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Full Transcript: In the Dark: S1 E4 The Circus

Previously on In the Dark.

Danny Heinrich is no longer a person of interest. He is the confessed murderer of Jacob Wetterling.

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?"

They had all of that. None of it was new. None of it is new. Stearns County, the FBI, they've all had all of this. None of this was new.

Nobody's ever asked me a single question about this other than you guys. I've never been interviewed by police. I've never talked to by any law enforcement ever. Not one person.

I had expectations that this was hot like, "My lead, this stuff in Paynesville, you can't ignore this, guys." I mean, I went in with that mentality.

Within a few weeks of the kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling, there were close to a hundred investigators working on the case. That's one of the most unusual things about this , just how many people were assigned to it.

So, it's hard for me to understand why those investigators didn't do some of the basic policing 101 stuff. They didn't talk to all the neighbors who lived on the dead-end road where Jacob was kidnapped. They didn't contact all the boys who were attacked by that strange man in Paynesville. And, perhaps, most importantly, they didn't talk to everyone they could find who could have known something about the very similar kidnapping of the boy that same year in that same county in the town of Cold Spring.

They certainly had enough people to do all that. So, what could explain it? I spent months trying to figure this out. And then, one day, the wife of the former police chief in the town where Jacob was kidnapped handed me a dusty VHS cassette tape. It was all the TV news coverage from the early months of the Wetterling case. She'd recorded it back then, and was planning to throw it out. On that video, I found a clue from a news report in December of 1989, two months after Jacob vanished.

Investigators say the kidnapping that occurred here in Cold Spring is just now coming to the forefront because of the overwhelming number of leads.

The overwhelming number of leads. In every major criminal investigation, law enforcement has to make a choice: Keep the case local or go big.

This is In the Dark, an investigative podcast from APM Reports. I'm Madeleine Baran. Today, we're going to look at how investigators in the Jacob Wetterling case decided to go back, and it cost them. It would end up leading them farther and farther away from the man who took Jacob.

One of the first things law enforcement did in the Jacob Wetterling case is they turned to the public to ask for leads. They did it right away, even before they talked to most of the people closest to the crime, the people who could have seen something on the road, the people who had also been attacked by a strange man in a mask. Investigators started appearing on local news and on national news. So did Jacob's parents, Jerry and Patty.

I wanted everybody in the world looking for Jacob. It was like my son, you know, we're talking getting him home. We did what we had to, what we felt we had to.

The surest sign that the Jacob Wetterling case had become a big story came just three weeks after Jacob was abducted. When the case attracted the attention of the 1980's clearinghouse for human tragedy, daytime talk show host, Geraldo Rivera.

Every time it happens, it puts an entire community into a state of shock. It's like a giant punch in the gut because all we can do, all the police can do really is to speculate as to the intentions of the kidnapper. And just the options are horrifying.

Geraldo's TV crew showed up in St. Joseph and set up a satellite feed from the Wetterling's basement. The cameras showed Patty and Jerry sitting next to the Stearns County sheriff and the FBI supervisor assigned to the case. On the wall behind them, there were these big sheets of paper covered in handwritten messages of hope and concern.

As the days, Patty, turned to weeks, is it something that causes you nightmares as you try to pursue a reason why? Why your boy? Why that night?

I can't answer those questions, and I choose not to think about all the horrible options you've made mention of at the beginning. I just won't allow those into my mind at this point. I just want to believe that he's fine. We're going to get him home. I don't have nightmares. No.

The show also featured a young intense John Walsh as a kind of straight talking expert. John Walsh is the guy from the Hunt and America's Most Wanted. His son was murdered by a stranger in 1981.

I know what they're going through. They're going through the nightmare of not knowing. They're going and hoping that, sometimes, in a rare incidence, a child has gotten back that's been gone for a long time. But all of the people there sitting there today know the harsh reality that lots of kids that are taken are not taken by some caring person and taken to Disneyland. They're taken by someone who is into sexually assaulting children. And if you're lucky, you'll find the body in a field.

While all this was happening, Patty was just staring at the ground like she was trying to redirect all her anger away from Geraldo and John Walsh and onto a few inches of basement carpet.

What can they, the Wetterlings, do? Are they, in a sense, powerless now to the whim, the whimsy, the awful capriciousness of this madman?

That would be my opinion.

It went on like this for a while.

And here's a song of hope. I want to thank everybody. John Walsh, you, especially. All the parents, thank you. Here's a song for Jacob and for all these children. Let's play it.

The show ended with a song that it become a kind of anthem of the search for Jacob, a song called Jacob's Hope, written by a musician in Minnesota.

To all our parents, to their children who are out there, our prayers to you. We love you. Come home soon. We thank everybody for being here. Thank you, folks, at home for watching. We'll see you next time. Bye-bye.

Here's what they did, they used us. They used us. We had this sensational kidnapping, and they used us. I remember taking that mic off, and throwing it, and coming upstairs, and throwing things off the deck. I was going to write him this scathing, "How could you do this to us?" And my sister told me, "You get more bees with honey. You might need him down the road." So, I wrote him a thank you note.

The Geraldo interview and all the other TV appearances were painful for the Wetterlings, but they did generate leads for law enforcement, lots of them.

The sheriff of Stearn's County, Charles Grafft. Sheriff, what's the latest on the investigation?

Well, we received just overnight, I mean, within the last 24 hours, over 300 telephone calls and tips. Different descriptions of vehicles, different descriptions of different people that were not supposed to be in the area.

With every day and every news story, more leads came in. First dozens.

As early as yesterday morning-

Then, hundreds.

… we had received more than 300 phone tips.

Then, by the end of the second week, thousands.

Then 500 leads. Now, more than a thousand calls to this location.

There were so many leads that law enforcement had to set up a 24-hour call center just to keep up.

Through the more than 14,000 tips and hundreds of suspects that have come since Jacob's kidnapping.

There were leads about strange men spotted in other states.

Had been located in Texas.

Leads about cars spotted weeks later in other parts of Minnesota-

A small red car with-

… driving suspiciously slow or suspiciously fast. Leads from all over the U.S. And pretty soon, some of those leads started sprouting leads of their own.

I was talking with an FBI agent who worked on the case back then, Agent Al Garber. He's now retired. And Garber told me how this would work. Investigators would get a tip, say, about a white van, and they publicized it. And all of a sudden, people all over the state were seeing white vans everywhere and calling them in. It happened with all the cars they asked about.

If you are looking for a blue jeep, you're going to see blue jeeps. Do an experiment. See on your way back to wherever you're going how many blue jeeps you see. I bet you're going to see a whole bunch of them. And I bet on the way up here, you didn't see any.

All right, Sheriff, where did those reports of the white Chevrolet come from?

Well, they came up from anonymous tips from all over the State of Minnesota. And we've been running so many white cars down, and red cars down, and tan station wagons, and vans. We've been just getting so tremendous amount of calls in here on this particular case here that it's kind of mind boggling.

People started calling leads into the Wetterling's house too. So many people that the sheriff even gave Jerry and Patty a special phone with a built-in mini cassette recorder.

Sure. It's in the back. It was sitting on our desk here for years.

They still have it. When I visited a few months ago, the phone was on a dresser in a spare bedroom.

This is the kid and grandkids'room.

Patty and Jerry kept using it for years.

Yeah, this was the phone the sheriff's department gave us.

There was still a tape inside.

It sounds like it's getting to the end too, but okay. So, we'll listen.

You know, you can see all the work that I've done in 20 years of history.


They're doing copies of-

There are hundreds of phone calls recorded on these tapes. Patty and Jerry would fill the calls, and then pass along the leads to the command center. In a sense, they became investigators on their own case, and the house became a kind of secondary call center.

Wednesday, 4:58 a.m.

Yeah. I work for a carnival. We just did a show in Omaha, Nebraska. And I've seen a picture of this kid called Jacob Wetterling. I have a feeling that's working for a small show called Rainbow Amusements.

People called with all kinds of leads like this. Sometimes, Patty answered the phone, and sometimes Jerry did.

December 28th, and this was the McDonald's in Maple?

In Maplewood, right. Right.


And then, I presumed the boy was trained because he started alerting this man that I was staring at them. So, I tried to be nonchalant, and go up, and order something, so I could get a hold of the manager and have him call the police. And I looked back, and they were gone.

Okay. And you had the best that you could tell going by the photos, this boy did have a lot of similarities to Jacob. Is that what you're saying?

This boy looked heavier and pale. I would imagine he would have been indoors, and it would been several months since he was captured. He was abducted in what?

October 22nd, so it was about maybe nine weeks.

Yeah. And so, I presume that he would have been indoors and eating. I don't know what, but it certainly seemed reasonable to me.

So, that was one type of call people calling in to report possible sightings of Jacob. But then, there are these other calls. And these calls, well, I'll just play some of them.

Hello, good evening.

Hi. Is this the Wetterlings?

Yes, it is.

How was it been there?

Well, it's 12:30 at night. Can you help me?

Okay. I'm very sorry.

So, people would call Patty to tell her about dreams they had or seen Jacob somewhere.

Well, it's all right. Just tell me what you know.

Okay. He was in a farm. It was a farmhouse.

Yeah, we've received a lot of farmhouses.

Oh okay.

And they'll often say something like, "I can't sleep. I had to call. You know, I couldn't carry this anymore." So, then, they'll call, and it's sort of like dumping it. They'll dump it off on us, so that, then, they can sleep.



Hello. Who is this?

This is the Gillespie's in Missouri. I want to ask you a question real quick.


Is there anybody in your family, even the side, with their legs off?

Not that I know.

I see. One of the man that got your son don't have no legs. I am sick of seeing what this man has done to this boy, the legless man. This boy was raped on the side of a school bus. It's right there where you live.

You can't tell me that information without telling me where Jacob is. That doesn't help me to know.

Yes, yes, yes. I know I hurt you. I don't want to do that.

Good. Well, thank you.

But your boy's all right.


Your boy is all right. He is alive.

The Wetterlings put up with all this. And I want you to really think about this, what if someone in your family went missing, and there was a phone in your kitchen that was constantly ringing. And every time you picked it up, the person on the other end had a new horrible story of what had happened, and you had to listen carefully, and write it all down on the off-chance that it would help solve the case. It got to be so much that, sometimes, Patty and Jerry asked their friends to answer the phone.

Sunday, 7:24 p.m.

I just want to tell you that Jacob's all right.

Are you happy again?


Sometimes, they even got calls from people claiming to have Jacob.

Can we speak to him?

Yeah. Wait for a minute. Jacob.

I'm all right. I'm all right.

Okay. Where are you at now, Jacob?

I don't know.

None of these calls turned out to be Jacob.

The phone, you know, it's a gift and a nightmare. You know, you'd sit waiting for that call. And then, there's this, and there's that, and there's another. But you never know. You can't not answer the phone. And that's a killer.

And then, there were the psychics.

My name is Ferris. You mind discussing this or not?

Can you help me find him?

Well, I'm a psychic.

Psychics, it turns out love these kinds of cases.

Everybody keeps asking me, "Did you ever think of contacting a psychic?" It's like, "You don't have to. They come out of the woodwork. They do."

And these psychics in those early months, they created some trouble for the Wetterlings. When Jacob first went missing, the Wetterlings were this united team, Patty and Jerry. But as the investigation dragged on, Patty and Jerry started to go their separate ways a bit as they each tried to make sense of what had happened.

I was just all about talking to the cops and the investigation. Just give me the facts. I can deal with facts. Jerry, meanwhile, had all of these spiritual connections and psychics. And he was-.

That was until about a month after that I had started doing that.

Right. So-

After he wasn't home, it's like, "Whatever, you know. If straight law enforcement isn't solving it, you know, maybe there's another method out there." So then, I went down that road for a couple of years of craziness.

The craziness?

Yes, it's crazy. He called it abductor hunting. And they'd tell him to go out on a county road, and say something, and turn around three times, he'd do it. I mean, it was like you do anything, you know. But, meanwhile, I was alone because he was out abductor hunting with these crazy people. He had midnight Margie who became … I called her Midnight Margie or maybe you did.

Midnight Margie?

She'd call, and they'd talk all night long. And she was just-

You're exaggerating. We didn't talk all night long. There was always people around here, there was there was craziness, the investigation. Then, about 11:00 at night, you know, things would kind of get a little quiet. And I would talk with her about psychic stuff, pretty much, leads, but it wasn't all night long, but anyway.

Because they all wanted some of Jacob's clothing. They wanted a toy. They wanted some something. And I watched, and Jerry would would package up his stuff and send it off. It was a desperation. And, you know, how can you not do everything, but it was so painful.

You can hear that desperation on a lot of these tapes, like this one that's a recording of a phone call between Jacob's dad, Jerry and a psychic named Sylvia Browne.

I mean, what happened?

Your son wasn't about to have this. Your son wasn't about to be victimized by this. And then, unfortunately, he started fighting back, and I think out of desperation or out of fear. The thing about it is it didn't last very long because they're trying to quiet him down, they hit him in the head.

I'd be afraid too. There's so much fear.

Oh, I think he did out of fear.

Sylvia Browne was a pretty big deal back then. She was a regular guest on The Montel Williams Show, and had a habit of inserting herself into high profile cases. She wrote books with titles like Contacting your Spirit Guide and All Pets Go to Heaven.

I've watched some old videos of Sylvia Browne from back then, and she was quite a sight, dyed blonde hair, cheeks with so much blush that it bordered on clownish, an inch-long fingernails with bright red polish, curved like talons, and her eyebrows, they were dark and penciled in, and she'd raised them almost conspiratorially. Like you and I, we're the only ones smart enough to believe all this.

But I'm convinced there was another man there. I don't think there was just one male. I think there was two.

Okay. And where are these guys from?



Both. See, I think it was a Chicago license plate. I don't know what the thing, but it seems to be Illinois. But I mean, it was from Chicago.

Okay. Interesting, interesting.

All this information, all of these leads from people claiming to be psychics, from people with weird dreams, from people claiming to be Jacob, it all went into the pile with everything else at the command center. And the surprising thing is law enforcement checked out a number of these leads from psychics. Retired FBI agent Al Garber told me, sometimes, it wasn't because they necessarily believed the person was really psychic, but more because you never know.

What I believe about psychics is really not important. I thought maybe there were times when a person might claim to be a psychic because they didn't want us to know the source of their information. So, when psychic information came in, we looked into it carefully. There were some cases where it was just either too general or we had ruled out what the psychic would say in anyway. But we did some things. We did a search in Iowa, immense search based on psychic information, and came up with nothing.

The search on a 25-mile stretch of road near Mason City, Iowa was prompted by a vision from a New York psychic. The search took place in October of 1989, about a month after Jacob was kidnapped. It lasted two full days, and it involved the FBI, the Iowa State Patrol, local cops, and deputies from several sheriffs' offices.

And I want you to keep this in mind, while investigators were chasing down the psychic lead in Iowa, they still hadn't talked to everyone who lived on the dead-end road where Jacob was abducted. They still hadn't talked to one of their most likely suspects, Danny Heinrich. They still hadn't searched the area around where Heinrich lived.

And yet law enforcement kept on pursuing these out-there leads, these leads that seemed to have almost no chance of panning out. And when the leads didn't pan out, it's not like investigators said, "Hold on. Maybe we don't want any more of these crazy leads." In fact they went further. They did something that was pretty much guaranteed to bring in lots of bad leads. It involves someone law enforcement called the man with the piercing stare.

In those early days of the investigation into the abduction of Jacob Wetterling, law enforcement started to circulate sketches, sketches of strange men spotted around the area. One of the people investigators were most interested in sketching was a mysterious character known as the man with a piercing stare.

The man with a piercing stare was a guy a few people had seen at the Tom Thumb, the store where Jacob and two other kids had biked that night to rent a movie. Here's how FBI agent, Byron Gigler, described the man in a TV interview back then.

His normal demeanor would be to stare at customers with piercing eyes who would not speak to him. He would oftentimes follow them around the store, and simply position himself in front of the store, and follow them around the store with his eyes.

I talked to a couple who claimed to have seen the man with a piercing stare. Kevin and Marlene Gwost were in a band called The Nite Owls. It was a polka band.

Oompah, German.

Oompah, polkas.

Minnesota style.

Two steps.

On the day Jacob was abducted, there was an all-day polka festival in town at a ballroom close to the Tom Thumb store. The Nite Owls played an early set. That afternoon, after the Nite Owl's set was done, the Gwost packed up and headed off to play another show. On their way out of town, they stopped at the Tom Thumb. They think it was around 4:30.

We're going to get something to eat, so we hit the road, and play another job that night.

We had sandwich there, heated it in the microwave. And that's when we noticed.

They saw a man standing by the coolers, late 20s, early 30s, watching the front door.

Right away, I picked on him. You know, you could tell he was intense upon something else. Like he was thinking about something else at the same time.

What did he look like?

Well, he had a baseball cap on. Kind of, I want to say a wider face. When you just looked at him, you just had a funny feeling, like people just don't stand there staring, you know, looking over aisles the way he did.

The Gwost didn't know what to make of this guy. They headed to their next show. And later that night, they drove home.

You know, on the way back, we're coming up 71, and we had the radio on, and they mentioned about this kid disappearing, and saying Jo.

We just kind of looked at each other, and like, "That had to be him," you know.

I remember saying, "Yeah, we got a call in the morning."


I talked to another guy. His name is Steve Gretsch, and he was also at the polka fest that day. Steve worked for a radio station called KASM that organized it. And he told me he also saw someone strange.

There was one guy in there that didn't fit. He had a beard, you know, real dark beard here. And he had all black. Nobody dresses like that to go to a polka fest. You get your Sunday best on to go dancing.

In the weeks after, Steve Gretsch and Marlene Gwost both talked to a law enforcement sketch artist about the strange man they saw. They both described a similar process. They remember sitting down with this book of images of ears, eyebrows.

So, you're like going through, "Here, all of those eyes."

Eyes, nose, yes, chin. forehead.

They have like different noses and stuff like that, and they just flip through it. And they go, "Yup, that's more like it." Then, they put it together in the face, and then you tweak it a little, and then you get your sketch.

I wanted to know more about this whole process of making sketches. So, I called up a woman named Karen Newirth. She's an expert in sketches and eyewitness ID. And she works for an organization called the Innocence Project. The group tries to exonerate people who've been wrongly convicted of crimes.

Karen told me this whole process of making sketches is far from scientific. She says, "We had this idea that it's really easy to describe a face. We see them everyday. They're the first thing we notice about a person." But Karen says, "Describing a face is way harder than we think."

We tend to process faces holistically, right. Like we see a face as a whole, as opposed to, "Okay, those are, you know, two almond-shaped eyes. And that is a nose that is wider than mine and shorter than my mother's," you know, or however. We don't … We're not processing separate features. It's very difficult to capture either in words or through the composite making the actual nuances of human features and the human face.

There are studies about this, about just how hard it is. And those studies found that most of the time, sketches aren't going to look much like the people we see. I tried this myself with another reporter on our team, and we were so bad at it. We even made a video about just how bad at it we were. You can see it on our website.


Oh wow.

I don't know what I was picturing, but it wasn't that.

They look like two different guys.

In the Jacob Wetterling case, law enforcement used a lot of sketches including one based on a description from Jared Scheierl, the boy in Cold Spring who was abducted earlier that year. That sketch looks sort of like Danny Heinrich, but it looked like a lot of other people too.

This reliance on sketches in a criminal case is pretty standard, despite what Karen is saying about how unreliable they are. But investigators on the Wetterling case went a step further. Law enforcement took sketches of the man with a piercing stare and other sketches of suspicious people spotted in different towns, and they combined them into a completely new sketch.

Let me just say, these people from these sketches don't look at all alike. One of the men in the sketches looks to be in his 70s. He's balding with heavy bags under his eyes and a sloping nose. Another man looks like he is maybe 50, different eyes, different nose, different everything.

And so, when law enforcement combined all these people into a new sketch, it didn't look like any of the earlier guys. It looked like a different person entirely. A white guy, maybe in his 60s, kind of mean looking, and it doesn't look at all like Danny Heinrich. I couldn't find anyone who remembers making the decision to create this combined sketch. So, I sent these sketches to Karen, the expert at the Innocence Project, to see what she thought.

I would say this is really unusual. I've not heard of what … I'm not sure even how to respond. I think this is … It doesn't sound like there was even necessarily reason to believe that the witnesses were describing the same individual. This strikes me as as a very bad idea.

What law enforcement did next is they took this new combined sketch, and they sent it out to the media, along with the sketch Jared helped make. These two sketches, the combined sketch and Jared's sketch, did not look like the same person. Not at all. Law enforcement put both sketches on a flyer, and they sent it everywhere. There are thousands of copies.

Flyers were taped to doors, to restaurant windows, and even onto pizza boxes. The flyer said, "We must find these men, so Jacob can be found." Investigators would point to the flyer and say, "Look closely at these faces and call us right away if you see these men," and people did. They'd call into the command center saying, "That guy I'm flyer, I think that's my neighbor," or my mailman, or a guy I met on vacation four states over. And the leads poured in.

By 2016, there were at least 70,000 leads in the Wetterling case. That's more than 20 times the number of people who lived in St. Joseph back when Jacob was abducted. I went to talk to the lead investigator on the Wetterling case, Chief Deputy Bruce Bechtold in August, about a month before the case was solved. He told me they were still getting leads.

There are people that think Martian's took him.

They say this?

There's all kinds of odd things that come into us, so. I got a report last year that Jacob was riding on an elephant in a parade in Philadelphia last year.

Deputy Bechtold came the closest of any investigator I spoke with to saying maybe all of these leads and all this publicity weren't so great after all.

Perhaps it did go too big too fast instead of staying close in. If you spend so much time on leads that go nowhere, it may be taking you from the lead that may take you somewhere.

But in the end, even Deputy Bechtold wouldn't go so far as to say that trying to get so many leads from all over the country was a mistake. He just couldn't let go of the idea that one of these leads, even one of these bizarre leads, could solve the case.

Was there a sense that like those leads have to be checked out, like there's no matter like kind of how maybe out there that you just have to check just to be sure?

I would say with most, you have to be sure.

Every law enforcement officer I talked to who worked on the case said something similar to this that they had no control over the number of leads and no choice but to check them out. To a person, they said, "There's no such thing as too many leads. Information is always good."

When I talked about all this with Patty and Jerry Wetterling in July before Jacob's remains were found, they told me that questioning the investigation, what could have or should have been done, doesn't get them anywhere. It doesn't help find their son. And they said it's not as though investigators didn't work hard. They were working nonstop on this case. But Patty and Jerry did wonder whether all of those leads made the case harder to solve.

I just think, almost, there probably was too much publicity and too much interest because there were too many leads for everything to be, you know, totally looked through. I don't know. It's hard to say. I don't know.

What happened was his story was out and became national quickly. Investigatively, it's like two-thirds of the time, it's somebody who's in the region. You know, somebody who's from the area. So, I think, that they were forced to look at a lot of things that probably … They triage. They had to sort, but that's a lot. That's a lot of leads. So, do we have the the one guy in there? Probably. But it's like Jerry was saying, it's almost like too many to, you know, to have him stand out because it was just so much.

There was so much noise. 70,000 leads, psychics, white vans, the man with the piercing stare, people claiming to be Jacob. And for nearly 27 years, investigators say they reviewed every single one of those leads. It kept expanding the investigation more and more, even years later asking the public all across the United States for help solving this case.

Somehow, in all that noise, law enforcement failed to see what was right in front of them, the man who lived two towns over, the man already in their files, the man who had confessed to the crime nearly 27 years later, Danny Heinrich.

And after years of chasing down pointless leads, in 2004, a new sheriff did something different. He turned his attention to one of the few people who witnessed something the night Jacob was abducted. And instead of believing what that witness had to say, he turned him into a suspect.

Next time on In the Dark.

They were saying, "You took him. How did you do it? Would you just please admit that you did it, and we can make this a lot easier for you?

In the Dark is produced by Samara Freemark. The associate producer is Natalie Jablonski. In the Dark is edited by Catherine Winter, with help from Hans Buetow. The editor in chief of APM Reports is Chris Worthington. Web editors or Dave Peters and Andy Kruse. The videographer is Jeff Thompson. Additional reporting for this episode by Jennifer Vogel and Will Craft. Our theme music is composed by Gary Meister. This episode was mixed by Cameron Wiley and Johnny Vince Adams.

Go to InTheDarkPodcast.org for a closer look at the use of police sketches, including a video about our experiment; and to read stories about the investigative use of hypnosis and polygraphs, which the Wetterling investigators also used; and to hear some of the calls the Wetterlings received at their house after Jacob was kidnapped.

In the Dark is made possible, in part, thanks to our listeners. You can support more independent journalism like this at InTheDarkPodcast.org/donate.

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