Jacob Wetterling: A Break in 20-Year-Old Missing Boy Case?

Patty Wetterling, who lost her son in 1989, now works to find missing children.

October 20, 2009, 5:35 PM

June 30, 2010 — -- Investigators combed over a St. Joseph, Minnesota, property today near where 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted in 1989.

Neighbors reported seeing several unmarked law enforcement vehicles there earlier today, and video footage shot by a ABC News St. Paul affiliate KSTP-TV showed as many as 17 vehicles, all-terrain vehicles and trailers on the grounds.

Officals from the Stearns County Sheriff's Office told KSTP-TV and other local media that no details about the operation could be released because of a court order.

FBI spokesman E.K. Wilson told The Associated Press that the FBI is assisting in search warrant operations in the area.

Investigators seemed to be focusing on what appeared to be furniture and barrels taken from a building on the property, the station reported.

Jacob was abducted on Oct. 22, 1989, as he, his brother Trevor and a friend were returning home on their bicycles from picking 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.

All that remained of him on the gravel road was a spot where Jacob's footprints seemed to show resistance. And then nothing.

Over the past two decades, Jacob's mother, Patty 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" last October on the 20th anniversary of the boy's disappearance.

Wetterling and her husband, Jerry, their three other children, and three grandchildren gathered at their rural St. Joseph home in the lead-up to the anniversary to honor Jacob.

Over the years, his mother 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.

In one of the most remarkable cases of its kind, Jaycee Dugard was reunited with her family after 18 years of captivity.

"When Jaycee was found, it was just this exclamation point to our statement," Wetterling said. "There are missing kids out there, it's our job to find them and she did it. She survived some really horrible things and she did it."

Jaycee was on the cover of People magazine, her smile amazingly similar to her smile as a child.

"She is beautiful and she looks so deep-down happy and that's a great starting point," Wetterling said. "And no matter what happened in between, nobody could take away those first 11 years and she drew energy from that, that unconditional love."

As for Wetterling's son Jacob, there are fewer leads each year. But the Wetterlings hang on. Since Jacob vanished they have not changed their phone number, or moved, in case he tries to contact them.

What gives her the ability to keep going and keep hoping?

"How can I not?" she said. "As a searching parent, you just never give up on your child, ever."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events