After 27 long years, the man who abducted and killed 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota in October of 1989 finally confessed to the heinous crimes. But because of a plea deal involving child pornography charges against him, Danny James Heinrich, 53, will not be prosecuted for Jacob’s murder. According to Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner, the “willingness to make compromises” by investigators, prosecutors, and the Wetterling family led to the confession by Heinrich.
“State officials have agreed that there will be no state prosecution for the crimes committed in 1989,” U.S. District Judge John Tunheim said Tuesday before a packed federal courtroom in Minneapolis.
At a news conference soon after and with family members in attendance, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said, “Finally, we know … We know the truth. Danny Heinrich is no long the person of interest; he is the confessed killer of Jacob Wetterling.”
Luger added that he hopes this can be the time for family, friends and neighbors to “begin the healing process.”
Healing may be difficult for Jacob’s loved ones now that they’ve heard the God-awful details of Jacob’s last moments on earth. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, sat in the front row of the courtroom wearing pins with Jacob’s face on them, as Heinrich described that fateful night “in horrifying detail.”
“What did I do wrong?” Heinrich said Jacob asked, after he was grabbed and forced into the man’s car that night.
Heinrich said “I was driving on a dead-end road” outside St. Joseph on the evening of Oct. 22, 1989 when he saw three young boys on their bikes with a flashlight. He confronted the boys, and told two of them — Jacob’s younger brother, Trevor, and best friend, Aaron Larson — to run, and took Jacob into his car, handcuffing him in the front passenger seat.
In his car, he had a scanner and heard police responding to the abduction. He told Jacob to duck down.
He drove a bit, then pulled his vehicle into an area near a gravel pit.
He said he walked Jacob to a stand of trees, took off his handcuffs and clothes and molested him.
“I’m cold,” Jacob told him.
Heinrich said he replied “OK, you can get dressed.”
Jacob asked to go home, but Heinrich told him he couldn’t take him all the way home.
Jacob started to cry.
“I panicked. I pulled the revolver out of my pocket … I loaded it with two rounds. I told Jacob to turn around,” Heinrich said.
“I told him I had to go to the bathroom,” Heinrich said. “I raised the revolver to his head. I turned my head and it clicked once. I pulled the trigger again and it went off. Looked back, he was still standing.
“I raised the revolver again and shot him again.”
Heinrich said he left the scene but went back later to bury his body.
Heinrich led authorities to Jacob Wetterling’s remains on a Paynesville farm last week.
For this, Heinrich faces a maximum 20-year sentence on the child pornography count. He will also be required to register with the state as a sex offender after his prison sentence ends.
Next page: Heinrich was a suspect from the beginning.
In 1989 in Minnesota, the kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling — every parent’s nightmare come true — was treated as the crime of the century. For many months, the local news was saturated with new details and leads in the case. And the distressing story was revisited for years on end. In 1998, Patty Wetterling wrote an open letter that was published in several papers in which she begged his abductor to tell her what had happened to her son. This led to more than 50,000 “leads” from as far away as Europe. Investigators talked with psychics, checked sightings of Jacob look-alikes and cleared more than 4,000 suspects.
But the whole time, the poor boy was buried in a grave only thirty minutes away from where he had been abducted.
Initially, he said, he used a Bobcat to dig a hole and bury Jacob and camouflage the area with grass and twigs.
But, he said, he went back to the site a year later and noticed the grave was partly uncovered and Jacob’s jacket could be seen above the ground.
Heinrich gathered up Jacob’s body, put it in a bag and transported it across the highway to where he buried it for a final time just outside Paynesville.
Throughout his detailed confession, sobs could be heard throughout the courtroom.
He also said that he did not know Jacob, or another boy — Jared Scheierl — who he molested nine months earlier, in Cold Spring.
As part of his confession, Heinrich also detailed the assault on Scheierl, who was 12 at the time he was abducted and molested.
Heinrich, who was indicted last year on 25 child pornography counts, had been scheduled to go to trial next month on the charges before he led investigators to Jacob’s remains.
He pleaded guilty Tuesday to one of the 25 charges against him. In exchange for his plea and confession, the other counts were dismissed.
In fact, Heinrich had been a suspect in Wetterling’s case since the beginning:
Investigators thought it likely that the same man had abducted both Jacob and Jared, based on the crimes’ similarities, and saw Heinrich as “a likely suspect,” Al Garber, the FBI investigator who supervised the Wetterling case, said last October, at the time of Heinrich’s arrest. “So we investigated with everything that we could.”
They followed Heinrich for weeks. They had the laboratory test hairs and fibers. They searched his father’s house. In February 1990, they arrested Heinrich in the kidnapping and assault of Scheierl “based on this very circumstantial evidence,” Garber said. “We tried to get him to talk.” Heinrich “stated emphatically he was not guilty, that he was being framed, and that he was not going to talk to the interviewing agents,” court documents say. He was released.
Jacob’s mother fought back tears in her remarks after the hearing: “It’s incredibly painful to know his last days, his last minutes,” she said. She added that the family’s “hearts are hurting. For us, Jacob was alive until we found him.”