'In the Dark,' the story of Jacob Wetterling, is your next true crime podcast obsession

Jacob Wetterling was abducted in 1989, and his story has haunted parents in Minnesota and across America ever since.

Jacob Wetterling was abducted in 1989, and his story has haunted parents in Minnesota and across America ever since.

The Wetterling case was always at the back of Madeleine Baran's mind.

Even as she worked on an enormous project unearthing dark secrets of the local Catholic church, a series of stories that would change her career, Baran couldn't help her curiosity. From time to time in the course of her church investigation, the Minnesota Public Radio reporter would come across something about Jacob Wetterling, the 11-year-old boy missing since his kidnapping in 1989.

Baran started keeping a Wetterling file. The file grew.

It took years before she could come up for air from the clergy abuse investigation. When she did, Baran decided she wanted to retell Wetterling's story. But how? 

By fall of 2015, there was a sudden surge of interest in Wetterling's case, with a new person of interest in investigator's sights. At the same time, a revolution in storytelling was sweeping the airwaves. Or the wireless internet, anyway. 

Last November, Baran and the newly minted team of American Public Media Reports, began looking into Wetterling's 27-year-old case. Their reporting was driven by questions that still haunted the central Minnesotans who lived in the tragedy's shadow.

Why hadn't anyone found Jacob? Or his abductor? What went wrong?

The story behind those answers will be told in In The Dark, a weekly, serialized podcast launching on September 13. For an audio experience, Baran says the podcast format might be the only way to tell a story like Wetterling's, with its expanding web of characters stretched out over a quarter-century. 

"The story has so many interesting characters, and plots, and twists and turns, that it's hard for me to imagine this story being done responsibly another way," she says.

Baran adds: "With radio, there are a lot of reminders you have to do — 'This is the Wetterling case' — and you have to do that every time. With a podcast, once you get started, you just go for it and tell the story."

APM Reports has posted a short preview of the series (already available for subscription in iTunes), with Baran promising that the team's reporting unearthed facts that surprised even her.

Baran spoke with City Pages about the series, and offered insight into their work and a few details about their findings. Very few. For the rest, you'll just have to listen.

City Pages: A lot of people probably know what happened to Jacob Wetterling, or they know what's available to them. What about learning about him, as a person? Do you know now, better, who he was? 

Madeleine Baran: I think so, yes. That was a very important part for me, to make sure that I understood and conveyed that. I think you'll hear that in the podcast. One of the things that happens when a case gets the kind of news coverage that the Wetterling case has gotten for so long is, people start thinking about "the Wetterling case," "the Wetterling investigation."

It's easy to lose sight of the fact that this is someone's child. This is a person. And what was he like when he was a kid? I mean, he was just 11 when he was kidnapped. So, we'll definitely talk about that.

CP: There was a good deal of national fallout from the Wetterling abduction. Can you describe that, some of what changed, because of this case?

Baran: The Wetterling case led directly to a federal law. It's actually even named after Jacob, the Jacob Wetterling Act. That law was passed in 1994, as part of the federal crime bill. It requires all states to mantain a registry of sex offenders. So, that moment in time can be traced back to this case in Minnesota. That decision, when you look at where we're at with that in this country — there are hundreds of thousands of people on registries. Not just from the Jacob Wetterling Act, but the momentum to do something about sex offenders continued to build. And we ended up with the situation we have now, with hundreds of thousands of people on registries. 

CP: How much access did you get to people involved? Did you find that people still want to discuss this?

Baran: I talked to a lot of people for this story, including people who I don't think have been talked to before, or not talked to in very much depth. I've been working on this for about nine months. One of the benefits of working on something so long is you're able to reach out to a lot more people to talk to, than you would be able to on a shorter piece.

CP: This was a big commitment for a story that, a lot of people would have thought, has already been told. Why did you think it needed to be reexamined in this way?

Baran: It's a very consequential case. It's had a huge impact on, of course, the lives of the Wetterling family, their friends, and their community, St. Joseph, and all of Minnesota. But it's also affected federal law, and led to the expansion of federal law on these sex offender registries. For me, when I heard about the Wetterling case, I assumed certain things about it. When I started looking into it, and I realized some of the basic facts of what happened, it made me very curious as to why this case wouldn't have been solved. 

When I was reporting on the Archdiocese, in my spare time, I started reporting on this case. I was intrigued to find that this had happened on a dead end road, that this happened in a town of 3,000 people, that the police got there very quickly. I wondered, why, when you look at all those things together, hasn't this case been solved? I didn't live in Minnesota at the time Jacob went missing, so I don't have the experience a lot of Minnesotans have of the case. So that's why I was interested. Madeline Baran and a team of reporters and producers spent nine months researching the Wetterling case and producing the new "In the Dark" podcast.

Once I was done with [the Archdiocese story], I took a look at this, and decided it was worth looking into. The more I found out, it was clear this was worth spending a significant amount of time on. It's important to hold law enforcement accountable when they can't solve a case. It's important to understand why a case hasn't been solved, whether there were things that could've been done differently.

As an investigative reporter, my interest is in looking at decisions made by people in powerful institutions and examing them...and holding them accountable for what they did do — and certainly, they did do a lot in this case — but also, what they didn't do.

CP: Any true crime podcast is going to get compared to Serial. Are there things they did that you wanted to emulate, or are there things that you wanted to learn from and not do?

Baran: I definitely really enjoyed listening to Serial, and I think what Serial has done is show that there is this big audience of people that's willing to spend some serious time listening to in-depth reporting. I think that's been great for everbody who's doing serious storytelling in audio. I think one thing we're doing that's different than Serial is, we're not setting out to solve the case. We're looking at why it hasn't been solved. So, our frame of reference going into it is significantly different, and I think people will hear that, when they listen.

CP: That kind of storytelling has different production, in the way it uses sound, music, silence, even, that makes it different from a radio story. How do those things add to the storytelling experience?

Baran: That's one of the great things about the podcast format. You have a lot more ability to take longer with stories, and experiment, and have stories of different lengths. Samara Freemark is an amazing producer, and [associate producer] Natalie Jablonski has been fantastic as well. Getting to work with them to create something that's really sound-rich, that doesn't sound like a news story, has been a big part of this.

What we're really doing is entering into this other world, this world of the abduction, the world of the area there, at the time, what happened in the investigation there, what it was like to be an investigator on the case. All of that. It helps to have so many voices, and additional sound, and really draw people in.

CP: To people outside this state, this story will probably have a lot of appeal because they might just barely remember the name Jacob Wetterling. For people who live in Minnesota and think, 'I know that story,' what's an argument you would make for why they should tune in for this version?

Baran: I can't give anything specific to you, but I can assure you that there are many, many new things in this podcast, that I don't think most people will have heard about before. They were certainly quite surprising to me when I found them out, and changed how I looked at the entire case. I would just urge people to listen. It is an investigation that took all kinds of turns into very interesting areas, areas that offer substantially new information from what people already know.

This isn't a rehashing of the information that's already out there, that people in Minnesota know. This is something very different from that. And I can't get into it, but I just have to hope that people listen, and believe us, when we say that.