A series of high-profile cases — the abduction of 6-year-old Etan Patz in New York, the murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh in Florida, and the disappearance of 12-year-old Johnny Gosch in West Des Moines — created a public uproar.
People began to fear that pedophiles were lurking around every corner, waiting to snatch unsuspecting children whose parents were looking the other way.
Momentum built to do something. Congress acted. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was founded. Faces appeared on milk cartons. And the public's morbid fascination with stranger abductions only grew.
Then, in 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped while returning from a store with his brother and his best friend outside a seemingly idyllic small town. The country went crazy. Jacob's mother, Patty, received piles of letters from kids relaying horrible stories of violence and abuse. Lawmakers approached her, wondering what they could do. She told them what she had heard from investigators: It would be useful for the police to have the names and addresses of everyone in an area who had committed a sex crime.
A handful of states had offender registries already, but there was no national registry. Nor was there a requirement that all states build and keep registries. The 1994 Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act created just such a requirement. But that was only the beginning. Over the years, the notion of keeping track of sex offenders has grown into something much larger and harsher. The Wetterling Act opened the door to a nationwide crackdown.
In 1996, a new law mandated that the police go beyond tracking offenders and notify communities of their presence. In 2006, yet another law expanded the list of crimes that could land a person on a registry and required the most serious offenders to remain registered for life. Most recently, President Obama signed yet another law mandating that the passports of some sex offenders be particularly marked.
Today, sex offenders are treated like hazardous waste, like toxic people to be kept as far from others as possible. In many places, they may not live near schools or parks or daycare centers. In Miami, these restrictions mean they sleep in their cars in a remote parking lot.
Even Patty Wetterling now thinks registries — set in motion with the abduction of her son 27 years ago — have gone too far.
"There's a false sense that these are the bad guys."
Sex-offender registries: How the Wetterling abduction changed the country
After Jacob Wetterling was abducted in 1989, a pastor named Thomas Gillespie of the St. Joseph Parish offered support and comfort to the Wetterling family. He invited them to dinner, opened the church for a community prayer service and presented them with hot cross buns at Easter. What the Wetterlings did not know at the time was that Gillespie was a sex offender who admitted molesting a boy in the 1970s and was finally removed from the ministry in 1996.
"He showed up on their list of perpetrators years later," Jacob's mother, Patty Wetterling, said of the pastor who inserted himself into their lives. "I felt so betrayed. How could he do that? I mean, he knew our pain. He knew our journey .... He'd bring kids out to swim at the racquetball club. I think he had his pilot's license. He'd take kids out flying. He seemed like this genuinely nice person who was doing good things for kids. And it was so sad to know some of these kids were being victimized."
Child kidnappings that captured our attention
The stereotypical kidnapping of a child by a stranger is vanishingly rare, accounting for less than 1 percent of all missing child cases. When the crimes do happen, they make an impact, tapping into some of the public's greatest fears and insecurities.
These are the cases in the past century and a half that made headlines and sometimes led to significant changes in law.
Heinrich fit the mold
There is surprisingly little data about child abductions. Police agencies are not required to report them to the FBI, and many studies use different definitions of what a child abduction entails. One Justice Department study estimated that in 1999 there were between 60 and 170 "stereotypical kidnappings" in the United States, that is, children taken by a stranger and transported more than 50 miles, detained overnight, held for ransom, intended to be kept permanently or killed.
But one study has tackled the question in further depth, and the patterns it found fit in many ways with the Jacob Wetterling killing.
In an effort to provide more useful information to law enforcement agencies, the Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Washington state attorney general have been sponsoring a long-running data collection. Started in the 1990s and updated in 2006, the study has looked specifically at child abduction murders, setting out to help the police solve such cases. It is being updated again under the direction of Katherine Brown, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Tarleton State University in Fort Worth, Texas.
Researchers collected data from 833 cases in 44 states involving 227 police agencies from 1968 to 2002.
The study, titled the Case Management for Missing Children Homicide Investigation, documented between 40 and 150 cases of child abduction murder each year, less than 0.5 percent of all murders.
Brown and her fellow researchers considered the findings important because they indicate that one of the most important steps that investigators can take is an immediate canvass of the neighborhood. Moving about the neighborhood and interviewing neighbors can reveal witnesses and details that will help investigators home in on a suspect.
Danny Heinrich, the man who admitted abducting and killing Jacob Wetterling nearly 27 years ago, fit this pattern in a number of ways.
- He was 26, near the median age of killers.
- He testified he chose the three boys because the opportunity presented itself, as opposed to targeting someone.
- There may have been "unknowing witnesses" who saw Heinrich's car the night of the abduction.
- He killed Jacob within hours of the abduction.
- He sexually assaulted Jacob before killing him, and he had a history of sexually assaulting other children.
Help available for sex abuse victims
Counseling and other help is available if you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted or abused.
- The Minnesota Department of Health's list of resources for anyone who has been sexually abused or assaulted, including contacts for counseling, prevention, and intervention services.
- The U.S. Department of Justice's guidelines for what to do if you are a victim of sexual abuse or assault or if you know someone who is, including practical advice, hotline contacts, and other resources.
- The National Child Abuse Hotline, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, run by Childhelp, a longstanding advocacy organization, providing confidential crisis counseling and service referrals in more than 100 languages.
- The National Sexual Assault Hotline, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, run by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, anonymously linking callers to counselors at the nearest crisis center.
Rowan Moore Gerety
Feedback and support
We're interested in hearing about the impact of APM Reports programs. Has one of our documentaries or investigations changed how you think about an issue? Has it led you to do something, like start a conversation or try to do something new in your community? Share your impact story.
Your financial support helps keep APM Reports going strong. Consider making a tax-deductible donation today.