When the nighttime kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart burst onto the national news nine months ago, Patty Wetterling knew exactly what lay ahead for the Smart family.
When her own 11-year-old, Jacob, was abducted at gunpoint in their tiny town of St. Joseph, Minn., she went through many of the same stages the Smarts would: panic, blame, a manic chase for leads.
By month nine -- the stage the Smart family had reached Wednesday when they heard the miraculous news that their daughter had been found alive -- Wetterling was planning her son's homecoming down to the minute, even though there was no sign of him. She kept a list of law enforcement numbers handy and lined up media contacts. She also readied herself to patiently reacquaint her son with his old life and to get to know her baby all over again.
For the Smarts, "I'm so happy, my heart is just smiling," said a tearful Wetterling, speaking by phone yesterday from a hotel room here where she is volunteering for Team HOPE (Help Offering Parents Empowerment), a national organization for the families of missing children.
Elizabeth Smart "comes from good family and she'll be fine," Wetterling added. "She's got her whole life ahead of her."
Last June, Elizabeth was snatched from her bedroom in Salt Lake City in the middle of the night as her family slept. On Wednesday, two alert citizens notified police when they spotted a suspect, handyman and drifter Brian David Mitchell, who had once worked at the Smart home. Mitchell and his companion, Wanda Barzee, were arrested minutes away from the Smart home, where police quickly returned 15-year-old Elizabeth to her family.
The news was seen as a victory for families of many missing children, several of whom are gathering in Washington this week for seminars offered by Team HOPE. The images of the telegenic blond teenager triumphantly reunited with her family produced elation, sleeplessness and a newfound resolve among many of the participating families.
"So many people ask us, 'What is hope?' " says Colleen Nick, whose daughter Morgan vanished during a Little League game in Alma, Ark., in June 1995. "Hope is a belief in something that you can't see. That's what Elizabeth's parents had for her. If you want to know what hope looks like, it looks like the face of her family."
When Misty Baker saw Elizabeth's face on TV in Kettering, Ohio, she screamed and fell down twice in her rush to share the news.
"I about killed myself trying to get up the stairs to tell my mom they found her," says Baker, whose 9-year-old, Erica Nicole, disappeared while walking the family dog in February 1999. "Then I was up all night. I couldn't fall asleep. I was imagining all the things I would do if Erica came home."
The Smart family's news brought a different kind of hope for other parents of missing children. Speaking from her home in Pinole, Calif., Kim Swartz, whose 7-year-old daughter Amber left to jump rope in the front yard and never came back 15 years ago, says her hope is different from someone whose child has been gone for a shorter period of time.
"I always hold on to that shred of possibility that Amber might be alive," Swartz said. "But her age and the length of time that she's been gone, I'm doubtful that she is."
Now Swartz just wishes that someday she'll know what happened to Amber, who would be 22 now. In the meantime, she works to help other families through the Amber Center for Missing and Exploited Families.
"Abduction has been happening for centuries," Swartz says. "I don't anticipate that it's going to get any better. What I do think is that cases like Elizabeth will give a tremendous amount of hope for future victims' families, that those kids can be brought home like Elizabeth."
Smart's case was one in a string of intensely covered abductions last summer, following the kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam in San Diego, which in turn was followed by the kidnapping and murder of Samantha Runnion, 5, in Orange County, Calif., and Cassandra Williamson, 6, in Missouri. Each case seemed to generate even more headlines about earlier abductions.
It's not clear how many children are abducted by strangers. The FBI says the crime has declined since the '80s, estimating that the number of cases in 2000 was 93 compared with 134 a year earlier, but the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, another family group, puts the number at 4,600 a year. A Justice Department study published in June 2000 stated that "it is impossible to project a reliable national estimate of kidnapping incidents . . . because there has been an absence of reliable statistics about the crime."
Justice Department research indicates the risk of a stranger abduction is lowest for preschoolers, but increases through elementary school and peaks at age 15. Elizabeth Smart fell into the most vulnerable category, teenage girls.
Among the happiest people yesterday was John Walsh, host of the Fox TV show "America's Most Wanted," whose son, Adam, was abducted and murdered in 1981. Earlier this month, "AMW" broadcast a composite sketch of Mitchell, which Walsh said prompted witnesses to tip off police.
"I'm still walking on the clouds," he said. "The last nine months, we never gave up. I grew to love this family. I talked to Ed Smart many, many times. We had some dark days. But he told me yesterday, 'Thank you for never giving up.'
"Ed said to me that the end result for my son was sad and terrible but to look at the home run we just hit. I looked up at the sky when I heard the news and said, 'Adam, this one turned out all right.' "
Jacob Wetterling would be 25 today. Thirteen years and 30,000 leads later, his mother Patty still doesn't know what happened after that masked gunman snatched him away as he played with his best friend and younger brother.
When Patty Wetterling talks about her plans for when Jacob comes home to her alive and well, people think she's crazy, she says.
"People don't understand the hope," says Wetterling, who founded the Jacob Wetterling Foundation and sits on the board of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"They say move on, get your life together. They don't understand. They try, but their world is different from ours and they can't even imagine. Now they can."