Jacob Wetterling, Found at Last: R.I.P.

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The remains of Jacob Wetterling have been found in Minnesota. Jacob was abducted in 1989 at age 11 in a case that scared, scarred and deeply saddened people around the globe. As his mother Patty texted to the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Saturday: “Our hearts are broken. We have no words.”

The Star-Tribune explained that:

Jacob was snatched off his bike, half a mile from his home, by a masked man with a gun on a dark October night. Danny Heinrich, a suspect first questioned shortly after Jacob’s disappearance and now in federal custody on child pornography charges, gave investigators the information that led to the boy’s hidden grave.

The paper added that the authorities did not give much more information about why Heinrich, who has been in federal custody almost a year, seemingly suddenly decided to confess the whereabouts of the body.

Maybe we will learn more, maybe not. What hurts most is that whatever ray of hope the parents might have held onto is gone. It is painful to even imagine that light going dark.

It is painful in a more intellectual sense to contemplate the effect that Jacob’s unspeakable fate had on American families. Not only did it grip us with dread, but that dread — and anger — directly paved the way to sex offender registry. As Jennifer Bleyer explained in this extraordinary article in City Pages about Jacob’s mother, Patty, in 2013:

[T]he Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act…was part of a landmark violent crime bill in 1994 that required law enforcement in every state to maintain registries of convicted sex offenders and track where they lived after being released from prison.

Two years later, Megan’s Law mandated making the registry public. As Bleyer notes:

Virtually all the major laws regarding sex offenders have been passed in the wake of grisly, high profile crimes against kids and, like Megan’s Law, they bear victims’ names as somber memorials. The laws tend to fuel the impression that sex offenders are a uniform class of creepy strangers lurking in the shadows who are bound to attack children over and over again.

That’s what Patty Wetterling used to believe about sex offenders, too. Yet over the course of two decades immersed in the issue, she found her assumptions slowly chipped away.  Contrary to the widely held fear of predator strangers, she learned that abductions like Jacob’s are extremely rare, and that 90 percent of sexual offenses against children are committed by family members or acquaintances. While sex offenders are stereotyped as incurable serial abusers, a 2002 Bureau of Justice study found that they in fact have distinctly low recidivism rate of just 5.3 percent for other sex crimes within three years of being released from prison.

Though the term “sex offender” itself seems to reflexively imply child rapist, a broadening number of so-called victimless crimes are forcing people onto the rolls.

On this sad night, I won’t get into all the reasons the public sex offender registry hasn’t made us safer and yet has ruined countless lives in the process. You can read the Bleyer piece to see how Patty Wetterling herself has come to question this legacy of her son’s disappearance. And she’s not alone. Just a few days ago the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Michigan declared that many of the registry’s ever-increasing requirements are unconstitutional. It is terrible how bad crimes make bad law.

But the real point tonight is that one young man did not get to live out his days. His family has lived without him for 27 years, and they have just learned they must live without him forever.

We pass laws because we wish there was a way to ease this sadness. It’s an impulse we can all understand, even if we regret the laws that it inspired. – L.

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Jacob Wetterling, RIP.

Jacob Wetterling, RIP.

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30 Responses to Jacob Wetterling, Found at Last: R.I.P.

  1. WendyW September 4, 2016 at 1:50 am #

    I’m in MN and this has been BIG news today. I glad the family finally has some closure, but I know this is heartbreaking news for them.

    The story has been in the news regularly for the 15+ yrs we’ve lived here. That has largely been because Patty has been very active politically and on child safety in general. But, I wondered today, is Patty’s activity the only reason, or, in 27yrs, has there not been another similar incident to supplant it in the state consciousness? If that’s the case, it’s pretty good evidence of the rarity of such crimes.

  2. BL September 4, 2016 at 5:39 am #

    I wonder if our own local disappearance case, now over 50 years old, will ever be solved:

    http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/mar/21/mystery-of-kathy-shea-disappearance-remains-5-deca/

  3. Daniel Dehoyos September 4, 2016 at 8:48 am #

    I feel so bad for Jacob and his family… if it was my boy that disappeared I wouldn’t know what I would do… my condolences to the family …I probably will never know how they feel but I do know how it feels to be on the registry back in 1991 I was accused of sexual assault I was 17 and the victim was 16 it never happened but I do admit I did wrong her by having another girlfriend maybe that’s why she accuse me I will never know now I’m 43.. I have kids and it’s hard being a family and being on the registry this registry stripped me of a lot of things mentally I pray everyday that the register will go away then again…. 4 people that were falsely accused they should take a better look because that’s a two-way street people take advantage of this law like what happened to me… a Lobby for laws here in Texas and the registry doesn’t go away I hope they clean it up and put people on there that really need to be on there so the kids can be safe… also women can be safe sometimes I think all these lawmakers make these laws are many flaws for their own purposes yes I am against the register I am on the registry put yourself in my shoes and you would be against the registry too falsely accused please clean up the register

  4. Robert Atwood September 4, 2016 at 8:55 am #

    No matter how real and scary child abduction a no sex offender law the federal sex offender law or any other law passed could have or will prohibit any sex offender committing a crime laws and written for law-abiding citizens as a rule to go by that everybody is comfortable with sorry for your loss the real advocacy group should Lobby for prison Rehabilitation that’s the only laws and regulations that will prevent a sex offender from acting out but for some reason you people don’t do that

  5. Anne September 4, 2016 at 9:14 am #

    That was a thoughtful, sensitive piece Lenore, respectful of all parties, all sides, related to sex offender issues.

  6. Marie Campbell September 4, 2016 at 10:27 am #

    My heart breaks for his parents and the grief they continue to endure. I can’t help but wonder if this guy was a person of interest from the start, what was his relationship?

  7. theresa September 4, 2016 at 10:31 am #

    It would been better if it had been used for real criminals. Not horny teens or the boy who chose to trust only find out his girlfriend is a minor not an adult like she said. And sorry but either report real rape asap or don’t come crying to me when it turns into a he said she said. I know it isn’t easy but who said it would be.

  8. SKL September 4, 2016 at 11:45 am #

    We have to do better when a known sex offender is able to re-offend. I can understand why they thought a registry would make sense. Maybe with improved science we could come up with better ideas.

    I know this is extremely rare, but if we could reduce it without hurting anyone then we should. Seems obvious to me.

    You & I tend to disagree on matters of known sex offenders. I’m of the opinion that they don’t get to whine about having a tough life due to raping someone. Yes, we need Romeo & Juliet exceptions.

  9. Richard September 4, 2016 at 11:47 am #

    Unfortunately, the case cited only found that the provisions were sufficiently punitive that they could not be enforced retroactively. Those convicted after the law went into effect are still subject to it.

  10. Silver Wolf September 4, 2016 at 11:51 am #

    It sounds to me like the scope of the registries should be narrowed solely to convicted rapists and pederasts.

  11. Gina September 4, 2016 at 1:24 pm #

    The only consolation is that Jacob didn’t suffer for 27 years; it appears he was killed in 1989. The unknown must have been heart wrenching for his parents and family.
    RIP Jacob.
    Now, let’s RIP these archaic laws that ruin the lives of innocent people.

  12. fred schueler September 4, 2016 at 1:36 pm #

    wouldn’t it be nice if constitutions included provisions that all leglislation be evaluated for effectiveness and be terminated after a fixed term if they’ve failed to perform

  13. Vaughan Evans September 4, 2016 at 4:12 pm #

    I think an Amendment should be made to the constitution-of your country.
    Gun ownership should be a privilege and not a right.
    In 1791, America was a rural country/ People needed guns to hunt for food-to protect themselves from wild animals.
    But now we are an urban society-where discipline has drastically gone downhill.
    -Nbody should be allowed to carry a gun-unless he is a policeman or soldier.

  14. Vaughan Evans September 4, 2016 at 4:17 pm #

    Children often blame adults for things-that the children themselves are guilty of.

    Around 1991, I went to a swimming pool. (In the change room, were a group of boys-who were participants in an after-school daycare program.
    One boy came up to me-and used the word “bony”(In certain contexts “bony’ means the same as “horny.”
    I told the man who was in charge of this program.
    The man chided the boy involved-and made him sit out(He missed his swim)

    -I then had a talk with a pool staff member. I asked her:’If a boy does this again, should I tell you?’
    She said, ‘Yes. But do so right away; not ten minutes after the fact.’

  15. James Pollock September 4, 2016 at 6:11 pm #

    “You & I tend to disagree on matters of known sex offenders. I’m of the opinion that they don’t get to whine about having a tough life due to raping someone.”

    Not all sex offenders raped someone. In fact, not all sex offenders even had sex with someone. In some cases, you can get get put on the sex offender registry without even ever touching anyone else. You can get put on the sex-offender registry for having 100% consensual sex with a 100% adult person to whom you happen to be currently married, under the wrong circumstances.

  16. Crystal September 4, 2016 at 9:00 pm #

    What a thoughtful, sensitive piece, Lenore. I love your humanity.

  17. SteveS September 4, 2016 at 9:03 pm #

    I think an Amendment should be made to the constitution-of your country.
    Gun ownership should be a privilege and not a right.
    In 1791, America was a rural country/ People needed guns to hunt for food-to protect themselves from wild animals.
    But now we are an urban society-where discipline has drastically gone downhill.
    -Nbody should be allowed to carry a gun-unless he is a policeman or soldier.

    What does this rambling have to do with the article?

    Regardless, the 2nd amendment has nothing to do with hunting or wild animals.

  18. Lois Marshall September 5, 2016 at 12:04 am #

    I cannot imagine having a child disappear, only to turn up dead later. I cannot imagine having a child of mine die because of violence. I feel deep sorrow for anyone who ever had their child die.
    But putting people on a publicly available sex offender registry is not a good solution, no matter what your common sense may tell you. Thank you, Lenore, for saying as much.
    You see, in order for a punishment to discourage bad behavior, or the repeat of bad behavior, there must be some hope of it becoming better. With the sex offender registry, all such hope is taken away. The most recent studies on offense-specific recidivism have shown that the more restrictive the laws and more remote the possibility of improvement the worse the repeat offense rate becomes. A more thoughtful examination reveals that a job, a place to live, treatment, and a support system would put recidivism in the lowest possible level.
    Yes, even for those who are guilty of rape or child molestation. If they haven’t done something awful enough to keep them in prison, then they must be treated in such a way as to minimize re-offense.
    Kidnapping and molestation are usually done by those known to and trusted by the child. Keeping a list of strangers will not help prevent another child being hurt. Prevention is best done by education.

  19. G4Change September 5, 2016 at 1:36 am #

    May his precious soul rest in peace! My heart is heavy for his family.
    I hope the person responsible for this is punished to the fullest extent of the law, but please don’t continue to punish countless American families who had nothing to do with it and who could never do something so unspeakable.
    I gotta ask: Was the guy who did this a prior sexual offender AT THE TIME this happened in 1989? Thus, would all of this registry nonsense (if it were in place in 1989) have even helped to catch him? I’m thinking the answer to those questions are both: NO.

  20. sexhysteria September 5, 2016 at 3:03 am #

    Ironically, the hysterics who claim child sex abuse and even child nudity are “worse than death,” may now tell Jacob’s parents: “Maybe you’re lucky he’s no longer alive.”

  21. Liesbet September 5, 2016 at 4:02 am #

    So sad, this news. And it catapults me back 20 years in time. I’m Belgian, so Dutroux is a legacy I will not easily forget. End of the 80s, first years of the 90s, a lot of children disappeared in Belgium. Not all of them have been found yet, but six of them were found in 1996, four dead, two alive in the basement of Dutroux’s house. It shocked the international world, so you probably still remember.
    The thing that rings the hardest in my head, though, is the relief that a horror story like that did NOT lead to a sex offender registry in Belgium. Or at least, not a public one. I think it exists, but only law enforcement knows where those people live. I am so grateful for that.
    Because yes, Dutroux was a monster, without a doubt, and it is still a scar that hurts the hearts of many Belgian people. But people like him are SO rare, and I am relieved that we did not take it a step further like America did…

  22. Marie Campbell September 5, 2016 at 8:09 am #

    Fred and Lois. Thank You for your comments. You both make excellent points.

  23. Jen September 5, 2016 at 8:25 am #

    @Vaughan Evans — I don’t know where you live but where I live, guns are still used to hunt for food and as protection from wild animals. Seems to me the problem on both sides is applying one size fits all solutions to situations where they don’t apply.

  24. Curious September 5, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

    Brilliant, Lenore. Complete, compassionate and empathetic.
    Our hearts weep for the Wetterling family and for all who have lost a child.
    May we move forward in greater understanding toward just laws that get it right. Laws that assist law enforcement without the excesses in harm to families and communities of ever more burdensome registry requirements
    Minnesota has a fairer system than most states, something on the order of risk-based, rather than a one size fits all registry.
    Is it correct to assume that Mrs. Wetterling has had a positive impact on the criminal justice system in her own state? That juveniles there are given a more reasonable opportunity to live lives unburdened by the revenge of the poorly informed?

  25. joel l September 5, 2016 at 8:23 pm #

    God Bless Jacob. God Bless the Wetterling family.

  26. Curious September 6, 2016 at 6:54 am #

    It took two generations and an International Sex Offender Registry with 800,000 people on it (some as young as 11 years old) to solve the mystery of what happened to one very unfortunate victim of a heinous crime.
    The perpetrator had been groping boys on bicycles previously and had abducted a twelve year old in the next town over the year before, as he rode his bike. DNA from that child’s sweat shirt led to the solving of this crime.
    Why did it take 36 years?
    Because at the time of the crimes, one police department didn’t talk to the one next door? Or…what?
    Boys on bicycles as potential victims.
    Read the whole background news story on the link Lenore provided.
    Makes a person wonder.

  27. Jana September 6, 2016 at 8:38 am #

    I have been looking at Jacob’s photo all over again and seeing my own son instead… He has just turned twelve, is also handsome, bright, kind, and free-range. I can feel his parents’ pain and my heart bleeds for them. However, I do agree that the above mentioned law did not make our neighborhoods much safer, if at all. So sad and heartbreaking story…

  28. CJinMG September 6, 2016 at 10:45 pm #

    RIP. May your angel wings soar and your soul be at peace.

  29. Chanie September 7, 2016 at 10:34 pm #

    I wish Jacob’s family peace, & hope G-d will console them somehow. I don’t know crime statistics but I believe that the existance of a registly for sex offenders may make them think twice before giving in to their impulses to hurt children.

  30. SteveD September 8, 2016 at 1:56 pm #

    Children who died and returned:

    http://www.near-death.com/experiences/children.html