Memories are fickle. Sometimes they take you back gently, clouding over the bad spots and putting halos around the good. Other times the past returns and smacks you in the face. A couple of days ago Memories flashed me back to October 22, 1989 and punched me in the gut. Like countless others I stopped in my tracks upon learning that the Jacob Wetterling abduction case had been solved, the body found, and the abductor/killer in custody. After all the years of dead-end tips and broken hopes the case had the feel of a mystery which would never be solved. But there it was, in gruesome detail, all the answers to all the questions of what happened to an innocent 11 year old snatched off his bicycle at gunpoint near his home in tiny, safe St. Joseph, MN. The killer, Danny Heinrich, a serial child sexual predator currently charged with child pornography, confirmed every one of our darkest, worst-case nightmarish horrors: Sexual abuse, two bullets, two burials, other victims.
It’s strange what you remember. It was late in the evening of the Tuesday following the abduction. I was in Rochester, MN and the 28-year-old Program Director at KROC-AM. We were the only local station with a link to the state’s only satellite network. A man named Douglas Wood, a neighbor of the Wetterlings, had written and recorded a song called “Jacob’s Hope” , which radio stations all over MN were asked to play at the same time the following morning, with the hope that Jacob would somehow hear the song wherever he was and somehow know people were looking for him.
Remember, this is 1989. no one was walking around with cell phones, email was extremely limited and nowhere near able to send audio files, no websites, no universally accessible satellite downlinks. There was no Amber Alert and no apps. The newsroom was just transitioning from electric typewriters to word processing. Not only was it impossible for stations to download the song, it was impossible to let them all know they were supposed to play it the next day. Impossible, except for the old-school ways. I remember getting one shot at capturing the satellite feed (got it), then made copies on reel to reel tapes. I then got in the car late at night and delivered those tapes one at a time to every radio station in town,
The sun was coming up by the time I finished my deliveries. Everyone got the song and played it the next morning at 10am. I knew in my heart the chances of that young man hearing that song were zero. It was an exercise which made no difference, other than give a state full of people a way to show they cared, wanted to help, but had no idea how.
I can’t imagine what the Wetterlings and those close to the case have gone through the past 27 years, and in the last few days. I hope I never have to know. The case was instrumental in making states create the first sex offender databases. It marked the end of small-town innocence in this part of the country. No more kids riding bikes and running unsupervised around small towns in the summer. Afterwards kid’s activities were supervised and scheduled. No more unlocked doors at night. The loss of trust.
Strange what you remember.