Jennifer Brooks
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In Greek mythology, there was a box that held nothing but pain, sickness and evil. When they opened it, all that misery flew out into the world until the only thing left inside the box was a tiny scrap of hope.

There’s a whole room like that up in Stearns County.

The Wetterling Room holds almost three decades’ worth of dead-end leads, missed opportunities and phony tips from bogus psychics, all recorded and filed away during the long, anguished search for Jacob Wetterling.

When all those files became public last month, it reopened one of the most painful chapters in the state’s history. A time when residents tipped off police to any neighbors, relatives or parish priests who seemed like the sort who could snatch an 11-year-old boy off his bike at gunpoint.

Calls flooded tip lines about vampire cults in St. Cloud and Satan worshipers in Moose Lake. Searchers fanned out across farmyards and basements and vacant lots. Police checked so many alibis and questioned so many suspects that if you blinked, you’d miss the moment they had the actual killer in custody.

It’s all there in the Wetterling Room, complete with names, addresses and creepy maps people drew to the locations of nonexistent bodies.

It’s easy now, with the brilliant clarity of hindsight, to see where it all went wrong and where the trail would have led to the guy who was grabbing and molesting other boys just 30 miles down the road from the abduction site. It was a connect-the-dots puzzle with just two dots.

But the Wetterling Room tells another story. They were trying so hard. All those people who volunteered to help, all those investigators who chased every lead and interviewed every sexual predator in a five-state radius.

People wanted so badly to bring that little boy home. In one file, there’s a letter from a shopkeeper in Pennsylvania who kept Jacob’s missing poster on the counter and passed along a tip from a local schoolteacher who had a new student in her class — a boy with a mole on his cheek who probably wasn’t the missing boy, but what if he was?

The Wetterling family isn’t looking back over the contents of that room. There’s no hope inside that box. The hope is outside.

On Oct. 13, Minnesotans will strap on their running shoes and line up for the annual Running HOME for Jacob 5K in St. Paul. Like every event held in his name, the race celebrates the joy that little boy brought to the world and offers an 11-point checklist for anyone who wants to spread that joy around: Be fair. Be kind. Be understanding. Be honest. Be thankful. Be a good sport. Be a good friend. Be joyful. Be generous. Be gentle with others. Be positive.

The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center worked with 18,000 students, teachers and families last year in its ongoing effort to create a safer world for children. Alison Feigh, a classmate of Jacob’s, serves as the center’s program manager. A few years ago, she was talking with a group of students about personal safety and online safety when one of the middle schoolers approached her.

“I’m just worried about you, Alison,” he said.

“What?” she said, startled.

“Well, you just told us all how to make the internet into a place with a culture of safety and a place where people are kind,” he said. “Now that we all know how to do that, we’re all going to do that, and you won’t have a job anymore.”

On the days when the world seems a long way from safe and the internet seems a long way from kind, moments like that give Feigh hope.

“We know that kids who are scared aren’t any safer than kids who are not. We don’t want to focus on fear,” she said. Instead, she and the foundation work to educate and empower children and their caregivers and work to create communities that take child safety seriously.

Laws have been changed in Jacob’s name. Lives have been saved. When he vanished, Feigh said, the odds of finding a missing child were about 60 percent. Today, it’s closer to 97 percent.

For decades, Minnesotans left their porch lights on for Jacob, hoping he’d find a way home. Many other Minnesota kids are still missing. Their faces smile out from the missing posters at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Hayliana Martinez has been missing from Hastings, Minn., since May 5. She has brown hair, brown eyes and dimples. She’s 13 and she’s one of far too many women and girls missing or murdered in Indian country.

Aleah Anderson is 13 and she’s been missing from St. Paul since July.

Tristen Lockhart, now 16, has been missing from Rochester since 2017.

Kevin Ayotte was 3 when he and the family dog vanished from his home in Bemidji in 1982. Ayotte, who was hearing-impaired, would be 39 today.

They’ve been searching for Brandon Swanson of Marshall for the past 10 years, ever since the 19-year-old drove his car into a ditch on his way home from college. He was on his cellphone with his parents, trying to give his exact location, when the call cut off abruptly. He hasn’t been seen since.

Please keep a light on for them, too.

For more information, you can visit gundersenhealth.org/ncptc/jacob-wetterling-resource-center or api.missingkids.org.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008

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