Local law enforcement officials discuss changes in child safety since Wetterling abduction
Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman remembers learning of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction in 1989 while stationed in Germany during his service with U.S. Air Force Security Police. His family had called him from his southern Minnesota hometown for a weekly check-in when they informed him that the 11-year-old boy had disappeared nearby in St. Joseph.
“I remember that the whole region never gave up hope that Jacob would be found alive and that he was out there somewhere,” Pohlman said. “I found that amazing.”
The 27-year-old mystery of Jacob’s fate was laid to rest last week when Danny Heinrich, who had been a person of interest in the case, admitted in court to abducting, assaulting and murdering the boy the day he disappeared.
Although this conclusion presented a tragic contrast to the hope for Jacob’s return home, the case catalyzed a shift in how parents, law enforcement and legislators address the safety of children.
Patty and Jerry Wetterling established the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center in the years following their son’s abduction to educate the public about child abductions and how to stop them.
The organization has advocated for policies to address abduction, including a federal law requiring sex offenders to register with the state. They also helped launch the Amber Alert plan in Minnesota to distribute critical information regarding missing children.
“I think the Jacob Wetterling case really brought home the scariness of the reality that we live amongst people who don’t have our best interest or our children’s best interest in mind,” said Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin. “It was a big wake-up call. There are people today who still think that parents or law enforcement overreact, and I really don’t think that is the case. I think we need to be that vigilant.”
The impact of Jacob’s abduction resurfaced in Goodhue County when 3-year-old Jessica Swanson was reported missing from her Cannon Falls home in 1995. McNurlin described a “no-holds-barred” approach to the search for the little girl, which involved volunteers, law enforcement and fire departments combing the area and dragging the river.
When these efforts failed to reveal evidence, law enforcement looked to Dale Jenson, the boyfriend of Jessica’s mother. Jenson was later convicted of manslaughter four years later after leading investigators to Jessica’s remains, which he had wrapped in a sheet and discarded in a wooded area.
“Years ago, the response would have been different: they would have looked and looked and looked, but it would have taken us longer to come to the conclusion that something nefarious happened,” McNurlin said.
“We realized within the first two hours of that call that there was something not right, and that’s partly driven by how we approach these things now.”
Education is key
Nightmarish instances like Jacob’s abduction can provoke fear and feelings of helplessness, but Pohlman and McNurlin agree that awareness can empower both parents and children.
Pohlman says he stresses three key components to safety in courses he teaches on crime prevention and public safety:
•Be aware of your surroundings. Smartphones continue to enhance how people connect with one another and access information, but Pohlman says technology can also create a dangerous distraction.
While serving on the police force in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Pohlman helped investigate the murder of Dru Sjodin, a college student who was attacked in her car while she talked to her boyfriend on a cellphone.
“Everybody’s got their head in an iPhone, and they’re not aware of people coming up on them and closing that distance,” he said. “Normally, by the time it’s too late, they’ve allowed that person to close in on them and be right on top of them.”
•Talk to your children.“One of the reasons that these predators are successful is they intimidate children,” Pohlman said. “They tell the child their parents won’t love them anymore for letting this happen to them, or they’ll tell the child, ‘I’m going to kill your parents if you tell them anything.’”
Although conversations about abuse and violence can be hard to approach, Pohlman encourages parents to remind children that they will always love them, that they never have to be afraid to tell them anything and that they can overcome whatever happens together.
•Trust your instincts. The feeling of something not being quite right is often a response to things you consciously or subconsciously recognize as inappropriate or out of place. Although McNurlin said the ‘Minnesota nice’ upbringing encourages people in this region to avoid conflict, he encourages communities to follow the “if you see something, say something” ethos.
“The person who makes the phone call is going to be relieved if it turns out to be nothing,” he said. “But in the worst situation in which you didn’t say something and your instinct was true and that person really is someone nefarious that shouldn’t have been there and, God forbid, something happened, you’d feel horrible that you didn’t make that phone call.”
He said phone calls regarding suspicious situations, such as someone behaving strangely around children, often help his department apprehend individuals who aren’t supposed to be near children.