Patty Wetterling questions sex offender laws

The outspoken activist has a change of heart over the wide-reaching scope of laws she helped put into action

Patty was shocked. "Who would do that?" she thought. "Who would ever think of sexually violating a child?"

The sheriff's office worked with a correctional facility in nearby St. Cloud to catalog recently released sex offenders and painstakingly created a database detailing where they lived to track them down for questioning.

By January 1990, the number of leads had dwindled and the FBI withdrew most of the agents it had assigned to investigate Jacob's abduction. Even so, his family remained hopeful. They poured their energy into keeping him in the public's awareness. It wasn't until about a year after his disappearance that Patty began to think beyond her immediate desperation to find her son and mustered some energy to try to help others.

"My feelings for Patty are very warm, but I think she's wrong," says Marc Klaas, whose 11-year-old daughter was abducted and murdered
courtesy of Klaas
"My feelings for Patty are very warm, but I think she's wrong," says Marc Klaas, whose 11-year-old daughter was abducted and murdered

She'd been ruminating about the database of local sex offenders the police had compiled, and how helpful they said such a resource would have been immediately after the abduction to enable them to quickly locate and rule out suspects. Patty felt certain that the database was a valuable law enforcement tool that shouldn't be filed away in some dusty cabinet. In fact, she thought there should be something similar for police to access wherever a child is abducted.

Around that time, Gov. Rudy Perpich asked Patty to serve on a task force examining the problem of child abduction and exploitation in Minnesota. Cordelia Anderson, an expert on child sexual abuse prevention, was appointed to the same task force and remembers feeling amazed at how Wetterling was able to separate her emotion from public policy decisions.

"Despite the extreme characteristics of Jacob's case, which play into the scariest stereotype and are very, very rare, she somehow quickly went to trying to educate herself," Anderson says.

Half a dozen states already had sex offender registries, and in accordance with one of the task force's recommendations, Wetterling helped craft legislation that would implement one in Minnesota based on what was working elsewhere. Accessible only to law enforcement, it would carefully distinguish between offenders based on the number of offenses, victim's age, degree of violence, and amenability to treatment. It wasn't long after the state law passed in 1991 that Wetterling turned her sights on implementing something similar on the federal level, with powerful allies including former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger.

Senator Durenberger was from St. Cloud, four miles from where the Wetterlings lived, so the abduction had struck close to home for him. It was a matter of days after hearing about it on the news that he had driven over to meet the family for the first time and offer whatever help he could.

"There's nothing like coming into the middle of a tragedy that doesn't have an easy answer," he recalled. "Everybody is going, 'What can we do?'"

Durenberger stayed in contact with the family, dropping by every so often to slip a supportive note in their mailbox, and he eventually led the effort to pass federal legislation requiring every state to maintain a sex offender registry accessible to law enforcement, and to regularly verify offenders' addresses for 10 years to life depending on the severity of their crimes.

Although Durenberger was out of the Senate when the law finally passed in 1994, he regarded it as a victory.

"Patty started the movement," Durenberger says. "Just a few people had the nerve to get out ahead of the problem and try to come up with a solution that could apply across the country. This was happening one kid at a time, one family at a time. If it had a potential preventable cause, than we ought to deal with it legislatively if we could. That was the imperative."

At the time, registration wasn't seen as a panacea for the problem of sexual abuse, nor a scarlet letter to be pinned on all sex offenders. As far as Wetterling was concerned, the registry was just something that would make it easier for the police to locate former offenders.

"I think [she] intended for registration to fill a gap in public safety," Anderson says. "The whole movement to register juveniles or to lump all who commit any kind of offense into something they can never in their lifetime shake was not the intent. I don't think anybody foresaw that it would turn into what it's become."

In 2008, Wetterling received a missive in the mail. "My name is Ricky and I'm a 19-year-old Registered Sex Offender," it began:

"One night, when I was only 16, I met a girl at a teen club who told me she was almost 16, and we hit it off. She and I dated for a few weeks, but because of some issues at home, she ran away. The friend she was staying with told her to tell the police we had sex, and that she was too scared to go home because she was pregnant. When questioned by the police, I told the truth, I said "yes we had sex twice." The police informed me she was only 13. I was charged with two felony counts of Sexual Abuse 3rd degree and tried as an adult. Now because of the laws regarding the age of consent I am a Registered Sex Offender. Things for me, as well as my family, have changed dramatically and our lives have been shattered."

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