ST. CLOUD, Minn. – For nearly 27 years, they've represented the hope of their lost friend.
But now that Jacob Wetterling has finally come home, his former classmates and friends find themselves redefining their roles – while also still trying to process the revelations related to their friend's fate.
"We all were Jacob's hope for 27 years. And so what are we now?" said Jona Deavel, one of Jacob's friends.
Sixteen of Wetterling's closest classmates gathered at the same St. Cloud school they attended with Jacob back in 1989. The group shared their journey with KARE 11, from the beginning all the way to the last tumultuous months.
And the conversation started with remembering the 11-year-old friend the rest of the state knows as the boy in the yellow sweater.
"I would describe him as kind. Friend. And welcoming," said Kristi Pink, who lived in Jacob's neighborhood.
"That epitomizes Jacob. No bias. Just always there. Very friendly," added Wes Karls, whose locker was also close to Jacob's.
"Very mature and wise beyond his years. Which is always interesting to us," said Bill Schirmers, who also grew up near Jacob's home.
DEFINING MOMENT OF THEIR CHILDHOOD
Everyone in the group of 16 remembers where they were the night of Oct. 22, 1989 – the night a masked man grabbed their friend from a dirt road only a quarter-mile from his home in St. Joseph, Minn.
"I woke up to helicopter sounds," Schirmers recalled, with everyone audibly agreeing they, too, heard the helicopters.
"Just thinking that someone took him?" recalled Tina Hemmesch about the initial shock of losing her friend, who also happened to be her locker buddy.
"It happened near Halloween, and I remember asking my parents, are they going to save his Halloween candy for when he gets back," said Charles Killmer, who'd been friends with Wetterling since kindergarten.
Those childhood questions represented a transformative period, when the group says they channeled their pain into trying to make a difference – trying to bring their friend home.
"It's interesting, if you look back at 6th grade, I don't think I can tell you one thing that I learned that year. But I can tell you everything that we did to bring him home. Because that's what our focus was that entire year," Deavel said.
"I thought they did a really good job of focusing not on the fear and trying to just focus on the hope and what could be," added Ryan Kelley, Jacob's friend, about the support from their parents and community.
But all along – and even despite their coordinated efforts to find Jacob – the friends also acknowledge his abduction changed their lives and certainly, their childhood.
"I think a big part of it, too, was we didn't know who it was. You know, it wasn't a case that was – Jacob was gone and two weeks later, we knew who it was," said Alison Feigh, who met Jacob during theater camp.
"I lived in St. Joe, out in the woods. And I was afraid to go to the end of the road. Because I was afraid that someone was going to take me, just like they took Jacob," Hemmesch agreed.
FINDING THEIR FAITH CHALLENGED
And amid the frustration their prayers and wishes weren't answered, several of Jacob's friends also acknowledge their childhood faith was challenged.
"There was no answer coming, and that continued to be the question in the back of my head," Kelley said, reflecting on how he prayed for answers on where Jacob was.
"I really reflected on faith, too. I really lost a lot of faith in a lot of things at that time. It's interesting to me, having chosen a family or a husband that's very driven by faith and very centered in faith… It was a struggle at first, because that crumbled. So to have to build that back up and find a different peace with faith," recalled Kristi Pink about her faith journey.
The friends continued to live their lives – remembering Jacob during their milestones and his anniversaries. Some of them moved away from St. Joseph. But all of them stayed connected to each other, Jacob and the Wetterling family. And the hope that defined them also influenced how they would raise their own children, along with the fear that prompted their protective parenting.
"For sure for parenting for us, I mean, I don't even know. We've got a 12-year-old and a 10-year-old, they've probably been outside playing alone for maybe 15 minutes their whole life total, without us, you know, watching out the door or being outside with them," said Jason Wald, who played hockey with Jacob and also married another of Jacob's friends – Julie.
"I feel bad for our kids, in some ways, because they're sort of doubled-down on this helicopter parent," related Schirmers, who also married a classmate, Janelle.
But Schirmers also acknowledged there's no question Jacob has offered a role model for their children.
"But I can tell you, nobody knows Jacob better than our kids. We educate them about him, what kind of kid he was. What happened. And how it's rare, but they have to be careful," he said, adding, "Jacob was really that great person, which is in the work we try to reinforce with our kids. Just be a, just be a little bit like Jacob, and we'll be the best parents. We'll write books."
WHAT DID HAPPEN
And finding out what happened to Jacob is precisely the point of pain Jacob's group of friends still struggles to process. All along, they wrestled with losing their friend to abduction. They now also have to accept their 11-year-old friend was murdered hours after he was taken.
"I have a 7th grader who plays here at North. And when the news broke about Jacob being found, I just looked at my son with the eyes of going, 'Why? Why did that have to happen?" Karls said.
"I think it's where, you want to know, but then you don't want to know. At least that's how it was for me," Hemmesch said.
And like the greater community, Jacob's group of friends struggled most with hearing some of their friend's last words: "What did I do wrong?"
"The pure innocence in that question is heart-wrenching," Killmer said.
"There's so much anger. It's a constant battle. You want to get out there and say, I'll see you in 20 years and one day," Schirmers said, adding, "You always wanted an answer, but you didn't ever want that answer. Closure is significantly overvalued. There's no such thing in this case."
Which brings us back to the question posed by one of the friends: "We all were Jacob's hope for 27 years. And so what are we now?"
No sooner did Jona Deavel ask that question among her friends in their former school, another friend helped answer it.
"For me, when the whole 11 traits came out, that was huge for me because I was feeling that same way. Like, we're not Jacob's Hope anymore. And when that came out and started being played, I was like, ok, this is our new thing," said Jill Krause.
"MAGICAL WORLD OF GOOD"
In a recent interview with KARE 11, Patty Wetterling herself called Jacob's friends and classmates examples of this "magical world of good." They remain reasons to get up in the morning and keep fighting, Wetterling said. And that admiration is mutual. Before agreeing to sit down with KARE 11, the group of 16 friends consulted with the Wetterling family.
"Her message is kids have to be kids. We can't live in fear. We can't raise our kids in fear. We can teach them how to be safe. But they need to still be kids and play," recalled Sonja Piper about Patty Wetterling's early beliefs about how the community should respond.
"The fact a lot of us are here today with young kids, families, is testament to what they've taught us," said Karls, adding: "We can continue the spirit of play, the spirit of fairness. Those things that the Wetterlings have really pushed into us to become pillars of light for Jacob."
Jacob Wetterling's classmates hand-made wishes
Additional quotes from some of Jacob's classmates:
“I remember my mom calling me at my friend’s house a couple miles down the road, we’d been staying over night and she called and she said, ‘I just need you to come home.’”
“It’s interesting, if you look back at sixth grade, I don’t think I can tell you one thing that I learned that year. But I can tell you everything that we did to bring him home, because that’s what our focus was that entire year.”
“The way the family led us the whole time and then have led us out of it, is really amazing. Boy, I don’t know how every time they had a choice between taking one road or the other they took the right road and for 27 years. And they’ve actually led us all, parented us all, because honestly, nobody was prepared to go through this.”
“I had a baby right out of high school so very soon on, and Jacob was, you know, we educated our children more so than we would’ve had we not personally known him. You know you hear other stories all the time of missing children and stuff but it was so much personal for us and I think we educated our kids, but at the same time we celebrated probably things more with them, knowing that for the hope for Jacob, they didn’t get to do this with him. So you want to celebrate that and you want to enjoy that.”
“I have a cassette tape with Jacob, that we’d make at his dad’s office. He was always happy. He was always singing and talking and I held on to that cassette for years, until it couldn’t play anymore, and I can remember hearing his voice, and then you hear what he said the day he was gone… it just brings. you back to that, and you think, oh this is not fair. This is not fair for anyone. But Jacob was so nice and so welcoming to everybody. And it’s just sad.”
“We’ve got a 12 year-old and a ten year-old. They’ve probably been outside playing alone for maybe 15 mi