In the dark, before moonrise on Oct. 22, 1989, three boys rode home on bikes and a scooter after renting a video of The Naked Gun at a Tom Thumb store in St. Joseph, Minn. Carrying a flashlight and reflective gear, they drifted along a dead-end road that connected a cul-de-sac of houses to town, their biggest concern that they might be hit by a car.
On a deserted stretch, near a winding farm driveway, a man dressed in black with his face covered, perhaps by pantyhose, stepped into the road with a gun. In a voice that sounded like he had a cold, he forced the boys to the ground in a ditch. He asked each of them their ages and grabbed one in the crotch. The man told two of the boys to run toward the nearby woods without looking back, which they did. And then he vanished, virtually without a trace, with the third boy, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling.
For nearly 27 years, what happened after the boys ran for the woods remained a mystery, as fathomless as the black sky that night.
The case led to one of the most expansive searches for a child in U.S. history. The story of Jacob and his tearful, stunned parents sparked outrage and sensational publicity. The latest in a string of high-profile abductions, the case brought demands for action, made parents more vigilant and led to laws requiring states to keep lists of sex offenders, launching the very framework used today to monitor and notify the public about offenders.
The abduction also brought dramatic consequences for the people of Stearns County, a largely Catholic, overwhelmingly white, and sometimes secretive swath of towns, cities and farmland northwest of the Twin Cities. Neighbor turned against neighbor, sprouting conspiracy theories and possibly a murder. Various people found themselves swept up in the investigation, including gropers, priests, pornographers and a farmer and music teacher, their lives forever changed.
At the center of this maelstrom was the Stearns County Sheriff's Office, which for nearly three decades has led the investigation into Jacob's abduction. In that time, the case has been handed down from investigator to investigator and from sheriff to sheriff, each newcomer confronted by an enormous pile of bank boxes full of reports and a trail of clues grown ever fainter with time.
The bedrock public presumption about the Wetterling case is that the sheriff's office, along with other law enforcement agencies, did all it could to find Jacob. And while it's true that many officers worked long hours and followed tens of thousands of leads, a close look at the quality of that investigation reveals a different story--one that has not been told.
For the past 27 years, the police, the family and the public have been asking, "Where's Jacob?" Now that his remains have been found, the question becomes, "Why did it take so long?" APM Reports, with reporter Madeleine Baran, explores that question with "In the Dark."
The abduction of Jacob Wetterling, which made parents more vigilant and led to the first national requirement that states track sex offenders via registries, took place before moonrise on a warm October night in 1989. → Episode 1: The Crime