In 1989, on a quiet road in rural Minnesota, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a masked gunman. The case remained shrouded in mystery for decades, until a courageous sexual assault survivor, a citizen journalist, and Jacob’s unshakable parents challenge law enforcement to take a new look at an old suspect. Jacob’s story has left an indelible mark on the world, and the case has spurred far-reaching impacts.
THE JACOB WETTERLING DOCUMENTARY is a film about a crime, but it is not your typical “crime documentary.” We lay bare the wide-reaching effects of an unthinkable crime in rural America, providing a look at its shocking, long-overdue resolution, captured in real time. We learn what an unsolved crime can do to a family, sharing in their agony as they wait for answers over the course of decades, and take stock of a cultural shift that developed as sensational stories of child abduction captured the imagination and fueled the fears of a generation of American parents.
We hear from the people most affected by the crime, Jacob’s parents, who recount the events of that terrible October night. Jacob was kidnapped at gunpoint by a masked man on a quiet road in St. Joseph, Minnesota while riding his bicycle with two other boys. Many of the details of the case, including Jacob’s whereabouts, remained shrouded in mystery for 27 years.
Throughout the decades, the question of who took Jacob hung over the United States like a dark cloud. Thousands of leads, dozens of suspects, federal agencies and investigators came and went. What remained constant was the resolve of Jacob’s parents.
As the painful, frustrating years roll by for the Wetterlings, they find meaning by creating the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, and serve as inspiration for its work to promote child safety and assistance to sexual assault victims. The Wetterlings describe their motivation to turn their personal tragedy into something bigger that might lead to positive change.
At points, the case threatened to go cold. We meet the various players crucial to keeping the case alive: FBI agents, federal prosecutors, investigative journalists, a freelance crime blogger, and a surviving victim who may hold the key to unlocking the mystery. We also hear from strangers deeply affected by Jacob’s story – parents from far-flung cities whose fears were crystallized by this haunting crime.
Then, in 2015, a bombshell: The FBI has arrested a 54-year-old Stearns County man. Danny Heinrich is named a “person of interest” in Jacob’s disappearance and the likely suspect in a string of child sexual assaults in the late 80s.
We follow the Wetterlings through 2016, a year that brings new media attention and a new kind of uncertainty. Then, in September, a plea deal is reached. Heinrich leads authorities to a nondescript plot of farmland, where they discover Jacob’s remains. A week later, in a federal courthouse, Heinrich reveals what happened on October 22, 1989 – the night he abducted, assaulted and murdered Jacob Wetterling.
As 2017 and 2018 unfold, the Wetterlings mourn the loss of their son as if he just passed away. They are full of a sorrow that they never let enter their hearts over those 27 years. And yet, they embrace that they serve as an inspiration to other families, still searching for answers.
The filmmakers are dedicated to honoring Jacob’s memory by telling a truthful, comprehensive, and hopeful tale, of how an unthinkable crime touched so many lives. Our cameras are still rolling on critical moments of reflection and aftermath, but editing will begin soon. We hope to have more updates in the near future, so stay tuned…
“Jacob Wetterling Documentary” is a working title. We will make an announcement when a final title has been chosen.
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CHRIS NEWBERRY – Director-Producer
Chris Newberry is an award-winning filmmaker and recipient of a 2014 regional Emmy. His films have appeared on the PBS series America Reframed and Independent Lens. THE JACOB WETTERLING DOCUMENTARY is his second feature-length documentary as director.
His first feature, AMERICAN HEART, enjoyed a successful film festival run taking home six prizes, and was invited to screen at a Washington DC symposium convened by the State Department. AMERICAN HEART made its national broadcast debut in 2015 on the World Channel. His latest feature as producer and cinematographer, TIME FOR ILHAN, premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
Newberry began his career as a screenwriter and narrative filmmaker. His 2001 short film AGORA received fifty festival screenings and three “Best Short” awards. His screenplays have been presented three times at IFP Week. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and holder of a Masters Degree from the University of London.
NORAH SHAPIRO – Producer
Norah Shapiro is a prize-winning filmmaker whose latest documentary as director-producer, TIME FOR ILHAN, recently premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. The film made its television debut on Fuse Network, and was subsequently nominated for an NAACP Image Award for best Television Documentary and a Daytime Emmy. TIME FOR ILHAN received support from the Jerome Foundation, Catapult FiIm Fund, the Harnisch Foundation and the Barbara Lee Foundation. In making the film, Shapiro participated in TFI/A&E StoryLab and Hot Docs Deal Maker, and took part in IFP Week in 2017’s Spotlight on Documentaries.
Shapiro’s previous feature work includes MISS TIBET: BEAUTY IN EXILE which premiered at the 2014 DOC NYC Film Festival, and MINNESOTA 13: FROM GRAIN TO GLASS. She received the McKnight Filmmaking Fellowship in 2012 as well as numerous awards from grantmakers including the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Minnesota Filmmakers Legacy Fund.
MARK STEELE – Producer
Mark Steele is an independent producer whose credits include Co-Producer on Zachary Heinzerling’s Oscar nominee CUTIE AND THE BOXER and Post Production Supervisor on Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman’s AND THE OSCAR GOES TO. Most recently, Steele served as Producer on the award-winning ITVS documentary THE INTERPRETERS as well as IT’S A HARD TRUTH AIN’T IT, acquired by HBO.
Steele has helped shepherd several feature films through development, production, and post-production. He was Co-Producer on Lawrence Kasdan’s DARLING COMPANION (Sony Pictures Classics), Jill Sprecher’s THIN ICE (Sundance, ATO Pictures), and Associate Producer on Todd Solondz’s LIFE DURING WARTIME (Telluride, IFC Films).
Steele has served as Post Supervisor on several projects including 9 FULL MOONS, BELLFLOWER, BUCK, and MY PERESTROIKA. Prior to moving into the world of film production he was the Production Manager of the Sundance Film Festival and the Director of Operations for Tribeca Film Festival.
ERICA TICKNOR – Associate Producer
Erica Ticknor is an emerging, Minneapolis-based filmmaker with experience in documentary, commercial, and short narrative productions, and her skills include cinematography, editing, and producing. Her projects have provided her with global filmmaking experience, from cinematography and editing for a short narrative in Prague, to serving as the cinematographer for a recent documentary production in Morocco. She was an Associate Producer on Norah Shapiro’s TIME FOR ILHAN which had its world premiere in 2018 at Tribeca Film Festival.