The case of Jacob Wetterling’s kidnapping is among the most horrifying I have heard of. Being taken at gunpoint by a stranger is the nightmare of every parent and every child.
This column was hard for me to write, and likely will be for you to read, but I hope you will. For any reader who might have a history of childhood abuse, this may trigger very unpleasant reactions.
On the evening of 22 October 1989, in the town of St. Joseph, Minnesota, the eleven-year-old was riding his bike home from a video rental store with his brother and a friend. They were confronted by a masked man with a gun, who forced them into a ditch alongside the road. Having selected Jacob, the perpetrator forced the two other boys to run. What became of Jacob after that was a terrifying unknown for nearly three decades, until this week.
We now know that the masked man was Danny James Heinrich, who became a suspect in the earliest days of the investigation. Other pre-teen boys living in his neighborhood had been sexually attacked. Heinrich was arrested in connection with one of these attacks, but released due to a lack of scientific evidence in 1990. I identify the victim, Jared Scheierl, because he has bravely come forward both to the police and the press.
The 25th anniversary of Jacob’s kidnapping stirred interest with both the public and the police. Using new techniques, DNA evidence from the Scheierl case would allow authorities to execute a search warrant on Heinrich’s house, where they found a cache of child pornography. Faced with 25 counts of possessing child pornography, Heinrich agreed to lead police to Jacob’s body, on the conditions that he would not be prosecuted for murdering Jacob and victimizing Scheierl, nor prosecuted for all the counts of child pornography. He has plead guilty to one count of child pornography in federal court, where he detailed the last moments of Jacob’s life. At 53, he will spend at least the next twenty years in jail.
Jacob’s parents can finally lay him to rest. In the long, agonizing wait to bring him home, they have become models of patience and activism, founding the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, which seeks to end the exploitation of children. Every year since his disappearance, they have organized a nationwide campaign which encouraged people to leave their porch lights on in memory of Jacob on the anniversary of his abduction.
I had planned to write about the porch-light campaign next month. While Heinrich’s confession is welcome, it does not give anyone joy. Jacob’s parents, like so many other relatives of the missing, say they are crushed now that they know for sure he will not be coming home alive. At the same time, in a world where so many parents of abducted children have no answers, no conviction, no body to bury, this qualifies as good news.
While the circumstances of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction and murder are horrifying, they, unfortunately, are rare. There is very rarely a stranger waiting in the bushes to victimize “someone else’s” children. Nine out of ten times, a child is sexually abused by a family member, family friend, educator, or other “trusted” adult. Only one in ten victims will ever tell anyone. Of all sexual abuse reports, which represent a tiny fraction of the number of incidents, over 90% are validated as genuine or made in good faith.
I grew up with “stranger danger” lessons. I can’t say they were completely worthless, but I know now they were protecting me from a statistically improbable threat.
Give kids the resources they need to really keep themselves safe. Teach them that adults do not ask children to keep “secrets.” Tell them they do not have to hug someone if they do not want to. There are resources on preventing and identifying child abuse readily available online, such as this one.
I do not yet have children, and cannot imagine trying to tell them that, essentially, no one can be implicitly trusted. However, I cannot imagine letting them out of my sight without making sure they know that they are precious and absolutely no-one has the right to hurt them. It will be a difficult, but necessary, series of conversations.
I do not know if the Wetterlings will continue the porch-light campaign this October, but each day we should all “leave the light on” for children missing or living in fear and shame.
Stay Safe, and Be Your Brothers’ Keeper,