Thursday, July 1, 2010

Small Town Crime Scene

There's nothing like a hovering helicopter to give one a sense of menace. There have been two hovering three blocks away, and doing slow circles over our house and farm, for two days now.

When I lived in Long Beach, there were constantly helicopters overhead. They meant one of three things: 1) police chase on one of the highways; 2) searching for a suspect (with a spotlight); 3) changing of the beach patrol. The third kind ran up and down Redondo Avenue all day long.

Compared to Long Beach, St. Joseph, Minnesota feels like the safest place in the world. It is hard to understand how Jacob Wetterling, at 11 years old, could be abducted and disappear without a trace in 1989. The abduction, by a "masked" man at the edge of a driveway leading to a farm, was awful in itself. Jacob was riding his bike home from the video store with his brother and best friend when the three were ordered off their bikes at gunpoint. They were told to lay in a ditch and the gunman asked each one his age. When the younger brother answered, he was told to run away. The same happened with the best friend. The two boys ran 100 yards, turned around, and Jacob and the man were gone.

The search for Jacob Wetterling and his parents' activism led to some of the earliest child protection laws. His father is still a chiropractor in town and lives in the house where they lived when Jacob was abducted. It is less than 1/2 mile away from the abduction site. He drives down that road and past the driveway every day on his way to work. The parents kept the house because they still hope someday Jacob will return, and they want to be there if he comes looking for them.

The media arrived on Wednesday when word got out that several police cars were at the Rassier farm on 91st Avenue. When I came home for dinner, I saw the two helicopters from our place on 95th Avenue. Steve came in from his tree nursery shortly thereafter, somewhat agitated, and said the helicopters had been there for an hour. All we knew was that it was related to Jacob Wetterling. Steve got out his binoculars and told us what channels the helicopters were from. The media had virtually nothing to report. The FBI and police and sheriff's department were on the scene. No one was allowed in and out. A court order prevented anyone from speaking about what was going on.

The media found their own news: the Rassiers, who are much beloved in town and in their 80s, had been in Europe at the time of the abduction, but a male relative had been home. This male relative had been questioned several times over the years. He teaches band at Rocori High School and is also much loved. The story of the two families, and the difficulty of thinking ill of the Rassiers, was becoming clear.

This morning, there was more news. Steve reported that the two freezers we need for the Joeburger stand for the 4th of July parish festival were on the farm property. The newspaper said two flatbed trucks had taken out materials and supplies for the festival-- the Rassiers, parishioners, have been storing that stuff for years. There had been a canine unit there, possibly from Louisiana.

One of the Sisters told me about 10 a.m. that the word was that a backhoe and other digging equipment had entered the farm property. At lunch, there was still the helicopters, and when I came home. Aerial photos on local news sites show a pretty extensive excavation site.

The parish festival is closing in on us. Tonight the onions are grilled for the burgers, and tomorrow all the booths get set up in preparation for the big outdoor concert on Saturday. That might account for some of the excitement, the edginess, in town, but not all of it. There's a tension, an expectancy, a sense that after all this time and many, many false leads, this time is different. "This is big," people say. "This is different." "There must be something new." We speculate, and try not to speculate. We hope they'll find something and bring closure, and then think how awful it will be if they find something. We compare what we know and understand to all the true crime stories we've heard. We talk about how this might go, how it's different; how it "makes sense." 

Looking at random news clips on web sites, I almost laughed watching the truck come out of the driveway with the barrels on it for the festival. I heard late today that another woman went in and "got her bratwursts" out for the festival. Maybe the freezers came with them. One of the parishioners on the news spoke kindly of both families and their pain, saying we're praying for both. There is the familiar treeline, the fields, the road back to those little cul-de-sacs and their clusters of houses, where another family we know live as well as the Wetterlings. We've snowshoed to their house through the corn field several times. Their kids bike over here for bonfires and other events.

So, although it is hard to imagine something like that happening here, it is also very, very easy to imagine.  

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