Jacob Wetterling was taken one fall day in 1989. A masked man wielding a gun spared Wetterling's brother and another boy, and took the 11-year-old Jacob.
Police and volunteer searching, along with the pleas of his parents, have not produced any hard evidence about Wetterling or his abductor in the 26 years since that day. Tips accumulated, and police chased various leads. None led anywhere.
Thursday brought the long-awaited but still sudden news of a break in the case. Authorities announced they have found evidence that connects an Annandale man suspected of child pornography possession to Wetterling's abduction. Daniel James Heinrich has been charged with possession of child pornography.
But other darker charges might be coming. A hair sample from Heinrich links him to the abduction and sexual assault of another boy in early 1989, the Star Tribune reports, but the state's statute of limitations on that case has already passed. There is, however, no time limit on charges of homicide, and investigators are actively pursuing a case that could tie Heinrich to Wetterling's disappearance.
Tire-marks from a truck Heinrich owned are consistent with those found near the scene, and shoe-prints are similarly consistent. At the moment, Heinrich is merely considered a "person of interest." He has consistently denied playing any role in the case that rocked a family and unnerved a country, eventually leading to the creation of the nation's first-ever sex offender registry.
We dug into our archives to unearth a story that speaks to the desperation the cops and the Wetterling family felt in the months after the crime. As detailed in the story, printed in a December 1989 issue of the Twin Cities Reader, Iowa police conducted an extensive search of 25 miles of roads outside the town of Horton. They were acting on a request from the family, which was, in turn, following a suggestion volunteered by a psychic based in New York City.
The Wetterlings said they had received more than 100 such tips from purported visionaries after their son's disappearance, but the pitch from the New Yorker seemed more plausible, because she had picked a location near Mason City, where Jerry Wetterling, Jacob's father, had lived.
"There seemed to be some connection," said Jacob's mom, Patty Wetterling, adding that "Everyone was willing to do something — anything — to help, so we decided to check it out."
Of course that search turned up nothing. But even then, Patty Wetterling was graceful about the failure to find her boy.
"At least they found he wasn't there," she said.
The Wetterlings released a statement last night saying they had no additional information to offer, and knew only what investigators had announced. They asked for time to react, and gather their thoughts. As always, they sought help:
"For 26 long years, we have said that somebody knows something," their statement reads. "If you know anything about this man, his ties to St. Joseph in 1989 and his victimization of children, please call the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department at 320-259-3742."
Below, read an abridged version of Glen Warchol's story in the Twin Cities reader, documenting how desperation drove the Wetterlings and investigators to seek help in Jacob's and other cases that seemed similarly unsolvable.
Faced with baffling cases — including the Jacob Wetterling abduction — police run down any leads they can get, including those provided by people with "second sight." But are cops following psychic trails just kidding themselves — and us?
By Glen Warchol
Twin Cities Reader, Dec. 5, 1989
In the desperate search for Jacob Wetterling, every investigative method from FBI psychological profiles to horseback searches has been tried without success. Investigators have even checked out a controversial source of leads: psychics.
In mid-November, police in Mason City, Iowa, combed a 25-mile stretch of rural road outside the town of Horton, Iowa, hoping to find some sign of the 11-year-old boy. The search was requested by the Wetterling family after a New York psychic told them she had seen a vision of Jacob along that road.
A masked gunman kidnapped 11-year-old Jacob at gunpoint October 22 while the boy was bicycling home from a St. Joseph, Minnesota convenience store with his brother and a friend. Since then, a meticulously coordinated search and a nationwide appeal — including mailings of tens of thousands of posters and the letter 'J' appearing on the back of a World Series batting helmet — have uncovered no trace of the boy.
The Iowa search was the first, and likely the last, psychic tip to be followed up in the case, says Jacob's mother, Patty Wetterling. "We've heard from more than 100 psychics, but we couldn't follow up on them all. This was different because they had a specific location. And everyone [in the Mason City area] was willing to do something — anything — to help, so we decided to check it out."
Searchers from four counties and the Iowa State Police took part in the search of farmhouses and sheds along the road. They found nothing.
"At least they found that he wasn't there," Patty Wetterling says.
Among the 14,000-plus fragments of information fed into a computer at the Wetterling case command post in St. Joseph are the contents of calls and letters from self-proclaimed psychics claiming to be tuned into channels available not even to the FBI.
Patty Wetterling says the Iowa psychic tip piqued their interest because her husband, Jerry Wetterling, lived in Mason City before he attended college. "There seemed to be some connection."
FBI spokesman Byron Gigler says investigators check out psychic information as they would check out any of the thousands of tips, but that clairovyant leads have been no help in finding Wetterling. The FBI has no specific policy on dealing with psychic information, Gigler says, but "We're not seeking them [psychics] out."
Kathleen Corley, a Hastings psychic, says she has been called by an investigator close to the Wetterling case. Corley says she isn't free to detail her participation beyond saying she has gotten psychic images that two men and a woman are involved in the abduction; that the phrase "flowers for Joe" is somehow important; and that there is some connection with "upstate New York" and an abandoned farmhouse in Wisconsin.
Corley lives with her family at the end of several miles of washboard road in the rolling hills outside Hastings. Dressed in a white linen suit that sets off her long, raven-black hair and dangling silver earrings, she's everything you'd ask for in a seer. The sweet smell of incense is in the air, and cats are sprawled everywhere in the somehow disappointingly bright and cheerful home.
"It's a knowing inside. I know who I am. I know what I can do," the 46-year-old psychic says. She was born with the gift of psychic vision and prophecy — her Irish grandmother shared it. Corley says she uses it to help police investigators as far away as Georgia.
The "impressions" come to her in visual form, Corley says. She will see something that can be compared to an ordinary mental image (take a second to visualize a familiar face), except that Corley has no control over when or what images appear. And Corley's psychic eye sees violent things that in some cases haven't even't happened yet.
"I don't go into a trance. I don't say spirits are talking to me," Corley says of her ability. "I just pass along what I see."
She says her powers work best with visually oriented people: "They've already sent a picture out and I can pick it up."
On one occasion, Corley tracked the psychic energy of a prostitute's murderer through the Minneapolis bars he frequented.
"When the fear sets in, it's hard to follow them," she says, "because their thoughts are jumpin' all around."
Corley admits she's also used more banal investigative techniques, such as calling and questioning people who are involved — people who weren't particularly happy to hear from her. She also sometimes picks up impressions of unrelated wrongdoings that families would rather the authorities not know.
"It's not a vindictive thing. I'm neutral. I'm just relating what I pick up," Corley says.
The involvement of psychics has long been common in missing-persons cases and unsolved murders. But Robert Hicks, a criminal justice analyst with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, says the police relying on psychics, even as a last resort, is a wasteful policy rooted in ignorance. Hicks, one of the few law enforcement professionals who has researched the shadowy area of cop psychics, argues that the self-proclaimed "psychic detectives" or "visionary detectives' are a waste of investigators' time and taxpayers' money.
"They seem to show up when there's a particularly gruesome case, especially when there's been a lot of publicity surrounding it," Hicks says. "They never seem to get involved in minor crimes."
At the same time, Hicks admits it's almost impossible for police to dismiss tips from the occult out of hand. In checking out the psychic tips, he says, they waste money and steal time from the basic work necessary to solve the crime.
"If you're an investigator and someone walks in the door and offers you information, even if you're the most skeptical person in the world, you've got to give them five minutes," Hicks says.
In the past several years, Kathleen Corley has conferred with Minnesota police officers on murders, dismemberments, suicides, and missing-persons cases. Officers say that working with her was strange at first, but not as bad as they feared because she doesn't do weird things like holding seances or spinning off into trances.
"Police like to be able to give you feedback," Corley says. "They like to hear it from my mouth."
Some departments don't like to admit they worked with her, and others turn down cold her offers of information, Corley says.
"Sometimes I get shut off. I think egos get in the way," Corley says. "St. Paul [Police Department] is the rudest.
"I'm not afraid of ridicule. I accept it. I like to work with skeptics," Corley says.
Corley worked with Sgt. Kevin Dale of the Spring Lake Park Police Department on the 1987 disappearance of Michelle Mace.
"She contacted us," Dale says. "She assessed the scene and gave us what she felt." Dale says Corley told investigators Mace was dead and that her body was lying near her car, in a shed or building behind a "trap-door thing."
"As far as the disposition [of the body], she was right on the money," Dale says. Three months after the 24-year-old disappeared, a maintenance worker found Mace's body — by chance — next to her car, in a windowless garage, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Police found a note in Mace's car, and the death was ruled a suicide. But Corley maintained from the beginning that the woman was murdered and has a strong impression of who did it. She still does.
"The way things came down, it was ruled a suicide," Dale says. "But [Corley] was accurate to just about everything else."
Lt. Ralph Shingledecker of the Dakota Count Sheriff's Office says he has discussed unsolved cases with Corley. Because the cases are technically active, he declines to discuss details on the record.
"Kathy calls up about once every six months if she has something," Shingledecker says. "We have certainly followed up on anything she has told us. But we haven't solved the cases. Some of the things she said could have been real.
"Psychics are a different world from police. We deal with facts and reality. They deal with visions. The general consensus in the department is we don't seek out psychics. The psychics come to us in the department and tell us what they see and we check it out."
But Shingledecker knows of no case solved by Corley or any other psychic.
"I would listen to anyone who comes in to tell me anything that might apply to a case,. You know real soon if they have anything worth looking into," Shingledecker says. "I'm not going to turn down anything."
As desperate as the search for Jacob Wetterling has become, Patty Wetterling hasn't lost her pragmatic feel for the investigation. She agreed to the Mason City search only because it wouldn't have pulled any personnel away from the Minnesota investigation.
"With 14,000 pieces of information, they [investigators] don't need psychic dreams," she says. "I don't rule out that someone has a dream or vision about Jacob that is accurate, but it would take a separate investigation to figure out which one. Personally, I would rather stick with the police."