After 33 years, someone has confessed to killing 6-year-old Etan Patz. And people immediately start speaking of "closure."
Patty Wetterling hates the word.
Since 1989, she and her husband have writhed in the same hell as Stan and Julie Patz. Whatever path they might have been on, it was irrevocably altered that October evening when a masked man walked away with their 11-year-old boy, Jacob.
"Once you're a victim of a crime like this, your life takes a very different direction," the St. Joseph, Minn., woman says. "It doesn't really close anything, because everything just became different from that point on. But it does provide answers."
Thanks to the wonders of modern computer graphics, these parents can watch their children "age" — digitally, at least. But no one can write a program capable of generating the milestones — high school graduation, college, marriage, parenthood — that come along with growing up.
Some, like Mike and Maddi Misheloff of Dublin, Calif., exist in a kind of suspended animation, unwilling to move or even redecorate the lost one's bedroom.
Many, like the Patzes, live with the "what ifs." What if they hadn't given in to his "please," hadn't let him make his first solo walk to the school bus stop that May day in 1979?
A few suffer under a cloud of suspicion themselves — like Judy Moore of Jackson, Ky., whose 6-year-old son, Kelly, disappeared in 1982 while playing in the snow.
Back when Etan vanished, authorities put the children's faces on milk cartons. Today, their names and images flash across the Internet and digital highway signs.
It is a horrifying truth that the best some families can hope for is that their child is being held against their will, says activist John Walsh.
Before her rescue in 2009, Jaycee Dugard was repeatedly raped and gave birth to two daughters during 18 years of captivity at the hands of a known sex offender in California. Still, her mother could eventually put her arms around her again, says Walsh, host of television's "America's Most Wanted."
"Against all hope and reality, every now and then a child comes back alive," says Walsh, whose 6-year-old son, Adam, was abducted from a Florida department store in July 1981 and murdered. "So that's why these people keep their rooms and their phone numbers, because it's part of the staying mentally sane. It's part of the being able to cope with the worst possible thing that could ever happen to you — your beautiful, loving child disappears."
Through his show, Walsh has helped capture more than 1,200 criminals and bring home about 60 missing children. He knows the Patzes and has shared their heartache each time a lead evaporated, and one "breakthrough" after another ended in disappointment.
"My wife has a wonderful saying," says Walsh. "It's like a mortal wound that you don't die from. It heals over and it has a scab on it. And events like that crack it open, and it bleeds. It'll never die."
Across America, as the Patzes wait to see if they will at last get justice for Etan, parents' hearts are bleeding anew.
With their other two children grown and out on their own, the Misheloffs' house is a bit too big for them. But they wouldn't dream of moving while there is still a chance that Ilene might return.
"She has to come back to HER house," her father says.
"This is her home," his wife agrees. "We have to be here for her."
They have left their daughter's room just as it was on Jan. 30, 1989 — the day she vanished. Not as a shrine, Maddi Misheloff says, but simply because, "It's her room.
"And on the daily hope that we're getting her back," she says.
Ilene was 13 when she disappeared on her way home from Wells Middle School to change into her figure-skating clothes. She had recently competed in her first regional meet, and her family had gotten permission for her to leave while everyone else was in last period.
That morning, Ilene was brushing her hair in the bathroom as Maddi Misheloff walked by on her way out the door to her office job at a physical therapy and medical supply company. The two exchanged a quick "I love you."
Mike Misheloff, an engineer at a Silicon Valley semiconductor company, was driving Ilene and her twin brother, Brian, the mile or so to school. They were running late, and the kids bolted from the car as soon as their father pulled up at the school.
Ilene, a pretty girl with braces and curly brown hair, was wearing a charcoal gray pullover polo sweater, a horizontally striped pink and charcoal skirt, and black, low-top Keds sneakers. She was carrying a dark-blue backpack.
After school, she usually had a snack while she waited for her coach to come pick her up. But she never got home that day.
The couple have been in contact with police off and on since Ilene's disappearance. But they haven't heard anything since the beginning of the year, when the lead investigator was promoted and a new detective took his place.
Both parents have been following the Patz case. But a more recent event brought the emotions flooding back.
In the last few days, a Central Valley man was arrested in the disappearance of a 15-year-old girl. Although no body has been found, police say there is enough evidence to suspect a homicide, Mike Misheloff says.
"We want to know where our child is," his wife says. "Every day without her is torture, and we want her back."
When Judy Moore heard that the Patzes second-guess their decision to let Etan walk to the bus stop alone that day, she wept.
"You're reading my mind," she says, the tears coming afresh. "It's pitiful."
Moore, 55, had lost one prematurely born baby at 5 weeks. A judge had given custody of her two older children to her parents because her epilepsy made it difficult for her to care for them, she says.
Kelly, her baby, was all she had left.
Moore and Kelly's father, Bobby Hollan, were divorced. On Feb. 12, 1982, mother and her son were living with Moore's boyfriend in a rented house halfway up Pine Tree Hollow, near the town of Hindman in the eastern Kentucky mountains.
There was a dusting of snow on the ground. Kelly — a blue-eyed boy with a scar on his upper lip from an operation to repair a birth defect — had the day off from kindergarten and was begging to go outside and play.
After about two hours, Moore says, she relented. He pulled on his brown boots and the blue wind breaker with the torn zipper and headed for the door.
"He hugged me and said, 'Mom, I love you,'" she says, her voice breaking.
It was around 11:30 a.m.
She sat on the bed and watched him out the window for a while. A couple of hours later, a neighbor yelled down to say that Moore's sister was on the telephone.
When she came back home from the call, she says, Kelly was gone.
Moore assumed he was up the road at his friend Gordon's house, where they watched "The Dukes of Hazzard" together. She went to the kitchen to fix dinner — soup beans and cornbread.
When Kelly didn't come home for supper, she went up and down the hollow looking for him. It started snowing again.
Police brought out a cadaver dog. No trace was ever found.
Moore says she stopped contacting the police years ago.
"They keep trying to get me to confess to murder," she says incredulously. "I understand that there's mothers out there that do things like this. It makes me sick. I mean, how a mother can do something like that to their own flesh and blood, I'll never understand it."
She says her other two children believe the rumors. They are estranged.
She believes Kelly is still alive. If not, she takes comfort in the thought that he is "one of God's little angels."
"I shouldn't have let him go out in the yard and play that day," she says through her tears. "But I did. It's just stuff that we do, and we can't take it back. I wish we could, but we can't."
The outgoing message on the Wetterlings' answering machine says it all.
"Hope is an amazing force that we all need in our lives EVERY day," Patty Wetterling's voice declares.
The evening of Oct. 22, 1989, she and her chiropractor husband, Jerry, were going out to visit with friends. They asked Jacob, 11, to baby-sit his two younger siblings — Trevor, 10, and Carmen, 8.
They called home to give Jacob the phone number where they were, in case of an emergency. Not long afterward, the children called to say they were bored, and to ask permission to ride their bikes to the video store — about a mile away.
"No," their mother said instinctively. "Find something to do at home."
Trevor asked to speak to their dad. He promised they would take a flashlight; Jake would wear the father's reflective jogging vest.
The parents conferred, then acquiesced. When Jacob called back around 8:30 to say that Carmen didn't want to come, the Wetterlings agreed with his solution to have the 13-year-old neighbor girl sit with her until they got back with the movie.
"It should have been OK," she says.
The brothers and a friend made it to the store, where they chose their movie — Leslie Nielsen's cop comedy, "The Naked Gun" — and bought some candy. They were about halfway home when, the other two boys told authorities, a masked gunman emerged from a driveway.
He ordered them to throw their bikes into a ditch and lie down. After asking each boy his age, he told Trevor and the friend to run toward the nearby woods and not look back.
But after a short distance, they did turn around — just in time to see the man leading Jacob away by the elbow.
There have been many leads over the years.
"We have had leads in the last two weeks," Wetterling says.
Wetterling was a stay-at-home mom when Jake vanished. Today, she is director of sexual violence prevention for the Minnesota Department of Health.
She takes heart in the fact that a relative turned in the man now charged with murdering Etan.
"We all need answers," she says of her family, the Patzes and all the others. "We believe somebody else knows something ... They've also carried an awful heavy load, and it's time to come forward."
But that doesn't mean she has given up on finding Jacob alive.
"I'm not just looking for a murderer to come forward; I'm looking for information," she says. "I pray for that."
Ilene Misheloff's search page: http://www.find-ilene.org
Associated Press researcher Judith Ausuebel contributed to this report.
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org.
Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AllenGBreed