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Twenty years on, hope lives for Jacob Wetterling

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Patty Wetterling, Jerry Wetterling
In this Aug. 28, 2009 photo, Jerry Wetterling and wife Patty, right, show a photo of their son Jacob Wetterling, who was abducted in October of 1989 in St. Joseph, Minn., and is still missing, in Minneapolis, Minn.
AP Photo/Craig Lassig

It's been 20 years since 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, his younger brother and a friend set off on their bikes to rent a movie in St. Joseph one night. 

As they rode back home in the dark, a masked man with a gun stopped them and told them to get off their bikes and lie face down in a ditch. After telling the man how old they were, 10-year-old Trevor Wetterling and 11-year-old Aaron Larson were told to run away. 

Then the man took Jacob, who hasn't been seen since.

Thursday's anniversary, like past anniversaries, will likely come and go for Jerry and Patty Wetterling without them finding out what happened to their son. The Wetterlings and their three other children have learned to survive and cope through the years while never losing sight of the possibility that Jacob could turn up alive.

"That's the grandest hope, and it's certainly there," Jerry Wetterling said this week. 

The Wetterlings find hope in recent cases in which kidnapped children were miraculously found alive years later. They also know that anniversaries also often trigger new leads as law enforcement officials and the public hear about the case again through news media reports.

"It just seems to trigger more calls and people kind of researching their memory," Wetterling said. 

Jacob Wetterling
This computer-enhanced image provided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on Tuesday, March 20, 2007, shows Jacob Wetterling in an aged-progressed image. Wetterling was abducted from near his home in St. Joseph, Minn. in 1989, when he was 11.
AP Photo/National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

"Each time it's emotional because you're hoping for the one. And you're waiting and yet it's hard to get too into that particular lead because repeated, repeated disappointments of it not being the one can dampen your spirits," he said. "You learn not to get too swept up into one particular lead."

Despite the regular leads the Stearns County Sheriff's Department still gets each week, little has changed in the Jacob Wetterling case. What has changed is how law enforcement officials handle missing children cases and track those who might kidnap or otherwise harm children.

States have established and toughened sex offender registries, and the national AMBER alert system was put into place to broadcast urgent bulletins when a child is abducted. 

"The changes are dramatic," said Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "More missing children come home safely today than ever in American history."

Allen said AMBER alerts, sex offender laws and eliminating mandatory waiting periods for law enforcement to search for a missing child have all helped keep more children safe. So has increased awareness among parents, he said.

But there's still room for improvement, he said, adding that sex offender registries must come with enforcement and consequences for those who violate the terms of their release. 

Aaron Larson
Aaron Larson, Jacob Wetterling's childhood best friend, talks about Wetterling at his home in Worthington, Minn., Sept. 23, 2009. It's been 20 years since Aaron's best friend Jacob was abducted on a rural road outside St. Joseph.
Adam Hammer/St. Cloud Times via AP

"Our view is that at a minimum, we need to know where these offenders are," Allen said. "Two thirds of these offenders are not in jails or prisons, they're in our communities."

The Wetterlings and Aaron Larson learned the hard way that a boy from a small town in Minnesota could be taken away so quickly. On the other hand, such incidents remain few and far between: Only in about 100 cases a year are children abducted and never seen alive again.

"This whole situation with witnesses there at night in the dark and with a gun and mask and all that -- that's very rare...kind of haunting," Jerry Wetterling said. 

The incident left Jacob's best friend, Aaron Larson, troubled. He became scared of the dark, didn't sleep well and worried the masked man would return. 

"You would lay in bed and think about these things," Larson told the St. Cloud Times. 

Through the years, Larson has also thought about how things could have been different.

"That's hard for me sometimes," he told the newspaper. "Why am I still here and he's not?"

Since the abduction, Patty Wetterling and her family have put their efforts into pushing for legislation to help keep children safe. The federal law requiring states to maintain sex offender registries has been in place since 1994 and is named after Jacob. Patty now directs a program on sexual violence prevention for the Minnesota Department of Health.

"The interest, the response, and I really believe the essence of Jacob himself and how he has captured the hearts of so many people ... it's kind of spurred us on to really try to make this better," Jerry Wetterling said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)