Rita Reker is the person Patty Wetterling hoped never to become. Her two daughters, Mary, 15, and Susanne, 12, left home on foot to buy school supplies on Labor Day 1974 and didn't return. They were found 26 days later by two teenage boys, stabbed to death in a quarry. "Those were the most horrendous days of our lives," said Reker, who had six children with her husband, Fred, an ordained Catholic deacon, who has died. She lives in the same house in St. Cloud that she did in the 1970s.
"Things like this just weren't supposed to happen around here," she said. "It was a very rare crime." Fred and Rita had a hard time getting the case taken seriously by the St. Cloud Police Department, which believed the girls had simply run away, and later the Stearns County Sheriff's Office, which was in the middle of an election. "It just seemed we couldn't move the powers that be," Reker said. So family members searched on their own. "We were very frustrated at that time and angry about the whole thing."
There have been several suspects over the decades, but the crimes remain unsolved. "It happened so many years ago," said Reker, who was 38 when her daughters were killed. "And, in some ways, it's like yesterday. But most of the time, it's like 41 years have gone by, and it's still unsolved. We have worked with, I think, four sheriffs during this time. We worked with multiple investigators over the years who started their career and ended it and new ones come on."
When Jacob Wetterling was abducted in October 1989, Reker — who eventually used the reward money offered in her daughters' cases to co-found a Tri-County Crime Stoppers program — went to the Wetterling home to lend support. She stood at the end of the driveway, but Jacob's mother, Patty, didn't want to speak to her at the time. "She taught me so much," Patty Wetterling recalled. "But one of first things she taught me was to be really careful when you approach another family. I didn't want to talk to Rita. Her kids were murdered and they had never solved it. ... I didn't want to be thinking murder."
Reker sympathized with that response. "We knew if he wasn't found quickly, this was going to be a long haul for them," she said. "We had walked in those shoes, so we knew what they were facing. Our case was very high profile, also. And living in the area, they knew our case very well and I'm sure that the last thing they wanted to think of was that this might happen to them. They had such hope to find Jacob, in those early days especially.
She still holds on to hope for her daughters' cases. "I guess somewhere within me, I keep thinking that before I die, I'd like to see this solved." In a sense, Reker wants to be with Mary and Susanne in the moments of their deaths, to know exactly what happened and why. "I'm the only voice left for my children," she said. "They have no voice to speak anymore, and I do. As long as I'm alive, I will."