After 27 years, the mystery around the disappearance of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was shattered by a shallow grave and a pedophile’s grim confession. Arrested for child pornography, 53-year-old Danny Heinrich admitted to abducting, sexually assaulting, then shooting the child to death back in 1989. This cold-blooded killer’s capture provides little comfort to the Wetterling family, as Jacob’s mother Patty told the AP, “To us, Jacob was alive, until we found him.”
What happened to Jacob Wetterling is horrific and tragic. On its surface, it seems the kind of crime parents and children fear most: unpredictable and brutal. But a riveting new podcast argues this horrible crime wasn’t a freak incident, but rather the climax of a pattern the grown-ups of Paynesville, Minnesota ignored, which cost a young boy his life.
Over the course of 8 episodes, In The Dark ushers listeners back to that warm autumn night, October 22nd, 1989, to find out “what went wrong in the case of Jacob Wetterling.” Some of its details can now be found online, as Heinrich’s confession has put the “most notorious crime in Minnesota history” in headlines once more. But while news articles might hint at faults in the initial investigation, this pioneering podcast is boldly calling it out ep after ep.
With a tender and intrepid voice, reporter Madeleine Baran paints the scene: scads of cops searching the cornfield by flashlight, helicopters buzzing overhead, all as the circle of where Jacob could be grows wider and wider and wider. Five days later, Jacob’s abduction was national news. His mother made desperate pleas over the radio stations that would play his favorite song—“Listen” by Red Grammer—to give the missing boy hope. “The heartbeat of humanity is beating for you,” Patty called out to her son. “Jacob, can you hear our prayers?”
Such details are heartbreaking, but also humanizing, bringing to life a story many listeners may have forgotten or been too young to have heard. In episode one, In The Dark establishes the details of the night: Jacob riding bicycles down a long dead-end road, headed home from a video store with his brother and friend while darkness began to creep across the cornfields. A masked man emerges from a long driveway, runs off two of the boys, but grabs Jacob. The kids called for help within minutes. The sheriff was on the scene 20 minutes later. So what went wrong?
The second episode divulges the gruesome details of Heinrich’s confession, cementing the breathtakingly brief window the police had to find and rescue Jacob. But then Baran digs into that first night search. How should it have been conducted? How was it conducted? And the picture of three kids flirting with horror movie tropes is muddied by details of how bustling that long cul-de-sac climaxing road was, how many witnesses were nearby, and how much the kids of Paynesville already knew about this masked man. If only someone would have listened.
If you were riveted by Serial season one, you’ll fall fast for In The Dark. Here it’s not about solving the murder case, but finding who else shares in the blame. Two episodes in, In The Dark is chilling but not ghoulish. This is not the rehashing of a heinous crime for some dark delight, but rather a sincere exploration of this time, this crime, this place, and its people, aiming to understand what went wrong and what we can learn from it. Because what we owe Jacob Wetterling is to do better for others than we did for him.