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NOTORIOUS: Jacob Wetterling

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ST. JOSEPH, Minn. (KTTC) --It was a typical night in St. Joseph, Minn. October 22, 1989. 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, his young brother and another friend, took their bicycles down the street from the Wetterling home to rent a movie from a corner store.

Jacob didn't return home that night.

"They did everything right. There was no way he should have been abducted," Former Mayo Clinic pediatrician and co-founder of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Dr. Daniel Broughton said.

When the boys were on their route back to the Wetterling home, a man came out of the bushes with a gun. He took Jacob, and instructed the others to run.

Dr. Broughton co-founded the center in 1984, just a few years before Jacob was taken. He met Jacob's mother, Patty Wetterling, at conference at Rochester's Kahler Hotel a few years later. They've been friends ever since.

"The story was really, really frightening," Broughton said. "And potent and rare."

The St. Joseph community was on edge after Jacob went missing.

"The school bike racks, normally full, were almost empty today. Because so many parents opted to escort their children to school," an NBC reporter said during a newscast in 1989.

The search for Jacob was on -- and would be, for the next 27 years.

"Jacob Wetterling is part of all of our children's history in Minnesota," former WCCO-TV reporter Caroline Lowe said. Lowe spent 34 years with WCCO, reporting on Jacob's case from the beginning. She recalls sitting in the Wetterling living room, talking with Patty, mother to mother.

"Just knowing that Patty and Jerry, and the siblings kept that same house all those years," she said. "Patty and Jerry wouldn't move just in case Jacob would call someday, or show up. Just trying to imagine what they were going through, just trying to think about it, now, was just horrible."

In the decades searching for answers of Jacob's whereabouts, hope kept alive. Flyers, billboards, even music pushed the search forward.

"He'll be home soon," Patty said in 1989, hugging community members after a memorial for her son. "He had to feel it, you guys. He's coming home soon."

"People were still concerned until the day he was found," Broughton said, adding that support like that, is what sets Minnesotans apart.

Jacob was found Sept. 2016.

"It's always been 'where's Jacob?' And suddenly, Jacob's been found," Lowe said. "It's something really hard to wrap your mind around." Lowe recalls hopping on the first flight after learning the news. She sat front row in the court room, listening to the man who killed Jacob, all those years ago, give the gruesome details.

53-year-old Danny Heinrich was the man that took the 11-year-old, molesting him before fatally shooting him. Heinrick led law enforcement to Jacob's burial site; farmland across the highway in Paynesville, a town just a few miles away from St. Joseph.

"That was a hard time on everybody," Broughton recalls. "I won't go into the law enforcement issues but there were some. Maybe it couldn't have been solved. Maybe it should've been. It's always hard to know."

In 2021, years after Jacob was found, Patty Wetterling remains a board member for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"She became such a spokesperson, not just for missing children, but for child advocacy and exploited children," Broughton said. "It ended a chapter, but they were so involved at that time and just kept going."

While Jacob's story is heartbreaking, the legacy he leaves behind, fuels exactly what fueled those looking for him those 27 years: hope.

"Jacob he's taught us all how to live, how to love, how to fair, how to be kind," Patty said, shortly after Jacob was found. "He speaks to the world that he knew, that we all believe in. That it is a worth fighting for. His legacy will go on."

A lot has changed since 1989, and Jacob's story plays a part. When Dr. Broughton helped start the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, about 66 percent of the cases were resolved. In present day, that number has jumped to 95 percent.

Dr. Broughton has observed several societal changes in how children are raised present day. The first relates to stranger danger. Broughton says most of the time when a child is taken or abused, it's from someone they know. While it's good for children to remain aware of some strangers, a stranger, like a police officer, may be able to help them out of a dangerous situation.

The second is the idea of "tattling." Now, children are encouraged to disclose.

"It's really important that kids come forward," Broughton said.

Lastly, Broughton discussed the importance of computer safety.

"Computer safely is really important and every school should teach that," he said. "And it should be age appropriate, because it goes all the way through high school."

While the internet can be a scary place, especially for vulnerable kids, it can also be a powerful one. That's why Broughton believes kids need to be trained on how to better navigate and use it safely.

"The internet and technology is why the 95, 96 percent are being found today," Broughton said.

Beret Leone

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