperate quest for answers, they were asking questions that had never been asked—and truly making a difference,” she recalls.
What most concerned Patty was the feeling that merely by talking with Joy and Jared “somehow I was betraying the very people I had trusted the most” in Jacob’s case—law enforcement.
“We just needed to figure out how we could all work together” without compromising the integrity of the case. Thankfully, “Joy was willing to share all her leads with investigators,” Patty says (though she was later dismayed to learn that many of those leads were apparently not followed up on).
Joy’s efforts helped “shake the tree,” sparking renewed public interest in Jacob’s case and related media coverage. Emboldened, Patty convinced state and federal law enforcement to take another look at Jacob’s case in 2014. Within a year, the FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment (CARD) team would use advanced DNA technology on old evidence to pinpoint Jared’s abductor, who they also believed to be Jacob’s killer.
The man had been arrested in 1990 but released due to a lack of solid evidence to charge him. He ultimately took a plea deal before informing law enforcement where they would find Jacob’s buried remains, which were discovered on September 3, 2016.
When the search for Jacob ended, Patty felt like her son had been taken away from her all over again. Throughout the years she had never lost hope that Jacob would one day return home, much like other missing youth that had been reunited with their families, including Steven Stayner, Elizabeth Smart, Shawn Hornbeck, Jaycee Dugard, and the three young women in Cleveland: Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus.
After a period of grief and self-reflection, Patty emerged with a renewed commitment to continue helping other children from falling victim to predators—and advising parents of missing children as well as law enforcement.
“There are missing children still out there, and it is up to us to find them,” Patty says. (As of the book’s publication, “NCMEC had found 56 children who were recovered after more than 20 years,” she notes.)
“One of the main reasons I wrote the book was to help other families going through trauma. They may not be experiencing their journey the way we did, but hopefully they can learn that they will get through it,” Patty says. “They’ll get through it by finding resources and supportive people—and never giving up.” And no matter the outcome, she says, “everything they experience will help them help the next person in need.”
Patty also wants the book to help inform law enforcement, “for whom I have tremendous respect,” she says. “I hope they’ll be energized by what they learn.”
Top 5 Takeaways for Law Enforcement
Acclaimed Minnesota crime reporter Carolyn Lowe calls Wetterling’s memoir ‘a must-read for anyone working unsolved abduction cases.’
- Don’t get stuck on a single suspect if the facts aren’t adding up. “Toward the end of Jacob’s case investigation, it was clear that our sheriff was onto to the wrong guy; he wouldn’t even look at other people, despite new information emerging,” Patty says. “But when Jacob’s remains were found, he was in tears. I could see how much he cared. He’d just been going in the wrong direction.”
- Avoid the “been there, done that” mindset. Just because evidence has been reviewed “a million times” doesn’t mean it won’t require another look. “After the FBI sent in their CARD team, they looked at the evidence differently. They re-analyzed the clothing Jared had been wearing during his assault, which was still held in evidence. And though it been tested several times, they used advanced DNA technology and got a hit on the guy who assaulted him—who turned out to be the same man who assaulted and killed Jacob.” So as technology advances, “don’t stop looking at what you have,” Patty says. “Don’t stop talking to earlier suspects.”
- Pay attention to the periphery. Regularly scan social media sites and discussion platforms for pertinent information or suspicious posters. Create Google searches for your crime victims and suspects. And follow the findings of reputable crime blogs. “Some true-crime bloggers are careless with the information they receive,” Patty says. “Joy, on the other hand, was trained as a reporter, and her writing, reputation, and tenacity reflect that” (which is why Patty tapped her to help write the memoir). She also sensed that “Joy was working harder to find Jacob than anybody else on the planet.”
- Training is everything. So is knowledge of specialized resources. “The training provided by Fox Valley Technical College and NCMEC is such a gift for law enforcement—as is the training offered by the FBI and state crime bureaus,” Patty says. She recommends attending conferences where survivors of missing child cases are slated to speak or missing child cases are given an in-depth review. For specialized assistance, NCMEC “should always be a first call,” she says, noting the experienced support available for law enforcement via Team Adam, and for families, caring mentoring from Team HOPE.
- Don’t let cases truly go cold. “Have a plan to revisit them every five years or so,” Patty says. “Schedule a roundtable meeting of all the best minds in law enforcement and ask, ‘What more can we do with the tools and information that are now available?’”