Patty Wetterling opens up about son's abduction at AMBER Alert symposium

For Patty Wetterling, the pain of discovery is indescribable, the pain of finding out what really happened to her son, Jacob, abducted at gunpoint in 1989. It's pain that came rushing in when Jacob’s remains were discovered in a shallow grave after Danny Heinrich confessed to investigators that he took the boy and murdered him hours later.

“I don’t think that anybody will quite understand the magnitude of the ending,” she said in her first public comments since last fall. “We really searched. Jacob’s Hope was not a myth in our lives, it was a possibility. And we lived that for nearly 27 years, and in eight days, the whole world crashed and fell in.”

Wetterling spoke to reporters after she made the keynote speech at the National AMBER Alert Symposium on Tuesday in Bloomington. The conference, which was once annual, hadn’t been held in five years due to tight budgets. Organizers say it’s key to pushing the alert system forward and making the personal connections that help missing children searches across state lines.

“Children’s lives are saved because of connections made here,” said Paul Murphy, the conference’s spokesman and a former AMBER Alert coordinator in Utah. “What can you do to refine the process that when you issue an alert, people pay attention and goes out and looks for that child?”

Amber Alerts are managed by each state, and they all decide their own parameters and protocols. In some states, all missing children are sent out as Amber Alerts. Minnesota only sends out Amber Alerts in cases of known abductions. BCA Superintendent Drew Evans believes that’s critical to immediate public response, “so we can make sure that when an alert is issued, that everybody is paying attention to it, that we don't get desensitized to those alerts,” he said.

In Minnesota, of 34 AMBER Alerts in 15 years, 33 have resulted in safe return of the child.  Only one time, last year, was the child killed. But even in that case, the suspect and child were both found very quickly.

Patty Wetterling told the conference that a big part of what they do is prevent abductions from happening in the first place.

“Now that AMBER is so widely known and discussed, people just might think twice before they would take a child,” said Wetterling. “Because they know it’s instantaneous and there’s a good chance they’ll be caught.”