How a mum-of-two online sleuth solved 27-year-old cold case of boy, 11, kidnapped & killed by masked stranger | The Sun
A MUM-turned-detective has told of her haunting investigation into the 27-year-old cold case of a young boy who vanished without a trace.
Joy Baker found herself helplessly drawn to the case of Jacob Wetterling – an 11-year-old who was snatched by a masked stranger in a terrifying abduction.
Joy doesn't consider herself a crime buff – but the family's agonising wait for answers since Jacob's disappearance in 1989 inspired her to look for answers.
She put her amateur skills to use and the search consumed years of her life – being desperate to help find Jacob.
But her hard and diligent work finally paid off when in 2016, his killer finally confessed to police and his remains were found.
Child predator Danny Heinrich admitted to abducting and murdering Jacob – finally ending the almost three decade mystery and giving the boy's family some closure.
Vile paedophile Heinrich however wouldn't have been caught if it was not for Joy's tireless efforts.
On the evening of October 22, 1989, Jacob Wetterling along with his best friend and younger brother set off down the mile-long road to the local store to rent a video.
On the way home, Jacob was abducted by a masked stranger.
Police arrived on the scene within six minutes but the 11-year-old was gone, leaving behind a distraught family and the whole of Minnesota asking: “Where is Jacob?”
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Joy, now a 56-year-old marketing consultant from New London, Minnesota remembers that time achingly well.
“Everyone was shocked and horrified and everyone wanted to help… it is so hard to describe what our state was like at that time,” she tells The Sun Online.
“Everything changed after Jacob.”
The case remained open as the years went by – and it stuck with her, leaving her craving for answers and a resolution for the family she didn’t know.
Where are you Jacob?
Joy was a blogger – and on October 23, 2010, – wrote a piece post entitled: “Where are you Jacob?”, dedicated to the boy who had been missing 21 years.
She had been inspired after having had gotten in her car one day and driven out to the abduction site in St Joseph, a rural town northwest of Minneapolis.
“As I sat parked there and staring at that site, I was hooked, mesmerised and I felt like I needed to find the answers," she tells The Sun Online.
She ends her first blog entry with: “The truth is, I still hope for a happy ending to this story, as impossible as that may seem.
"Maybe if I pray hard enough, if I look hard enough, if I think about it long enough… maybe, just maybe…”
Joy had no idea that when she penned those lines it would set in motion a haunting investigation that would consume the next 13 years of her life.
"I went bananas, took a deep dive and became obsessed. I believed in the power of blogging and the internet and interacting with people," she told The Sun Online.
From that very first post on her old-school-style blog, you can trace every theory, every question raised and every possible lead that played out during her homemade investigation.
She went digging into archived police and newspaper files, attempts to discredit rumour with fact and takes a whole online community of strangers along with her for the ride.
This amateur detective pretty quickly discovered that local law enforcement failed to follow up on credible leads, evidence was mishandled or lost and key witnesses were never interviewed.
So Joy did it for them, and she rebuilt the puzzle – becoming a cyber-sleuth.
And this was years before the frenzy of the True Crime podcast, before Netflix funnelled millions into the booming genre, and before the increasingly disturbing trend of "sleuths" getting involved in active criminal cases.
Jacob Wetterling's case was 27-years-cold, and instead of interfering in an active investigation, Joy did the heavy-lifting that re-energised the case and left police almost playing catch up.
Joy combed over the details of the case in painstaking detail – with one post even dedicated to the weather reports from the phase of the moon on that fateful October evening in 1989.
She realised the reason the witnesses would have not seen a car was because the moon hadn't even risen yet, so it would have been complete darkness.
And yet, the key to the story ended up being another young boy who was abducted and assaulted by a masked man before being left on the roadside.
The eerily similar circumstances happened just nine months before Jacob disappeared and only 10 miles away.
That boy is now a man in his thirties – Jared Scheierl – who desperately wanted justice.
Sleuths: Ameteur detectives or armchair pests?
TRUE crime addicts and websleuths have become a phenomena – one which is becoming increasingly troubling in the internet age.
And while the case Jacob Wetterling is an example of their success, often the sleuths can do more harm than good.
It can turn active criminal cases into a circus and cause more pain for already suffering families.
Citizen – or less kindly, armchair – detectives often formalise themselves into teams or communities.
A motley crew of strangers who together “cultivate an idea that they can have a positive role for police investigations and authorities,” says David Wästerfors, a sociology professor from Lund University and an expert in the phenomenon of web-sleuthing.
“But I think in reality it does not happen as often as they hope” and instead they can have damaging, perhaps lasting impact, he tells The Sun Online.
For the crime addicts, online obsessives and those that seem themselves as digital vigilantes- there’s a belief among them that “we are important," Wästerfors explains.
The prolific status of the Idaho murders meant that police received tips from sleuths in their tens of thousands – almost all useless.
Importantly, in a frantic scramble to identify a "villain" – the sleuths can cause even more pain.
And that is what we saw in the tragic case of Nicola Bulley, with her family blasting those that accused her partner of wrongdoing and “vilified [her] friends and family”.
Crime has become interactive and websleuths “are here to stay," according to Professor Wästerfors.
“Readers of crime news don’t want to be merely readers anymore, at least not all.
“Some want to participate in the news drama, and try to contribute – and they want to hang on to a case for a much longer time, and get much more details than mainstream media typically serve.”
“The crime comes closer to them, technically, morally, legally,” Wästerfors explains.
Jared and Joy began working on the case as a team and the real breakthrough came soon after when Joy stumbled across a 1987 local newspaper long-buried in archives.
It exposed a string of unsolved sexual attacks on young boys by a masked and armed stranger that took place between 1986-1897.
All were strikingly similar and took place in and around one small town, Paynesville, a 30-minute drive from where Jacob was abducted.
Joy couldn’t believe what they had found.
After tracking down the victims with Jared's help, Joy says: “All these young kids now grown into young men were suddenly willing to talk, they wanted answers.”
Together, Joy and Jared they mapped all the incidents that revealed the now obvious “Paynesville Assault Cluster”.
They supplied the police with the evidence and armed with this news, Joy’s blog was going viral.
"How were these connections never made before? “I’ve asked this to myself a thousand times, my head just goes round and round,” sighed Joy.
Suddenly, it was all a huge story again being blasted across local and national media and tips came flooding in to both Joy and the police.
Then Joy’s blog went silent as the police investigation took over.
In October 2015, developments in DNA testing since the late 80s meant evidence from the crime scene could be used to link Jared’s attack to a local man called Daniel James Heinrich, now 59.
He was a man who was on Joy’s and Jared's radar and who had been originally questioned by police over Jacob’s disappearance. It was a 100% match.
By late 2015, police were connecting the dots that Joy and Jared had laid out for them – and Heinrich was officially named as a person of interest in the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling.
The statute of limitations had expired on Jared’s case (the laws have since been changed) but Heinrich was able to be charged with 25 counts of child pornography.
In September 2016 – after striking a plea deal to not be charged with Jacob's murder- Henrich confessed to the abduction, sexual assault and killing of the young boy.
The whole of Minnesota was reeling from the news and grieving
As part of the deal, he gave up the location of Jacob’s remains buried in a field near Paynesville – where many of the other attacks took place.
That’s when everyone finally learnt what Joy calls “the awful truth”.
Patty Wetterling, Jacob's mother, is now a well-known public figure for her work advocating for children’s safety and for helping pass the federal (Jacob) Wetterling Act, which demanded each state form a sex offender registry.
She told reporters after Heinrich’s testimony was played in court: “I want to say to Jacob, I am so sorry.
“It’s incredibly painful to know his last days, last hours, last minutes. Our hearts are hurting. For us, Jacob was alive until we found him.”
Joy recalls:“The whole state of Minnesota was reeling from the news and grieving – it stopped everyone in their tracks”.
It was a “devastating moment,” she adds. “I was a train wreck”.
“I would love to say I felt validated but I just felt guilty, I questioned what I had done and whether I had helped them – I questioned everything.”
The toll the case took on Joy was immense. “The closer I got to [the family], the harder it all became”.
Her husband pleaded with her to quit several times.
“I went into it blindly and I was naïve, it was a long and painful faith journey for me," she says looking back.
"I did not anticipate the toll of knowing the family or how horrifying it is to have a child stolen from you and to not know what happened.”
Stick to the facts
Joy never longed for fame or credit, she wanted answers and resolution for the family whose lives became intertwined with hers.
For her, she was “a mom trying to help another mom”. Through this awful tragedy, they found each other and became lifelong friends.
However, Joy is wary of other online sleuths and where the cultural obsession with true crime is going, particularly when sleuths are disrespectful of the family and investigators.
There’s a choice, Joy explains, you can be the “anonymous stalker with crazed reckless theories who shames innocent names” or you can be responsible, professional and “stick to the facts".
“There is a line that needs to be drawn”, she says, “there are a lot of good people with skills and passion to help find missing people and to truly make a difference with those skills – but it’s a slippery slope.
“Internet sleuths can make a difference – the right ones.”
Patty Wetterling, with the help of Joy Baker, is releasing a book this year: "Dear Jacob: A Mother's Journey of Hope".
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'"With stunning detail, Patty Wetterling shares the untold story of the twenty-seven-year-long search for her son Jacob–and its astonishing conclusion."
It comes out on October 27, 2023 and can be pre-ordered here.
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