October 22nd, 1989. 21.15 pm
Jacob Wetterling with his brother and friend were coming back from the supermarket on bicycles. They were happy, as they rented some movies, and were rushing back home. On the dark section of the road, someone demanded them to stop. A low and husky voice asked them to switch off the flashlight, which was lighting up the road. A man in a mask with a weapon in his hands was standing in front of them. “How old are you?” he ask. The frightened boys replied one after another. The stranger became interested in 11 year old Jacob. He grabbed him by his hand, and told the others to run, which they did, after some hesitation. When they ran more than 100 meters, they turned back, but there was no Jacob, no man in the mask, no whispers, no sound…

For nearly 27 years, one man knew where Jacob Wetterling was – Danny Heinrich. On September 6, in a hushed courtroom — packed with family members, reporters and law enforcement officers – he confessed to killing the 11-year-old boy. He also abducted and sexually assaulted the boy. Jacob was alive only a few hours after the kidnapping at October 22 1989. His grieving parents believed for 26 years that he was alive.


“It’s incredibly painful to know his last days, last hours, last minutes,” Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, said after the guilty plea. “To us, Jacob was alive until we found him.”

After years of questions, Jacob’s parents and all Minnesotans were confronting, in excruciating details, the ugly truth about what exactly happened to their 11-year-old boy. A boy who loved football and peanut butter and believed things should be fair.

At Heinrich’s house dozen’s of pornographic photos of kids were found. Half a year before Jacobs’s murder, he insulted and sexually assaulted Jared Scheierl in Cold Spring, Minnesota, but the boy was left alive. His sentence will be announced in November. He faces 20 years in jail and possibly life after his released in a psychiatric hospital.

This tragic story of a small town received national attention. This was helped by the media. People in Los Angeles and Texas knew about Jacob. Reporters from Minnesota for a long time were not only chasing comments from Jacob’s family, police and possible witnesses of the kidnapping, but were also looking for the killer. 

“I also want to say thank you to all of you, the media. You are playing a huge role in finding missing children. You have been with us for 26 years. Now many of you became our friends and I incredibly appreciate to the kindness you have extended to our family and the integrity of your reports. “ Patty Wetterling said. 

Deep investigations were done by several publishing houses. Dozens of journalists were able to get down to bed-rock. Even though that they have nothing to do with catching of the killer, they kept a focus on the topic. They kept apathy at bay. And I would like to point that concern distinguishes American journalists from others. Of course, I am not idealizing your journalists, as they always would like to have an exclusive, and a lot of them would like to take a scoop even from these kinds of stories. But this competitiveness (which is huge in the United States) was not, it seems, the main reason for covering this story. 

When the grief of one family is under the microscope practically of the whole country, it terrifies and amazes me at the same time. It can harm, but it can also help to find a child. This is a good example for Ukraine.  In a country where 42 million people live, this kind of news gets lost, but in the US, where 300 million people live, this news is on the front page. Our audience does not know how enormous the number of children that are kidnapped is. I do not think that this is a question of the professionalism of journalists, or their apathy, this is the question of the culture, mentality of journalism and readiness of law enforcements to be open with media.

Over the past two years kidnapping of people in Ukraine has become massive. A lot of people disappear in Donbass and far beyond, according to “Amnesty International”. In Kiev, those involved in “black market organ transplants” are interested in kids. Last year many kids disappeared. Lots of them were not found, two girls – 8 and 16 years old, were cruelly killed. Some of the kids were kidnapped and returned back without one kidney.

If you ask average Ukrainian citizens whether they know something regarding those incidents, they would probably answer no. Only small town newspapers write about it.  But it would not became a national story , and it is a small possibility that big media  will make a huge scandal story and deep investigation. I am not agitating for journalists to pop into someone’s grief, but we should simply show that we are concerned by the issue. Attention to small details and distasteful truths changes perspective. 

It also:

– Informs audience regarding such accidents 

– Makes media closer to people, and develops trust

– Can help to solve the case

– Can be a preventive action

– Gives confidence that “your story matters”

– Shows media won’t give up despite how long time has passed 

And the main thing is that this attention is prolonged, as it was in the case of Jacob Wetterling. Whenyour story matters to the media, and therefore to society, there is a feeling that a collective responsibility is born, a feeling of social support and understanding. It will not protect us from further kidnappings, as investigations of cases connected with corruption will not root out this “disease”, and cartel disclosure will not help to stop drug selling. 

But every story has a chance to be heard. Small actions can have great consequences, like the wingstroke of the butterfly. The problems of  society should not be kept in silence, especially, when it comes to people’s lives. In the hands of  Ukrainian journalists we have the same loudspeaker as in hands of our American colleagues… We just have to learn to us it.