Wetterling friend relives kidnapping daily
SLAYTON, Minn. - In the Wetterling living room on the night of Oct. 22, 1989, 11-year-old Aaron Larson kept waiting for Jacob Wetterling to come home.
He watched through the picture window every time a squad car pulled up and an officer got out.
"I just remember looking out that window and thinking, 'OK, he's going to get out and this is going to be over,' " Aaron said recently in his southern Minnesota living room.
It's been 20 years since Aaron's best friend Jacob was abducted on a rural road outside St. Joseph. Aaron has moved forward. He's gotten engaged and become a father. He served with the Army Reserves in Iraq and settled in Slayton with his family.
But Aaron relives daily the moment when he lost the only best friend he's ever had. It comes back whenever he sees a child on a bike.
"It's something I'll have with me for the rest of my life," he said.
Oct. 22, 1989, was a Sunday, the middle of a three-day weekend, and a nice October afternoon. So like most weekends, Aaron decided to go over to his best friend Jacob's house.
They were always outside playing sports such as basketball and soccer. Everything they did, they did together.
Jacob's parents, Jerry and Patty Wetterling, had gone to a party. Aaron, Jacob, 11, Jacob's brother Trevor, 10, and sister Carmen, 7, were home. The boys started to get restless. It was a nice day out; they wanted to go get a movie.
Aaron said they tried to figure out a way to persuade Jacob's parents to let them go out. They got a neighbor to baby-sit Carmen, and got the OK by phone.
So that evening the boys hopped on their bikes and a scooter to make the trip along the quiet, dead-end road to Tom Thumb to find a movie. They wanted "Major League," but it wasn't on the shelf. Instead they picked up "The Naked Gun."
Aaron still hasn't seen the film.
He remembers that it was really dark that night; the moon and stars weren't out. The boys set out on the familiar road toward the Wetterling home.
Aaron remembers seeing the metal flash of a handgun and hearing a voice break the darkness.
A man who seemed to have come out of nowhere told them to stop, he has a gun, get off their bikes and lay down in the ditch on their stomachs.
Then the man asked Trevor how old he was. When he said 10, the man told him to run. He then asked Aaron and Jacob their ages. They said 11.
The man told Aaron to run away.
"I caught up to Trevor pretty quick," Aaron said.
Aaron and Trevor stopped about 50-75 yards away and looked back for Jacob.
"At that point they were gone," he said.
Aaron and Trevor ran to the Wetterlings' home. The entire way, Aaron made sure Trevor kept up with him. He knew they had to call 911.
"You don't know what's going on," he said.
Looking back, Aaron said his first reaction when he saw the man was to laugh. He thought maybe it was some high school kid playing a prank. He was caught completely off guard.
"We biked that road hundreds of times," he said.
When the boys got home, police were called. Soon neighbors and dozens of officers arrived at the Wetterling home.
Officers took Aaron and Trevor separately into a bedroom and asked them questions about what happened. It would be the first of many times that the two would tell their stories.
The following Tuesday, Aaron returned to school for half a day. He describes it as the worst day he ever had at school.
Everyone stared at him and the other kids seemed almost afraid of him. He had to be escorted by police because no one was sure what sort of situation they were dealing with.
"It kind of hit me then," Aaron said.
He didn't go back for another week or so. It was hard, but Aaron said it was good for him to return to some normalcy and to be around his other friends.
"It was a good thing to get back," he said.
As the days turned into weeks and there was no sign of Jacob, Aaron kept thinking the same thing.
"This is going to end soon," he said.
Dealing with the emotions that follow such an event isn't easy and Aaron admits he doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve.
He does recall one time when he, family and close friends gathered in a circle and held hands while listening to Jacob's favorite song, "Listen" by Red Grammer. He was then able to let out those emotions while surrounded by loved ones.
"It's nice to know they're there for you," he said.
Harder for him to get past is the guilt he feels. He understands he can't change the past, but he has some survivor's guilt.
Aaron keeps in touch with the Wetterlings, whom he describes as a great family. He saw Patty and Jerry this summer.
He said he feels some of that guilt when he sees them: He got away safely while Jacob did not.
"That's hard for me sometimes," he said.
Aaron and Trevor, who lives in Colorado, still talk regularly, although they've only discussed the abduction a couple of times. Their friendship has evolved and their shared experience has formed a special bond between the two.
Aaron said he was a carefree 11-year-old before Jacob was taken. But that changed.
He became apprehensive about the dark and didn't sleep well. He was jumpy and worried that the man in the mask would come back. Aaron's head filled with thoughts about why the man took Jacob but not him.
"You would lay in bed and think about these things," he said. "Why am I still here and he's not?"
But he doesn't let those thoughts overwhelm him. Aaron thinks of the incident daily, but "it doesn't consume me," he said.
Instead, small things remind him of that night, such as seeing children out riding their bikes. The abduction changed Aaron, changed who he is as a person, he said.
It forced him to grow up a lot quicker and made him more guarded. He tends to push people away.
"I don't 100 percent let them in," he said.
He is engaged to Jackie Tentinger, and the couple have a 3-year-old son named Anikan. Aaron is a member of the Army Reserves and served in Iraq last year.
Aaron knows it will be hard when his own son gets older and wants to ride his bike with his friends. Living in a small town, Aaron said he expects children to be safe. And he knows that there's a 99.9 percent chance his son will be.
But that 0.1 percent happened to Aaron. And that's not something he can forget.
"In my back of my mind, I went through that one event that could happen," he said.
The hope that Jacob comes home is always in the back of Aaron's mind. Hearing stories like the return of Jaycee Dugard, who was abducted when she was 11 and found alive 18 years later, keeps that hope alive.
"You hope your story will end up being a good story too," he said.