What happens when in the middle of creating a podcast on a twenty-seven year old cold case it suddenly gets solved? Those are the unique circumstances the new podcast In the Dark recently dealt with.
In the Dark had been on my radar since production was announced. As someone who didn’t enjoy Serial, why would I find myself curious about a true crime podcast? My interest was due to the subject matter examined throughout the eight episodes of In the Dark being from a case I grew up with.
On October 22, 1989 in a small town in central Minnesota, 11 year old Jacob Wetterling, along with his younger brother and best friend were stopped by a masked man with a gun on the dead end road leading home after riding their bikes into town to rent a movie. The man demanded they go into a ditch where he asked them their ages. For some reason, the man chose Jacob and told the other two boys to run and not look back or else he would shoot them. Jacob was never seen again.
For almost three decades this case rocked a town, a state, and even the greater country at large. It was the case that haunted Minnesotans and cemented itself as a pivotal moment in our state’s history of the last 100 years. It was the kidnapping that changed overnight how parenting in America was handled as it went on to become one of the biggest unsolved cases. The thought process changed to: “If something so terrible could happen in a small picturesque country town, it truly could happen anywhere and to any one of our kids.” Stranger danger became a real and valid thing that my mom and many other parents of the same age were suddenly afraid of – citing what happened to Jacob as the motivating factor behind their vigilance and rules.
I was born only weeks before Jacob’s disappearance, meaning my entire life as a native Minnesotan, I have had the story of Jacob and that tragic October night engrained in my consciousness. His face, name, and what happened to him were never far from my mind even as a child. Every year on the anniversary of Jacob’s disappearance, neighborhoods were filled with porchlights being left on overnight in solidarity. It wasn’t uncommon to see Patty and Jerry Wetterling, Jacob’s parents, on the news as they turned their dire circumstances into hope and activism, all while hoping to one day be reunited with their son. It was because of their outspoken voices many more children’s safety was assured with the creation of the national sex offender database. Jacob became Minnesota’s lost son.
On September 1, 2016 out of seemingly nowhere, news broke that Jacob’s remains were found and the main person of interest confessed to his abduction, sexual assault, and murder – along with the sexual assault of multiple other young boys in the area around the same time. Minnesotans were stunned. Even though it was against all the odds, many of us had some flicker of hope that it wouldn’t end this way.
The man guilty of the crimes (who I am going out of my way to avoid naming because he doesn’t deserve to be written about on my blog) had been a main suspect in the Wetterling case from the start. He was heavily questioned and investigated, but law officials could never make an actual connection. Somehow, he managed to slip through the cracks. Over the course of almost twenty-seven years, there were thousands of other leads and extensive searches, but it always seemed to wind up at the same spot: nowhere.
Jacob’s kidnapping remained a mystery with no definitive leads until Minnesota blogger, Joy Baker, began researching the case out of curiosity. (Click on Baker’s name to be brought to her posts specifically about Jacob’s case.) Baker stumbled upon an old article detailing a string of sexual assaults on young boys in a nearby town during the same time period as when Jacob went missing. She reached out to one of the survivors and the two of them began to connect the dots that the same man was behind everything. With their persistence, the local police reviewed these possibilities, discovering new DNA evidence that led to an arrest on different charges and eventually a confession. The process that led to those results has had mixed reactions in the community at large, as there will be no jail time for the murder itself due to legal dealings.
Finally with answers to what happened to Jacob, it seemed only a hundred more questions popped up in it’s wake.
Where did the investigation go so wrong that it took three decades for the case to be solved? What were the ramifications of an unsolved crime of this magnitude on the lives of those involved? How was the man responsible able to so easily get away with his crimes when his confession made it sound anything but stealthy? Is our legal system broken that a horrible man was able to not directly face consequences for his crimes?
In the Dark hopes to explore these issues and more. It looks at the bigger questions in play with the case.
I’ll admit, when the creators released the first episode of In the Dark immediately following the confession, I was adamant I wouldn’t listen. It had only been the day before I was one of many Minnesotans openly crying at my desk as I had read the devastating details that surfaced. I didn’t think my heart could handle listening to any more information in depth. I didn’t think it was fair to the family to listen to something that turned their tragedy into a form of entertainment. Any curiosity I once held was snuffed out with too fresh of a wound. I also debated even writing this post. I didn’t want it to come off as opportunistic. While I felt the case deeply, it isn’t my tragedy to own.
It wasn’t until I noticed myself and others asking many of the same questions above that I decided to give it a chance – both listening to the podcast and writing this post. Maybe In the Dark could do something good. One thing Patty and Jerry Wetterling continuously did over twenty-seven years was use what happened to Jacob to help other children, so less families would have to suffer. We have seen other podcasts and docuseries like Serial and Making a Murderer create real life change in how legal systems function. If In the Dark can examine where investigators had missteps and possibly work to solve them for future cases, then wouldn’t it be a good thing if more people listened? Wouldn’t it be a good thing to have people take action in Jacob’s memory?
In the Dark is not an easy listen by any means. The first episode opens up with a recording Jacob had made in school only days prior. Even though I’ve seen and heard that video numerous times over the years, opening with that reminder of Jacob’s youth and happiness that was stolen away, was still a punch to the gut. In the Dark has only released four out of eight episodes so far, but after listening to the first one, I knew I would see it out to its conclusion – there were multiple times I found myself asking “How did this happen?!”
Have you listened to In the Dark? What are your thoughts on the issues raised?
Learn more about the In the Dark podcast and listen to it here.
Until next time,