I was only ten years old when the news of the Jacob Wetterling case broke. Like Jacob, I lived in a rural area of Minnesota near a fairly sizeable city. Even at the relatively young age of ten, I knew what abduction meant. To be frank, as I heard the somewhat sketchy details become public, the idea of a kid close to my age being abducted scared the shit out of me.
That's what child predators, child abusers, rapists and other cellar dwellers of society thrive on is fear. If you have confidence and feel safe, those who prey on other can catch you off guard. If you live in fear, the abusers, murderers and rapists win. It's truly a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario.
The basic idea of that scenario came to light for me a few years after the abduction of Jacob Wetterling. I remember that my parents, and probably every other parent across the country, became extra vigilant. Stranger danger was no joking matter. The eerie tale of an adult male abducting a nearly teenage boy in the very state I lived in struck fear in me. I was scared. Suddenly we were told in school to be on the lookout for strangers. Schools – those buildings where you were supposed to be safe from the evils of the outside world – weren't even safe any longer.
As I aged, though, a good portion of that fear left me. Once I reached the final year of middle school I felt safer. The disheartening tale of the abduction in the fall of 1989 near St. Cloud, MN faded from my memory. But for the Wetterling family it never left. It became their mark on the world. They never forgot about the son they lost – and in recent years it came back into my world.
As I had children of my own, I recalled that sense of vigilance my own parents instilled in me as a ten year-old. The fact that one of the worst people on Earth has confessed to the abduction and murder of Jacob Wetterling closes a very dark chapter for the Wetterling family and likely for the entire generation who grew up in the aftermath of his abduction. What it has done, though, lives on forever.
We teach our own children to be aware of strangers – to not talk to them or get in a vehicle with them or even leave a "safe area" with a stranger. Our neighborhood is safe – at least in our eyes – and the parents know each other. Our children roam from home to home in the summer months and play with each other but even when the children aren't within our range of vision, I still wander closer and listen for their giggles and playful screams. I pay attention to vehicles which drive through our area of town and pay attention to that vehicle which is going too slowly or paying too much attention to one thing or another.
I guess that those lessons instilled in all of us after the abduction of Jacob Wetterling have stuck with us. Maybe fear didn't win out after all. Maybe the Wetterling family can finally have some closure after that terrible tragedy in 1989 that made every neighborhood seem less safe. Maybe justice will finally be served. Maybe.