We all have those moments that are etched into our memories for the rest of our lives. We remember where we were and what we were doing as vividly as if it was yesterday. One of those moments for me was the day I was standing in the gravel driveway of my childhood home in Waite Park in 1989 as my chairman-of-the-school-board father pulled in. He asked,
“One of your classmates was kidnapped last night. Do you know Jacob Wetterling?”
I knew his face and his name, but he was a classmate who was never really on my radar until the day his life changed mine.
With my own police officer uncle to be one of the first on the scene, it seemed natural to my 6th grade mind that he would be found and returned to his anxious family and friends. But, as the days and months wore on and my classmates and I heard more frightening facts and statistics on the news and in the papers, our innocence was shattered and the world became a hostile and scary place for us all. For years, I looked over my shoulder. I suspected everyone. I had nightmare after nightmare that I too had suffered Jacob’s fate and I wasn’t alone.
My class loved the media attention at many functions and at our prayer services because we had been responsibly taught to not let the world forget. We sang of Jacob’s hope and hurt and longed for his safe return and for the satisfaction of an answer that never came. He had simply vanished with a 5’ 10” gun carrying monster with a gruff voice and no face.
Even as I moved across country after graduating from high school, the memories stayed etched in my mind. I’ve watched Patty on Oprah, family and friends on John Walsh, and diligently kept on top of the CNN and SC Times reports. As my two oldest children turned 11 and entered the 6th grade, I thought of Jacob and I ached. I hovered over my children and often let fear get the best of my ability to make sound judgments about their freedom to play in our own yard or on a playground – until the day I saw an interview with Patty that freed me. When asked how she managed to find life in the midst of such unrelenting suffering she said something that will stick with me as long as I live.
“I decided long ago that this man may be able to take Jacob, but I was not going to let him take my marriage or my other children or my life.” – Patty Wetterling
Her ability to take that raging bull by the horns and use it to bring about so much good has been a source of strength for me. She started the Jacob Wetterling Foundation to bring about everything from education programs for abuse prevention to widely successful systemic changes in how states handle missing and exploited children’s cases. Her courage was so compelling to me that I decided to take my cues from her. This monster could take my classmate, but he couldn’t take my peace of mind or my ability to make healthy decisions for my family.This monster could take my classmate, but he couldn’t take my peace of mind. Click To Tweet
Today when I heard the news that our 5’10” faceless monster had relented the devastating secret he clung to for 27 years, a new moment was etched into my mind that I will never forget. I was at a beloved parade in downtown Atlanta with my own innocent and precious 11 year old sixth grader at my side and 65,000 people crowded around. I openly wept on the well-known corner of Peachtree and W Peachtree (they get really creative with street names down here) as the stranger next to me put her arm around me. Even though I’m 1,000 miles away, I knew I did not weep alone. Our classmates wept with me. Jacob is gone, but our hope is not. For years his life, though not on our radar before his abduction, has led to health and healing, prevention, life and hope to so many abused, missing and exploited children.
He stole Jacob, but he did not steal our hope.
My prayers are with the Wetterlings, Aaron Larson, my classmates and all those who knew and loved Jacob.