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In the Dark: S1 E1 The Crime

A quick note before we start the first episode of In the Dark, we were planning to put this out next week, but just today, there was a big development in the case that's at the center of this podcast. So, we're getting started early.

Today, October 12th, I'm five feet tall. My whole name is Jacob Erwin Wetterling. My favorite food is steak. My favorite color is blue. My favorite … I don't really have a favorite song. My favorite game is clue. My favorite thing to do most is watch football. My favorite sport is football.

On October 12, 1989, a sixth grader named Jacob Wetterling made this recording as part of a school project. Ten days later, he was kidnapped while riding his bike on a country road in a small town in Central Minnesota.

It's a case that defied logic then and now.

It is a crime that has both captivated and frustrated Minnesotans for the past 25 years.

On the outskirts of his hometown of St. Joseph, a young boy's missing.

It's the most feared type of abduction, one by a complete stranger. No ransom note, no contact.

What happened to Jacob Wetterling?

I've been hearing the name Jacob Wetterling ever since I moved to Minnesota 12 years ago. Jacob's kidnapping was a huge deal here. It changed the way people parented their children. It made kids afraid to go outside at night. And it even led to a federal law that requires all states to maintain registries of sex offenders.

This one case, this kidnapping of one 11-year-old boy changed the lives of millions of Americans. The case went unsolved for almost 27 years, until today when authorities announced that a man named Danny Heinrich had confessed to the crime, and had led officers to Jacob's remains.

Finally, we know. We know what the Wetterling family and all of Minnesota have longed to know since that awful night in 1989. We know the truth.

I went to the press conference this afternoon. The back of the room was a forest of cameras. And up in front behind the podium and wrapping all the way around to the sides of the room, there were more than 20 men and women in suits and uniforms. The US Attorney, the Stearns County Sheriff, agents from the FBI, and the State Crime Bureau, they took turns at the microphone, and offered their condolences to Jacob's parents, who are sitting a few feet away. And then, they thanked each other and praised each other for never giving up.

27 years is a very long time for an investigation to remain open and active. We are here today because of the perseverance of the investigative team; the commitment to aggressively follow up on every single lead no matter how small or seemingly insignificant; and the absolute belief that if we continued to press, we would, eventually, solve this case.

We got the truth. The Wetterling family can bring him home. And it's time for all of us to have closure and the peace that we're hoping can come next. Thank you.

But when a case takes 27 years to solve, we should stop and ask some tough questions of law enforcement, especially in a case like Jacob's, a case that's had devastating consequences far beyond the small town where this 11-year-old boy disappeared.

I'm Madeleine Baran, and I'm an investigative reporter at American Public Media, and I spent the past nine months looking into the Jacob Wetterling case. And from the beginning, there are things about this case that stood out to me. Jacob was kidnapped on a dead-end road in a town of just 3000 people. There were witnesses. Law enforcement got there right away. It seemed like the kind of case that could have been solved that night, while there was still a chance to find Jacob alive. So, what went wrong?

This is In the Dark, a new podcast from APM Reports. And over the next eight episodes, this is what we're going to do. We're going to look at the Jacob Wetterling case in a way that it hasn't been looked at before. We're going to find out why it took law enforcement 27 years to find the man who took Jacob; when all along, he was right in front of them. We're going to look at what law enforcement did and, also, what they didn't do. And we're going to see how those decisions would come to damage the lives of so many people in ways that no one talks about.

But before we get into what went wrong in this case, we need to talk about what happened that night. So, let's go back to where it all began, St. Joseph, Minnesota.

Good morning. Good morning.

Hi.

Smoked morning, I guess.

I went out to meet Jacob's parents, Patty and Jerry, earlier this year, months before they knew what had happened to their son. They're in their 60s now. They still live on the outskirts of St. Joseph. It's a small town, mostly Catholic, mostly white, and mostly surrounded by farmland. Patty and Jerry still live in the same cozy brown house on the edge of town. On the front of the house, there was a string of lights that spelled out the word "hope."

There's so many people in and out of this house.

Patty is this tiny woman, barely five feet, blond hair, blue eyes. Jerry is tall, with a short white beard, and he has the look of a college professor or maybe a therapist.

Would you like some coffee?

I'm good.

Okay.

Jerry is a chiropractor. He works out of an old house downtown that's been converted into an office. Back when Jacob was kidnapped, Patty was a stay-at-home mom to their four children: Amy, Trevor, Carmen, and Jacob.

I wonder if we, you know, if we can talk to a little bit about Jacob.

Jacob was our second child, and he was a very large baby. I understood labor when he was born. He was big. He was a happy kid.

Jacob was very passionate. What he would do, he would do 100 percent, and really be into it. That's really cool.

He wanted to be a veterinarian. He loved animals. He loved … We got Marcus, our puppy when Jacob broke his arm, and he just knew it wouldn't hurt if he had a puppy. I was a pushover. So, we got Marcus. And he would lay on the floor and, you know, and drink water out of the bowl to show this dog how to do it. He was … He loved animals. Yeah. He was a good spirit.

That was Jacob as his parents remembered him the last time they saw him, October 22nd, 1989, when he was 11.

Should we … Can we just start with that day?

I don't know. I can't seem to forget that day.

Sure.

Yeah, it was a hockey weekend. Our kids were in … The boys were in hockey.

It was a Sunday, but the kids had off school the next day. By late October, this part of Minnesota is usually well on its way to winter. But this Sunday was warmer, in the '70s even. And there are lots of kids out, running around, wearing shorts, and tossing footballs. There was a polka festival in town. That morning, Jacob and his dad, Jerry, went fishing. They came back home, and everyone gathered around the TV to watch the Minnesota Vikings play the Detroit Lions. Later that afternoon, they went skating at an indoor ice rink.

That night, Jacob's parents headed out to a gathering at a friend's house. Jacob stayed home with his brother, Trevor, and his sister, Carmen. His best friend, Aaron Larson came over for a sleepover. They ate a pizza for dinner, hung out for a while. And at some point, the boys decide they want to rent a movie from a nearby store called Tom Thumb. Specifically and please stand by for quintessential '80s moment, they wanted to rent Major League, this goofy baseball comedy.

We'd love for you to come to spring training for a shot at this year's club.

But Major League was rated R, so they called up a 14-year-old girl who lived next door,Rochelle Jerzak. And the boys asked Rochelle, for such a sixth grader in the '80s, favor.

They wanted me to call Tom Thumb to get them to rent a movie that was R because they thought maybe my voice sounded older.

So, did you call over to Tom Thumb?

I didn't.

You're like, "I'm not. No. Nice try."

No. Yeah, I don't know. That kind of stuff makes me nervous, like I'm gonna get busted. I mean, thinking about it now, like "What would the worker at Tom Thumb do?" But, nonetheless, that was my mode of thinking at the time.

So, a big no to Major League. So, they figured, "We'll just rent a different movie." So, they called their parents.

Trevor called, and asked if they could ride their bikes to the store, and rent a video. And I said no. They hadn't really done that before. It's a mile just down the hill, but, you know, that's cornfield. It's dark. There's nothing in between. They've never done it at night. And Trevor said, "Well, let me talk to dad." And it was funny. And I remember calling him like, "Your son would like to talk to you." Jerry went to the phone.

My whole concern was the car hitting them, you know. And so, being seen at dark, that was my only concern.

Trevor told his dad that he would carry a flashlight and Jacob would wear a reflective vest.

And you said it should be okay?

And so, the girl next door, Rochelle came over to watch Jacob's youngest sister, Carmen.

I mean, I remember them putting on this reflective vest. And then, at least, one or maybe both of the other boys had flashlights.

And then, that was kind of it?

The boys head out. It's about 8:30 at night. Jacob and Trevor are on bikes. Aaron's on a scooter. The route the boys took that night was pretty simple. The Tom Thumb store was just a 15-minute or so bike ride into town, mostly on one street. This long dead-end country road that leads from the cul de sac, where the Wetterlings live, right into town. There's not much in between, just some cornfields, some woods. And then closer to town, a few blocks of houses.

As they biked up the road, the boys passed a long gravel driveway. And somewhere close to that driveway, Jacob's younger brother, Trevor, heard a rustling sound in the corn, but he didn't say anything. They kept on biking. They got to the Tom Thumb, and they rented a movie, The Naked Gun, and they bought some snacks. Then, they headed back home. They were just sort of taking their time, walking their bikes for a bit, just kind of messing around.

They passed the few blocks of houses. The lights of the town faded away. They kept going. They went pass woods and fields. It got darker. There were no sidewalks, and no street lights, not even the moon was out. The only light came from a flashlight that Jacob's brother, Trevor, flashed in front of them. They kept going.

They approached the long gravel driveway, the spot where there had been that rustling sound earlier. They were almost home. All of a sudden, a man appeared on the road. He was walking toward them. He was dressed all in black. His face was covered with something dark. It was hard to tell what.

When he told us he had a gun, and he told us to turn around, and go over into this ditch, and get our bikes, and then lay down.

Aaron talked to a TV reporter back then.

I thought it was some kid pulling a prank on us or something, but there wasn't any. He looked at Trevor, and he told Trevor to turn off his flashlight.

The man asked Trevor his age. "10," Trevor said.

He told Trevor to run as fast as he could into the woods, or else he'd shoot.

Then, the man turned to Aaron. The man paused. He asked him as age. "11," Aaron said. The man looked at Aaron, and the man grabbed him in the crotch.

Then, he looked at me, and then he grabbed me. And told me to run as fast as I could in the woods or he'd shoot.

Did Jacob say anything to the man?

Uh-uh. Just his age.

"11," Jacob said.

When you ran, did you look back?

Yeah, once we get way down there.

What did you see?

Nothing. He wasn't there anymore.

It was about 9:20 on the night of October 22nd, 1989. Here's how I think about that first night. I think about the spot on the side of the road where Jacob was taken, and I draw a circle around it, around Jacob and the abductor. At that moment, the moment Jacob was kidnapped, the circle was still small. Jacob was right there. But then, I picture that circle, that circle of where Jacob and the man could be slowly expanding as the man and Jacob get farther and farther away, as the seconds and minutes tick by.

If law enforcement was going to find Jacob, they needed to act quickly before the circle got too big. And here's why. The best study on child abduction cases found that if a child is going to be killed, most of the time, it happens within the first five hours, 85% of the time, in fact. And by the end of the first 24 hours, in almost every case, the child has been killed.

Rochelle was watching TV at the Wetterling house with Jacob's younger sister when Jacob's brother, Trevor, and his friend, Aaron, ran in screaming.

"Rochelle, someone took Jacob. Someone took Jacob. There was a man with a gun, and he took Jacob." And I was like, "What?", you know, because it was so out of the realm of anything I could have ever imagined that it took me a minute to really understand it.

Rochelle called her dad, Merle. He came over and called Jacob's parents, Jerry and Patty Wetterling, right away.

Jerry took it, and it was Rochelle's dad, Merle, telling us that-

He asked for me. He didn't want to tell you. He asked for me, and said, "Come straight home. Aaron and Trevor came back, but Jacob didn't come back. And you come straight home," and he would call 911.

911, emergency.

This is Merlyn Jerzak calling from St. Jo.

Mm-hmm.

I'm right now next door at my neighbors, the Jerry Wetterling family.

It was 9:32 p.m., about 15 minutes or so since Jacob had been abducted.

Some of their boys went down to Tom Thumb to pick up a movie. And on their way back, someone stopped them. We believe that they have one of the boys because one of the boys did not come back with them.

And they don't know where the other friend is at?

They don't know where their brother and friend is at. I think that maybe my best bet is to let Trevor get on the phone, and he can describe to you-

Okay.

… what he saw and this type of thing.

Okay, I'm ready.

Okay. I'll put Trevor on.

Okay.

And he can answer your questions. We've got him pretty well calmed down here.

Hello?

Trevor?

Yes.

This … you're talking to the Sheriff's Office. I want you to give me anything you can recall about this male party that approached you guys.

Well, he was … He was like sort of … He was like a man, sort of big.

Okay.

He had like a … It looked-

Here's what Trevor told 911, a man had stepped out of the darkness. The boys didn't recognize him, and they didn't see or hear a car anywhere. The man's face was covered with something dark, maybe black nylons. He sounded like he had a cold. In the dark, that was all the boys could make out.

Meanwhile Jacob's parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, were on their way back home.

We were driving home absolutely confused. "What's going on?" It seemed like we were going so slow. In my mind, he was driving like 10 miles an hour, and I'm like, "Speed. Hurry up." And he said he didn't want to get stopped by the police. And I said, "Well, we'd have a police escort. Just drive."

How far away were you?

We were near Clearwater. So, it was a good 20-25 minutes.

Okay. We're you talking to each other?

A little. We didn't talk a lot. In my memory, it was just like, "What do you say? What's going on?"

Yeah.

I was so confused. And then, I said something really mean. It's like, "Oh, who told them they could go to the store?" And Jerry said, "I did. So, if you want to be mad at somebody, be mad at me."

Stearns County Sheriff's Deputy Bruce Bechtold was in a squad car just a few miles away when the dispatcher called him.

It was over the squad radio. There was a call on the radio. When they called an abduction of a child, well, you don't think that happens here. So, my initial thought was somebody panicked. It's really not an abduction. Somebody's kid ran away. Somebody's playing a game. So, I started going that way. And the more information the dispatcher gave, the more serious I realized it was, and that there was a gun involved, and then it became real.

Deputy Bechtold was the first to arrive at the Wetterling house. He got there at 9:38 p.m. It had only been 20 minutes or so since Jacob had been abducted. The man who took him couldn't be very far away. Deputy Bechtold wanted Trevor and Aaron to show him the spot where Jacob was kidnapped. Rochelle, the babysitter, says the boys were still terrified. They didn't want to go back out into the dark. So, her dad, Merle, offered to go with them. Rochelle says that left her and Jacob's younger sister alone in the house.

And I just remember them saying, "Okay, lock all the doors and don't open the doors." So, that's what we did. And we sat in the corner huddled like this because in that corner, there's no windows, so, no one could see us. But we were just terrified. I mean, we were terrified. And then, I remember a few minutes later, hearing a knock at the door. And I'm like, "I'm not answering that door."

What were you thinking?

I was thinking it's the man that took Jacob, and that he was going to come take us. And then, a few more minutes went by, and maybe it was even seconds, but it felt like hours, the phone rang. And it was the sheriff saying, "We're at the door. Open the door for us."

Stearns County Sheriff Charlie Grafft had just turned on the 10:00 news at his home that night when he saw a deputy's car race down the street.

When I called in the office to find out what was going on, and they said that a boy had been abducted, kidnapped by a man with a gun out near St. Jo.

Sheriff Grafft died in 2003. This is from a TV interview he did shortly after the abduction.

So, I immediately got in my squad, drove out there, and started questioning the boys as to what happened, try to get something going.

And they sat down here at the table, and they kept asking the boys, you know, first, "What happened?" And then, they asked some questions like, "Are you sure you guys weren't, you know, playing with a gun, and Jacob got hurt, and you're afraid to tell?", or "Are you sure Jacob didn't just run away, and you're, you know, trying to buy him some time until he gets where he's going or something?" And they're like, "No," you know. They were really, really clear.

By about 10 45 p.m., about an hour and a half after Jacob was kidnapped, investigators had fanned out with flashlights to search the area near the abduction site. The Sheriff, Charlie Grafft, called in volunteer firefighters to help with the search.

Charlie said they were going to comb the woods. And he said, "You know, it's not a bad thing. Maybe he's tied to a tree or something. We're hoping that we're going to find him. And then, that's why we're searching." You know, he was trying to reassure. And I wanted to … There's a part of me that wanted to go out and search. And then, he told me that we needed to stay here, "What if Jacob calls or comes home? You know you need to be home."

The sheriff called the state patrol and asked for them to come right away with a helicopter.

I got up in a helicopter with them, and we searched the area with a spotlight they had underneath the helicopter. And we're right down on top of the power line almost. And we searched for about an hour and a half up there in the air, and plus what we have on the ground.

The helicopter search found nothing, but investigators searching on the ground did find something in the gravel driveway across the street from the abduction site, some tire tracks and some shoe prints. They didn't know what to make of them. The boys hadn't seen a car, and it's not like it's unusual to find tire tracks in a driveway. So, investigators weren't sure whether the tire tracks even had anything to do with the abduction.

I talked to another officer who was at the scene that night, Stearns County Detective Steve Mund. He's since left the sheriff's office. And he told me the way he saw it that night, there had to be a car. It was the only theory that made sense.

I mean, it was not like you're in the inner city with, you know, apartment buildings and something where you couldn't take someone, and be gone in five blocks, and then have 5000 places to hide. How could you get away from there with someone and not have a car, you know, connected to it?

Right. Because, otherwise, he should just be right there, right?

Well, yeah. I mean, either … Yeah, you're either going to have to be in a house that's right there or something like that, but how would that occur, I'm not sure, so.

The long gravel driveway across from the spot where Jacob was abducted curbs around and leads down to a white farmhouse with a clothesline out front, a chicken coop, and a grain silo. Inside the farmhouse that night was a 34-year-old man named Dan Rassier. He was home alone.

And around 9 p.m., Dan was upstairs in his bedroom organizing his record collection when his dog barked. Dan peered outside and saw a car coming down the driveway.

I could hear the car coming down the hill, and it turns around.

It was small and dark, and the headlights were close together. Dan didn't get a good look at the driver. The car turned all the way around in front of the house, and then headed back out toward the road.

And then, I go. I go to bed. I'm sleeping because I remember waking to the dog. The dog keeps barking.

It was around 10:45 that night when Dan woke up.

And I looked out at one of the windows, and I see, you know, all these flashlights around the woodpile.

Dan thought maybe some guys were trying to steal his firewood.

And I stepped out the door. And at that point, I remember my heart rate going up, and realizing I can't go out there. I can take care of maybe a couple of them, but not like 10 of them. And I just immediately called 911. They said a child was taken, and I go "Oh, okay." So, I went right up there.

Dan went outside. He saw the helicopter overhead. And as he walked up his driveway, he ran into Bruce Bechtold, the sheriff's deputy. Dan and the deputy say they talked briefly, and that was pretty much it. No one paid any more attention to Dan that night.

So, no one came and knocked on your door that night?

No.

And nobody came and searched your house that night?

No.

And nobody searched any of, as far as you know, the buildings, the farm buildings that are right around her house?

No. I remember saying, "I'm going to … I'll look down here," and that was a mistake.

Why was it a mistake?

Because it's like if only I would have just said, "You guys got to come down here now and look everywhere. Go through my room. Go anywhere you like." That's what I should have done.

All the things that law enforcement didn't do that night at the Rassier Farm would come to matter a great deal years later, and would change Dan's life in a way that could never be undone. But we'll get to that later.

Patty waited up for Jacob all night. And she remembers sitting there wanting the whole world to be looking for her son.

And I remember asking because we had turned the radio on, and there was a report that this child was lost in the woods. And I called WJON, and said, "He wasn't lost. He was kidnapped." And they said, "Well, we can only report what the police are telling us." And so, I remember asking Charlie Grafft, the sheriff, "Would it hurt to get the right story out in the media?"

What was it? It was … Nothing was done until Charlie said it was okay, and that was like 5:00 a.m. That's when WJON was first called. And I don't know what you're talking about as far as a lost boy.

I heard it on the radio.

Okay. I don't know. What were you doing listen to the radio at 3:00 in the morning?

It's been 27 years since Jacob was abducted. So, it's not surprising that Patty and Jerry don't agree on every last detail of what happened. But it's not as simple as that. When something awful happens to your family, you assume you'll never forget it, and that no one else in your family will either, that the story will remain the same. So, when you realize that your stories have changed, that you no longer agree on the most basic parts of what happened, that can be pretty unsettling.

A lot of stuff gets confused.

Yeah, it's-

But I don't know. I don't know.

It's so-

Well, where were you? Okay. And this is crazy. Where were you at 3:00 in the morning? I don't remember. I was in shock. My-

I tried to sleep for an hour.

I didnt.

I was trying to escape.

I didn't sleep for days. I remember hearing it on the radio, and I remember calling WJON. So, you can tell me that that didn't happen, and I'll believe you, but that's my memory of it.

Time out.

Yeah.

You see, this is stressful to do.

Yeah.

We're fighting.

We're not fighting.

I know, but it's just to go back there, it's very painful.

The search that night was a failure. No Jacob, no abductor, no clothing left behind, no car. And at 3:00 a.m., less than six hours since Jacob had been kidnapped, investigators made a big decision. They called off the search. One of the detectives at the scene, Steve Mund, told me there was no point in continuing to search in the dark.

Just that, you know, working under flashlights and stuff, you might miss certain trace evidence. So, it's important that we did it in daylight hours.

As the hours ticked by in the late, late evening and early morning, the circle that started out so small on that road where Jacob was taken expanded many times over. Eventually, the circle would expand to include most of Central Minnesota, then all of Minnesota, then the Midwest, Canada, the entire United States, the world.

Are there things he would have done differently now looking back on it?

You have done differently, I know, you always think about that, but no. I think, the people that worked on that case did truly 110% every day that we're there. And I don't know. I don't know that there's anything we could have done differently.

What detective Mund just said that he doesn't know that there is anything they could have done differently, I heard this so many times while reporting on this case. And every time, I was startled by it because here's a case that had gone on for 27 years without being solved.

The Jacob Wetterling case is, by any reasonable measure, a failure. But what went wrong is hard to figure out because for 27 years, the investigative file on the Jacob Wetterling case, that stack of documents that tell you what the crime scene looks like, what witnesses said, what physical evidence was found, and generally everything that law enforcement did and didn't do, all of that has been closed to the public. It's still closed.

This is pretty standard for unsolved cases. It's meant to protect the investigation and to protect the witnesses and the suspects, but it also protects law enforcement. It means we aren't allowed to know what law enforcement is doing in some of the most serious criminal investigations in this country. We're just supposed to trust them.

Coming up over the next few weeks on In the Dark.

Stearns County Sheriff's Office has quite a reputation for horrendous investigations, false accusations, leaving families in the dark. I mean, what's going on down there? Why is everything such a secret?

This is what happens when you talk. And he said it twice to me now. This is what happens when you talk.

All these evidence that people have, and nothing is being done. 50,000 leads, and what got checked out?

But there has to be an element in there to have accountability. And when accountability is not there, disastrous things happen.

I'm not going to dwell on things that that could have been done, should have been done differently because that's not helpful. Do I wish some things would have been done differently? Sure. Can I talk about that in this particular case? No.

By enacting this law, we're sending a clear message across the country, those who prey on our children will be caught, prosecuted, and punished to the fullest extent of the law.

How many of these types of psychopathic pedophiles can exist in this 15 to 20-mile radius?

Just like, "What? We lived here the whole time, and he's just down the damn road all those years?", you know. And it's like, "What?"

I got to believe that authorities did their job. So, if it's Danny, why would you allow him to be free the last 25 years?

In the Dark is produced by Samara Freemark. The associate producer is Natalie Jablonski. It's edited by Catherine Winter, with help from Hans Buetow. The editor in chief of APM Reports is Chris Worthington. Web editors are Dave Peters and Andy Kruse. The videographer is Jeff Thompson. Additional reporting by Curtis Gilbert, Jennifer Vogel, Will Craft, Tom Scheck, and Emily Haavik. Our theme music is composed by Gary Meister.

Go to InTheDarkPodcast.org for a more detailed look at the night of the abduction and to hear the recording of the original 911 call. And keep checking in, we'll be posting more information on our website each week.

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