Investigators dig near the site of the Wetterling abduction

Published 10:42 am Friday, July 2, 2010

Investigators used a backhoe Thursday to dig up the central Minnesota property near the site where 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted nearly 21 years ago, while his mother waited for answers at her home just a half-mile away.

Patty Wetterling said she hoped they would find something at the property in St. Joseph, she’s wasn’t sure what.

“It’s kind of like, what do we want to happen? What do we want them to find?” Wetterling said. “Clothes, a shoe, a body? Ick. It’s all troubling.”

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Authorities said little about the search that began a day earlier. Stearns County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Bruce Bechtold reiterated that a court order prevented him from discussing details. Authorities did not even confirm it had anything to do with Jacob.

The search concluded Thursday evening, Sheriff John Sanner told the St. Cloud Times. He said the phase of an investigation focusing on the property near where Jacob was abducted was complete and no arrests had been made.

Sanner would not comment about what investigators found or were looking for, citing the court order, but said a news release would be issued Friday morning.

“The sheriff told me he really can’t talk to anybody about it, and that means us too,” Wetterling told The Associated Press, adding she was deeply touched by the continued interest in the case, and grateful for law enforcement efforts.

Hobbling on crutches and with scrapes on her face after a recent bicycle accident, Wetterling spoke to the AP in the living room of her home on a wooded cul-de-sac while the search was ongoing. An unframed photograph of Jacob rested on a nearby piano, as the phone rang nearly nonstop with calls from family, friends and the media.

Wetterling admitted the sudden flurry of activity has been emotionally difficult.

“It brings you back to the beginning,” she said. “The helicopters make my heart race. It’s kind of raw.”

On Oct. 22, 1989, Jacob was riding his bicycle with his brother and a friend when they were approached by a masked gunman. He told the boys to stop, and lay on their stomachs in a ditch. He then ordered the other two boys to run away, and Jacob has been missing ever since.

There have been no arrests and authorities have cleared more than 40,000 leads over the years.

Jacob’s disappearance from the town about 80 miles northwest of Minneapolis rocked Minnesota and drew national attention. His mother became an advocate for missing children and helped pass federal and state laws to track sex offenders and alert the public when children go missing. In 1990, she and Jacob’s father, Jerry Wetterling, founded what’s now known as the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center.

“This is really a case that transcends so many others,” said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “Patty Wetterling has become a voice of hope for thousands of other families.” Thanks to her work, he said, more than 716,000 registered sex offenders are in databases across the country.

Allen said his organization had technical experts on the scene. Stearns County officials, the FBI, K-9 teams, and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension also were on the 158-acre property Thursday.

The property itself was blocked off to media, and is hidden behind a grove of trees. But aerial footage by KTSP-TV showed a backhoe excavating the land. A dump truck hauled away loads of dirt.

The property is owned by Robert and Rita Rassier, who are in their 80s. Their 54-year-old son, Daniel, lives with them. A phone message left at the house was not returned Thursday.

The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center released a statement saying it had not been contacted by law enforcement about the search.

“We have no comment regarding why the investigation is being pursued, if it is connected to Jacob, or why the investigation is being looked into at this time,” the statement said.

With the recent recovery of Jaycee Dugard, a California girl who was kidnapped and found alive 18 years later, there is even more hope Jacob will be found alive, Allen said, “but if something terrible happened … these families deserve answers.”

Wetterling allowed herself a glimmer of hope Thursday.

“Maybe they’ll find a current picture of Jacob and he’s living in Jamaica,” she said. “I’d like that.”