Crime Month: In the Dark Podcast

Why did a boy's murder go unsolved for 27 years? Just listen.

Stranger Things has it right: The Eighties really were a hard time for kids. Murderous demogorgons aside, the era saw its share of real-life monsters. The decade dawned with the kidnapping of 7-year-old Adam Walsh, lured from a Florida department store, and later strangled and beheaded by his captor.

At the time of his disappearance, I was around Walsh’s age, growing up nearby. I remember the terror of being a child in that world, wondering if every car that slowed down next to me held a driver inside harboring the worst of intentions.

On the bookend of the epoch, in 1989 young Jacob Wetterling was also abducted from his hometown of St. Joseph, Minn., as he was biking home one night from a convenience store, flanked by his friend and younger brother. Terror had reappeared, this time in the north. But the Wetterling case transcended the decade, remaining unsolved for 27 years. The case was still open, in fact, when American Public Media began producing its podcast In the Dark, about Jacob’s disappearance and its lasting effect on his small Midwestern town and, of course, his family. Then, unexpectedly, police arrested the man responsible, a local living a mere 23 miles away. Danny Heinrich confessed to Wetterling’s sexual assault and murder, as part of a plea deal on a lesser child pornography charge.

In contrast to ratings phenom Serial, In the Dark lets listeners know from the opening moments who took Jacob and, soon after, exactly what horrific things befell him. Despite that early reveal, the podcast loses none of its compelling tension. It focuses instead on just what went wrong in the Wetterling case – an investigation of the investigation itself, which was deeply flawed. Heinrich, it turns out, was an early suspect. The adjacent town where he lived, Paynesville, had been haunted for years by a series of abductions of and sexual assaults on boys Jacob’s age – so much so that local children warned each other to watch out for “Chester the Molester” and wondered aloud to friends about who would be his next victim.

The truth, In the Dark posits, was right there, under law enforcement’s nose, the whole time. Police officers missed crucial interviews with neighbors living near the abduction site and focused instead on chasing ridiculous psychic tips and obsessing over an innocent man, despite having found incriminating photos of naked boys in Heinrich’s home. They also convinced Jacob's parents to have a tipline in their home and to answer it at all times of the night and day, screening calls from ignorant crazies that would whisper their horrific theories into the phone. Had police properly done their job, Jacob might still be alive, and if not, at least his parents wouldn’t have suffered such unimaginable traumas.

The title In the Dark refers both to Jacob’s abduction on the road at night and to the horrible state of “not knowing” that parents face when they lose a child this way. Now a parent myself, I can’t imagine anything more frightening. Listening to In the Dark, I find myself gripped by its story, but at the same time I long to shut it off.

While a dead child can be buried and mourned, one that disappears is like a lost limb that perpetually aches. The open wound sours each day, not permitting parents to sink back into their lives, haunting their horizon. Jacob’s nightmare was finished hours after he took his bike out on that warm October night for a ride to the video store with his brother and friend. But for his mom and dad, the bad dream didn’t end for almost three decades more.

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July Is Crime Month, Crime Month 2019, In the Dark, Serial, Jacob Westerling

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