St. Joseph, Minn. – Wherever there was a television, radio or computer screen on Thursday afternoon, eyes and ears in this central Minnesota town silently tuned in.
The mystery of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling's abduction has haunted St. Joseph for 26 years, so when federal and state officials called a news conference to publicly name "a person of interest" in the case, the news ignited another round of cautious hope.
"This doesn't solve it, but it's a good beginning to, hopefully, an end," said Kevin Cox as he sat with his eyes fixed on a flat-screen television after finishing lunch at American Burger Bar, about a mile from where a stranger singled out Jacob, one of three boys riding bicycles back from a convenience store on a night in October 1989.
Locals said they were hopeful Thursday because authorities apparently felt strongly enough about a possible connection to go public with it. But residents also remained wary that there had been no arrest, remembering how others have fallen under unfruitful clouds of suspicion in years past.
Jacob's abduction by a masked gunman was an event so haunting, Cox and friend Tim Haeg said, that they thought about it as they grew up and raised their own children in town, always wondering if an abductor was among them.
"It's still talked about all the time," Cox said. "Nobody's forgotten about it."
But officials haven't called news conferences like the one they did Thursday, either, they said.
"I think they have learned a lot about bringing up the subject, and so they wouldn't have brought it up unless they had something substantial," Haeg said. "Hopefully this is one step closer to closure."
It was a sentiment echoed around this college town 75 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, where the local clinic still displays a poster with a yellow ribbon and candle proclaiming "Jacob's Hope," and where porch lights still glow for a night in October in honor of the boy who disappeared.
Brenda Heaton, a server at Kay's Kitchen, agreed that the abduction is still a frequent topic of conversation at the diner, where she stood near a refrigerated case of pies.
When news came Thursday of what seemed to be a stronger lead in the case, she said, her manager was tearful.
"And I got goose bumps," Heaton said. "People are just hoping that at some point the family will get some closure."
Server Larry Peck agreed, but said one of his friends was once considered a suspect, so he's seen how it can turn innocent lives into turmoil, too. "People just have to be careful not to assume someone is guilty," he said.
In 2010, investigators dug up a half-dozen truckloads of dirt and ash from a farm property near where Jacob was taken — a property that had been searched twice before — but forensic tests turned up no evidence. A man who lived on the farm had long been called a person of interest, but had said he had nothing to do with the abduction.
On Thursday afternoon, that man's brother stood near the end of the farm driveway, flanked by tall rows of yellow corn stalks on one side.
He said that his family hopes the investigation will most importantly bring closure for the Wetterlings, but also end longtime suspicion directed at his brother and the farm where his parents have lived.
"It's been really hard," the brother said, describing how sheriff's officials were stationed at his parents' driveway and the death threats the family received. They hoped Thursday's news could bring some relief to their father, who is in hospice with little time left to live, he said.
"We all need closure on this thing," he said. "I pray to God it's the end of the questioning."
At The Local Blend coffee shop in downtown St. Joseph, Joan Beaumont agreed that solving the case would bring relief to the entire community, including those falsely suspected. She said she was happy that Thursday's news showed that authorities are still actively working the case.
"No one is giving up," she said.
Beaumont said she has a son Jacob's age, and taught Jacob in music class the year before he disappeared.
"That was a very scary time," she said, especially because she knew Jacob's parents to be careful and diligent and realized the abduction could have happened to any child.
She said everyone will be watching to see what develops.
"Let's just hope this is the real thing," she said. "What a miracle it would be if we found out."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102q