Jacob’s Sheriff

Posted by on Sep 22, 2010 | No Comments

Three of his top officers are already at the table as Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner, gun on his belt, coffee cup in hand, pulls up a chair for the morning briefing.

The conversation ranges from a DWI bust to a court hearing for a sergeant charged with criminal sexual conduct to the coming seasonal switch to winter uniforms.

Unspoken, but on everyone’s mind, is the name Jacob.

Any day now, the results will come back on forensic tests on earth and ash dug up this summer from farm property near the spot where 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted in October 1989. No lawman is more anxious to know the results than Sanner, the point man for the lead agency investigating the 21-year-old mystery.

Will all that work with the cadaver dogs, front loaders and trucks lead to an arrest or another dead end? Will the lab finally crack the case that has haunted a family and the state ever since that warm autumn night when a masked gunman intercepted Jacob as he biked home from a convenience store with his brother and his best friend?

Will any of it lead to Jacob himself?

“We either hit a home run or we strike out or it’s just a foul tip type of thing,” Sanner said in his downtown office. “We don’t know. But we’re all hoping the information we get back is something we can move forward with to get this case closed. And the sooner the better.

“I want this to be over.”

A loss of innocence

Sanner, a two-term sheriff who has spent his entire 26 years in law enforcement in Stearns County, understands as well as anyone the need to solve the crime.

“It’s the unknown, I think, that bothers everyone,” he said.

Everywhere he goes, from the grocery to the coffee shop to the football stadium in nearby Collegeville where he works the crowd on autumn Saturdays, the question is the same: What’s new on Jacob?

“When people recognize who I am, that’s normally one of the first questions they’ll ask,” he said. “They want to know ‘Will you ever find the answers? Are you closer today than you were yesterday?’ And I just tell them ‘Well, hopefully, but we don’t know.’

“I have a good feeling we are moving in the right direction. But really, that’s all that I can tell them.”

Sanner, now a 56-year-old grandfather, was a 35-year-old newly promoted sergeant at the time of the kidnapping.

He didn’t get called to the scene. In fact, he wasn’t assigned to the case until he became a detective two years later.

But as the father of three children, all younger than Jacob, he instinctively knew the stakes.

“That was kind of a loss of innocence when that happened,” he said. “And it truly was a case that changed the way we parented.”

For several years, he said, he and his wife, Juli, accompanied their children to the neighborhood school bus stop each morning. If they couldn’t be there, they made sure another parent was.

“Before Jacob Wetterling, you could look at any bus stop around the state of Minnesota and see kids waiting for the bus,” Sanner said. “After Jacob Wetterling, you always saw an adult standing there. I don’t care if it was here or in downtown St. Paul. And I think consciously or subconsciously, the Wetterling abduction had something to do with that.

“Most of us who lived through that understand there was a shift in how we looked at things.”

Taking ownership

That sense of loss, and threat, was especially jarring in the quiet farming communities of Stearns County, a 1,400-square-mile stretch of prairie about an hour north of the Twin Cities.

“This is ours,” Sanner said. “This didn’t happen in Minneapolis or St. Paul. This is here. And everybody here seems to have that ownership piece on different levels.”

Within weeks of becoming sheriff in 2003, Sanner invited key investigators and Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, to his office to tell the family that “even though there was a new sheriff working this case, we wouldn’t let up at all.”

That quiet, but firm message was reassuring.

“He’s been on the journey with us and I think that matters,” Patty Wetterling said. “He sets a tone of commitment and respect when you walk in there. He’s warm, too. When you sit and talk to him, he’s got a lot of passion. You feel that. … He’s got a depth of character that goes a long way.”

Tim O’Malley, superintendent for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, who has worked closely with Sanner on several high-profile cases in recent years, says the sheriff’s calm demeanor masks an “intense passion.”

O’Malley said Sanner was at his best in September 2003, when the 15-year-old son of one of his deputies opened fire at a high school in nearby Cold Spring, killing two classmates.

“If you have a school shooting anywhere of that magnitude, it’s difficult,” O’Malley said. “But to complicate it, knowing you have the son of one of your employees you know very, very well as the suspect, that could have been very difficult to deal with.”

Sanner quickly turned over the investigation to the BCA.

“He was very thoughtful, yet decisive in the midst of a real tragic and emotionally charged situation,” O’Malley said. “And I think that’s true leadership.”

Gets to him

The third of four children born to second-generation Scandinavians who ran a grocery in tiny Lancaster, Minn., near the Canadian border, Sanner spent his formative years sweeping floors, stocking shelves and shoveling coal for his father. He also bagged groceries and delivered food to shut-ins, learning to chat up customers along the way.

“They made sure I had a cup of coffee,” he says of the widowed people he brought food. “The reality was they were lonesome and wanted to talk.”

As sheriff, he takes the same approach, spending hours talking with constituents at small-town parades and festivals.

In his eight years as a detective, Sanner followed up on dozens of Wetterling leads, dealing with the rush of anticipation followed by disappointment when a tip didn’t pan out.

“I’ve learned over the years not to let your emotions play into it. Just work the case. But with a case of this magnitude, you can’t help have it affect you one way or another,” he said.

It’s not the only long-running Stearns County mystery that gnaws at Sanner. The 1974 stabbing deaths of 12-year-old Susanne Reker and 15-year-old Mary Reker, sisters from St. Cloud, remain unsolved. So does the 2002 disappearance of Josh Guimond, a 20-year-old political science major at St. John’s University who walked out of a friend’s campus apartment and vanished into the night.

But Jacob’s is the case everyone asks about.

Steele County Sheriff Don Gudmundson, a former homicide detective and a colleague of Sanner’s, says that any case involving the disappearance or death of a child wears on an investigator.

“And those cases, even when solved, can haunt you and wake you up at night and get you to stare at a black ceiling,” he said. “But an unsolved one, they will always haunt you.”

Juli Sanner, a registered nurse at a cancer center in St. Cloud, says her husband seldom brings cases home. But she knows when one is on his mind “because he is more quiet.”

“I think it absolutely gets to him,” she said. “But he outwardly doesn’t show those things. He puts a tremendous amount of thought into them. And the thought is more ‘What else can we do? Are we missing something?'”

Moving ahead

Over 21 years, investigators have traveled the world tracking Wetterling leads — at last count, nearly 50,000. They’ve even consulted psychics.

Some of the detectives have long since moved on. Charlie Grafft retired as Stearns County sheriff in 1991 and died with the case still dogging him.

That so much time has passed doesn’t discourage Sanner.

“The drive to solve these cases is always going to be there for me,” he said. “It’s why we have the jobs we have. And I feel a commitment to do it right. If you try something and it doesn’t succeed, it’s motivation for me to try something else. I’m extremely competitive that way.”

For years, a middle-aged man who still lives with his parents in a farmhouse near the abduction site has been considered a possible suspect.

The farmhouse and property were searched in 1989. Authorities went back in 2004, searching the home, the man’s computer and property, the man’s brother told the Star Tribune. The brother said investigators also took DNA samples and sent the man a handwritten letter from Patty Wetterling encouraging the person responsible for Jacob’s disappearance to confess.

Then in late June, investigators returned with cadaver dogs and front loaders.

Sanner won’t say what sparked the return visit. Six truckloads of earth and ash were hauled away from a spot where the property owners burned materials or dumped ash.

Now, 2 1/2 months later, as the forensic testing nears its end, Sanner is antsy.

“In cases like this, you also have to have some luck,” he said. “For 21 years, we’ve had no luck.”

Jacob’s sheriff