A big story of the little boy


October 22nd, 1989. 21.15 pm Jacob Wetterling with his brother and friend were coming back from the supermarket on bicycles. They were happy, as they rented some movies, and were rushing back home. On the dark section of the road, someone demanded them to stop. A low and husky voice asked them to switch off the flashlight, which was lighting up the road. A man in a mask with a weapon in his hands was standing in front of them. “How old are you?” he ask. The frightened boys replied one after another. The stranger became interested in 11 year old Jacob. He grabbed him by his hand, and told the others to run, which they did, after some hesitation. When they ran more than 100 meters, they turned back, but there was no Jacob, no man in the mask, no whispers, no sound…

For nearly 27 years, one man knew where Jacob Wetterling was - Danny Heinrich. On September 6, in a hushed courtroom — packed with family members, reporters and law enforcement officers - he confessed to killing the 11-year-old boy. He also abducted and sexually assaulted the boy. Jacob was alive only a few hours after the kidnapping at October 22 1989. His grieving parents believed for 26 years that he was alive.


"It's incredibly painful to know his last days, last hours, last minutes," Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, said after the guilty plea. "To us, Jacob was alive until we found him."

After years of questions, Jacob’s parents and all Minnesotans were confronting, in excruciating details, the ugly truth about what exactly happened to their 11-year-old boy. A boy who loved football and peanut butter and believed things should be fair.

At Heinrich’s house dozen’s of pornographic photos of kids were found. Half a year before Jacobs’s murder, he insulted and sexually assaulted Jared Scheierl in Cold Spring, Minnesota, but the boy was left alive. His sentence will be announced in November. He faces 20 years in jail and possibly life after his released in a psychiatric hospital.

This tragic story of a small town received national attention. This was helped by the media. People in Los Angeles and Texas knew about Jacob. Reporters from Minnesota for a long time were not only chasing comments from Jacob’s family, police and possible witnesses of the kidnapping, but were also looking for the killer. 

“I also want to say thank you to all of you, the media. You are playing a huge role in finding missing children. You have been with us for 26 years. Now many of you became our friends and I incredibly appreciate to the kindness you have extended to our family and the integrity of your reports. “ Patty Wetterling said. 

Deep investigations were done by several publishing houses. Dozens of journalists were able to get down to bed-rock. Even though that they have nothing to do with catching of the killer, they kept a focus on the topic. They kept apathy at bay. And I would like to point that concern distinguishes American journalists from others. Of course, I am not idealizing your journalists, as they always would like to have an exclusive, and a lot of them would like to take a scoop even from these kinds of stories. But this competitiveness (which is huge in the United States) was not, it seems, the main reason for covering this story. 

When the grief of one family is under the microscope practically of the whole country, it terrifies and amazes me at the same time. It can harm, but it can also help to find a child. This is a good example for Ukraine.  In a country where 42 million people live, this kind of news gets lost, but in the US, where 300 million people live, this news is on the front page. Our audience does not know how enormous the number of children that are kidnapped is. I do not think that this is a question of the professionalism of journalists, or their apathy, this is the question of the culture, mentality of journalism and readiness of law enforcements to be open with media.

Over the past two years kidnapping of people in Ukraine has become massive. A lot of people disappear in Donbass and far beyond, according to "Amnesty International". In Kiev, those involved in “black market organ transplants” are interested in kids. Last year many kids disappeared. Lots of them were not found, two girls – 8 and 16 years old, were cruelly killed. Some of the kids were kidnapped and returned back without one kidney.

If you ask average Ukrainian citizens whether they know something regarding those incidents, they would probably answer no. Only small town newspapers write about it.  But it would not became a national story , and it is a small possibility that big media  will make a huge scandal story and deep investigation. I am not agitating for journalists to pop into someone’s grief, but we should simply show that we are concerned by the issue. Attention to small details and distasteful truths changes perspective. 

It also:

- Informs audience regarding such accidents 

- Makes media closer to people, and develops trust

- Can help to solve the case

- Can be a preventive action

- Gives confidence that “your story matters”

- Shows media won't give up despite how long time has passed 

And the main thing is that this attention is prolonged, as it was in the case of Jacob Wetterling. Whenyour story matters to the media, and therefore to society, there is a feeling that a collective responsibility is born, a feeling of social support and understanding. It will not protect us from further kidnappings, as investigations of cases connected with corruption will not root out this “disease”, and cartel disclosure will not help to stop drug selling. 

But every story has a chance to be heard. Small actions can have great consequences, like the wingstroke of the butterfly. The problems of  society should not be kept in silence, especially, when it comes to people’s lives. In the hands of  Ukrainian journalists we have the same loudspeaker as in hands of our American colleagues… We just have to learn to us it. 




Surviving a malaria scare in Minnesota



Unlike the United States government, which releases travel advisories for its citizens, in mostly Third World countries, the Nigerian government rarely wastes time penning such “nonsense”. At least, I can’t remember reading one in my life time.

The Nigerian official is too busy penning prolix intended to pamper the ego of his principal to be worried about such fiddling inanity like warning Nigerians traveling to US to stay away from the dangerous neighbourhoods of Chicago where 500 people have been murdered this year alone, for instance.

Nigerian government ineptitude aside, the unwritten travel advisory for Nigerians traveling to Europe, Canada or the US is constant – don’t travel without your malaria medication.

I took this advice for granted and unleashed a wave of panic that could have had me quarantined for days, if not weeks.

Two weeks before my trip to the US, I had taken a prophylactic dose of anti-malaria medication, just in case. Nigerians like to joke that almost every Nigerian runs around with the malaria parasite. We would say if one tested 10 Nigerians for malaria, nine of them would probably come back positive for malaria.

I was supposed to carry an extra malaria medication along with me. I forgot. When I remembered mid-flight, I did not fret too much about it. I assured myself that the prophylactic dose I took just two weeks before would have killed off any strain of the disease that might have been incubating in my bloodstream before. I also avoided being exposed to mosquito bites. But you never know.

Everything was fine for three weeks. Then there was trouble.

It was the last day of first phase of the World Press Institute fellowship, which I was taking part in. We had spent three weeks in the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. In that time, we had travelled up country Minnesota to woody Ely and to Tracy – Soybeans and cornfield country.

The second phase - a whirlwind trip across nine states in the US starting from a trip to Washington DC- was to start the next day. Like we say in Nigeria, my village people chose this day to pay me a spiritual call.  

I remembered feeling too tired to leave the bed that morning. I laid in bed yawning and stretching, like a bored and hungry dog.  I soon realised I was feeling cold. By mid-day I was down with the chills. I was shivering and sweating.

“Please, this should not be malaria,” I muttered, my jaws clattering like a jalopy.

See, I have heard stories of how people are quarantined and treated like they got the plague when diagnosed of malaria in the West. This is something I’d rather read about and not experience.  Also, I didn’t want to miss the trip across the US.

I rushed to the University St. Thomas’ Anderson Students Centre to buy some aspirin (the WPI fellowship is residence at the university).  “Never! This cannot be malaria, I repeated”. The plan was to keep the fever in check until we got to DC and if it persisted then I’d surrender myself to be treated in a hospital there for malaria treatment, with all the consequences.  

I Fell asleep on the couch on my apartment for about 30 minutes, wrapped in duvet. I was roused back to consciousness by a knock on the apartment’s door. It was one of my host moms, Susan Wolkerstorfer, 65. I had told here earlier that I had a fever. I must have looked like I had a brawl with death from the look on her face when I opened the door. She had promised to come with a thermometer to check my temperature. She almost immediately stuck the tiny glass rod underneath my tongue. After three minutes she checked my temperature had climbed up to 101.1F.

“You certainly have a fever,” she said after checking.

I said it was nothing and that I should be fine enough to make the trip to DC. She was having none of that. Immediately she started looking for the nearest hospital on her GeoBlue app, fellows were also using the same medical insurance provider. After searching and making calls to the World Press Institute’s Programme Director’s Doug Stone, she eventually decided to drive me to Regions Hospital, in down town St. Paul. Regions hospital was a public hospital and the nearest health facility with a round the clock ER.

We arrived at the ER section at about 9.45 pm. At the Check -in counter a friendly nurse asked if I had been outside the US in the last three weeks. Affirmative. I only arrived the US three weeks ago. My temperature was taken. Though it has subsided some notches the nurse still agreed that I still had enough fever to be looked at.

I was given a very uncomfortable face mask to wear and told to wait for the room where I would be seeing a doctor to be prepared. I tried to push it below my nose once and one of the nurses gave me the look.

I took a selfie of me in the mask and shared it on the fellowship’s Whatsapp group. The messages started pouring:

“Tell us what is going on. Can we help?” Marina from Bulgaria wrote.

 “I have a little fever,” I replied.

Aurelio from Argentina aid I should try and be well for the trip to DC in the morning.

“Let’s know what the doctor said. And if you need something,” added Nataly from Ukraine.

“What’s the prognosis? Hope it’s just a fever?” asked Aurelio.

Again I said that which shouldn’t have been said:

“It looks like malaria chills. I have the usual symptoms. Started today. But I’d wait for the doctor’s verdict.”

“Hope you will be fine!” Nataly wrote.

“Oh Nicholas! I hope it turns out to be not too serious!!!, added Yasmine from New Zealand. “Let us know how it goes. Hugs, and get plenty of sleep!”

“Our thoughts are with you, hopefully you get better soon,” wrote Miao, the Chinese.  

When I saw the exclamation points littered all over my Whatsapp and I thought: “Oh dear. What have I done”

Yes, their thoughts were with me but they certainly were panicking. I later learned that while they were sending those nice messages Aurelio was asking someone to check the incubation period for malaria. They were freaking out. And wanted to be sure I wasn’t contagious. I had become a health risk; even among my colleagues!

Even the hospital wasn’t taking chances. I was ushered into a negative pressure room – the air from the room is controlled so that it doesn’t contaminate other part of the facility. These people weren’t taking chances in case I had a contagious respiratory disease.

“These people should just tell me they are scared I might have Ebola,” I thought.

Curiously, everyone who came a metre near me, was wearing a huge mask over their face, except Mrs Wolkerstorfer. She was thinking about it too. But was too nice to complain.

I was checked into the room about 10.30pm, asked to change into a faded hospital gown. Then the wait began. 

The effect of the aspirin was beginning to wane and I started to shiver again. Mrs Wolkerstorfer managed to get me a warm blanket. I shut my eyes and tried to sleep. No luck.

Doctor Hillary Simon walked in at about 11.45 pm after a staff meeting, probably related to an impeding nurses strike at another group of hospitals on Monday Regions wasn’t part of the group but I learned employees at Regions were strategising on how to handle the possible increase in the number of patients. 

She apologised for the delay; ordered a blood smear test, and a faster but less accurate test. She said the tests could take about two hours because the hospital lab didn’t usually get patients with malaria (she had only ever treated one person with malaria) and because the lab had their hands full with “people who had made bad choices” at the state fair. Too much booze and large crowd of people hardly mix well, clearly.

An hour later, nurse Jessica came in to draw blood. She was nice, tried to calm me. She said her Nigerian friend told her malaria was common in Nigeria and how most Nigeria carry it around with much ado. She said she hasn’t been to Nigerian before but was fascinated by the description on Nigerians living in the US in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah”.  She wasn’t wearing a face mask.

At 3 am, another nurse, Megan, came in. Preliminary test result for malaria came back negative! Hallelujah. She said they suspect Lyme’s disease from a possible tick bite when the group travelled to Ely or Tracy. I couldn’t remember being bitten by a bug. The only incident I had, in Tracy, was when I slipped on a rock and got thoroughly wet at the waterfall at Pipestone monument.

Forty-five minutes later, Dr Simon came in with her supervisor. They said it probably wasn’t malaria and prescribe antibiotics – doxycycline for the Lyme’s disease. She also gave all clear to travel to DC as the disease was not contagious. I was given a malaria prescription and told to get it in DC in case the second test came back positive for malaria. We left the room at about 4.05 to pick up the medication at the pharmacy. My last recorded temperature before we left the hospital was 98.9F.

Mrs Wolkerstorfer was with me the entire time and stay awake the entire time. She asked a pillow at about 1am to ease her next as she sat on a chair in the room. She dismissed my profuse words of appreciation with: “any self-respecting host mom would do what I have done!” Angels live among human and clearly, one was sitting by my bedside the entire night.