A Grim Anniversary: Jacob Wetterling's Disappearance

A Grim Anniversary: Jacob Wetterlings Disappearance

Patty Wetterling is getting ready for an anniversary no parent should ever have to mark: It has been 20 years since her oldest son, Jacob, 11 at the time, was snatched away from her in one brutal instant.

Over the past two decades, Wetterling has sustained herself with hope.

"We hope for Jacob, for all of our grandkids, for every child who's home safe today and every child who's missing," she said in an interview with "Nightline."

Waiting For Jacob

Wetterling and her husband, Jerry, their three other children, and three grandchildren were gathering at their rural St. Joseph, Minn., home in the lead-up to the anniversary. The family considered the milestone a chance to honor Jacob.

"We learned early on that this, what happened, was way bigger than Jacob and way bigger than our family," Patty Wetterling said. "It's about [like] this entire community was taken. There was an innocence stolen and my hope is that we have been able to pull some of that back and to provide, you know, this world where kids can grow up safe."

ABC News first made contact with Wetterling 10 years ago.

"This is God's country," she said at the time, walking in a cornfield just a half-mile from her house.

It was through the same fields, on a warm autumn night, that Jacob, his brother Trevor and a friend set out on their bikes to pick up a video.

It was the first time Jacob had been out alone at night on his bike.

On the return home, according to the other boys, a masked gunman stopped all three -- and then drove off with Jacob.

On a gravel road was a spot where Jacob's footprints seemed to show resistance. And then...

"It's gone," Wetterling said. "It's just bizarre."

It was just the beginning of a nightmare from which Wetterling has not yet awoken. But something inside her has awoken.

Over the years, Wetterling has found her voice, and her mission: to find Jacob and help protect other children.

"A lot of people ask, 'How do you do it?' How could I not?" she said. "Every parent knows, you would do anything for your children, and our anything [has] got to be a little more than we ever would have dreamed, but you continue. We'll do anything that we can to find him."

Jacob Wetterling's Family Holds on to Hope 20 Years Later

Wetterling has started a foundation in Jacob's name. And 15 years ago she helped pass a bill that requires states to implement sex offender registries. She works closely with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which attempts to track the approximately 100 children a year who according to Justice Department estimates are abducted by strangers.

Ernie Allen, head of the center, says that the chance of finding missing kids diminishes with time, but that hope must not. Children do come back, he said.

At the children's center, experts can project what a child will look like as he or she ages. Such a photo turned out to be strikingly accurate when Jaycee Dugard was found in California 18 years after her abduction.

What might Jacob Wetterling look like now, at age 31?

His mother said it's hard for her to look at the projection images.

"It's hard for me to look at those, because that's not a real person," Wetterling said. "I remember Jacob, and that's a drawing. So, as a mom I know they know what they're doing, but I don't relate to the age-enhanced photo."

She does, of course, relate to other searching families and has met some whose missing loved ones have miraculously returned.

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