In June 1973, Marietta Jaeger went camping in Badlands National Park with her husband, Bill, and their five children. As they slept in their tents one night, their seven year-old daughter, Susie, was kidnapped. Marietta suffered all the pain and emotional turmoil you would expect in such a nightmarish situation. In the days immediately following the abduction, she was surrounded by people who talked about the kidnapper in venomous terms, routinely characterizing him as inhuman (even though his identity and gender were still a mystery).
Despite this climate of anger and vengeance, something inside Marietta began to shift as the days of waiting turned into weeks. As reported in the May/June 1998 issue of Health Magazine, Marietta heard a voice. “What Marietta heard was God telling her, ‘I don’t want you to feel this way.’ As she pondered the message, the weight on her chest seemed to lift and her stomach relaxed. She fell into the first deep sleep since Susie vanished.” This was the beginning of her commitment to releasing her anger and finding a path to forgiveness.
One year after the abduction the kidnapper called Marietta’s home. Because she had used the intervening months praying for forgiveness – searching within for the strength to find the humanity buried somewhere within the kidnapper – she was able to convey genuine empathy as she spoke with him. Despite the obvious risks to the kidnapper, Marietta kept him on the phone for more than an hour, ultimately providing the FBI with enough information to locate and capture him. His name was David Meirhofer. He had abducted and killed other children. In FBI custody, he confessed to murdering Susie Jaeger a week after taking her from the family’s tent. A few hours later, he committed suicide.
Given Meirhofer’s horrific revelation, it would be understandable for Marietta to abandon the course of forgiveness. Her husband never let go of his anger and he died of a heart attack at 56 after suffering for years with bleeding ulcers, but Marietta stayed the course. She began travelling around the country to speak with others about forgiveness, sharing her experience. She even befriended the kidnapper’s mother, Eleanor Huckert. “She and Huckert went together to visit the graves of their children,” the Health article concludes. “Afterward, the two mothers sat at the Huckerts’ dining room table sipping coffee and thumbing through old scrapbooks. There was David on the front porch – a rosy-cheeked little boy, scrubbed and eager to set out for his first day of school. As she studied the smiling boy in the snapshot, Marietta felt that her struggle to invest the faceless criminal with humanity was complete. ‘If you remain vindictive, you give the offender another victim,’ she says. ‘Anger, hatred, and resentment would have taken my life as surely as Susie’s life was taken.’”