According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, approximately 800,000 children go missing each year, but 97% are returned unharmed within a few days. The vast majority either run away or are abducted by a relative, generally the non-custodial parent; most of the rest are taken by someone they know.
Every once in a while, though, there is a rare and sensational exception. The kidnapping of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was one of the oddest on record; the FBI could find no similar abduction in its files, past or present.
For over 27 years, the abduction of Wetterling was one of America’s most infamous kidnappings, and the clues to his fate were few and far between. Jacob Wetterling‘s kidnapping may have been unique, but of the 3% who do not return within a few days, the end result is all too common.
On the evening of October 22, 1989, 11-year-old Aaron Larson stayed overnight at Jacob’s home. It was a Sunday, but because of a teacher’s conference the following day, the boys would not have to go to school and could stay up later than usual.
Shortly after 9:00 p.m., Jacob called his parents, Jerry and Patty, who were attending a dinner party. He asked if he, Aaron, and Jacob’s 10-year-old brother, Trevor, could ride their bikes to the nearby Tom Thumb convenience store to rent a video. The store was only one mile from the Wetterling home.
After a bit of pleading, Jacob convinced his dad to let them go to the store. The boys left home shortly after 9:00 p.m. It was dark, but they all had lights on their bicycles.
Jerry told the boys to be careful and to watch out for cars. The thought of a lurking kidnapper never crossed his mind.
The boys arrived at the store, purchased a video, and headed back to the Wetterling home.
Halfway there, a masked man jumped out in front of them and ordered the boys off their bicycles. The boys laughed, believing it was an early Halloween gag: Aaron even said something to the effect that Halloween was still over a week away. But when the man repeated his instructions, this time brandishing a gun, the chuckles instantly turned to fear.
The masked man ordered the three boys to toss their bikes to the side of the road and lie face down. He then asked each boy his age, and each boy answered. The man ordered Trevor to run into the woods, saying he would be shot if he looked back. The gunman then ordered Aaron and Jacob to turn over; when they complied, he looked at each boy. He then ordered Aaron to run from the scene. Aaron caught up with Trevor, and when the two no longer heard voices, they looked back and saw nothing but darkness. The masked man, and Jacob, were gone.
With their hearts pounding and still in shock over what had occurred, Aaron and Trevor ran to the Wetterling home and summoned neighbor Merlyn Jerzak who called 911. Police arrived within minutes and immediately mounted a search, confident they would find the culprit and Jacob would be home that evening. They were wrong on both counts.
Despite the prompt action of police and the extensive national publicity, the kidnapper was not identified, and Jacob never came home.
As the days passed, police received thousands of tips of possible sightings of Jacob from across America, Canada, and even overseas. None, however, checked out.
Even as the years grew into two decades and then a quarter of a century, Jacob’s kidnapping continued to be periodically profiled on crime shows and news magazines. Despite the continued publicity and the offer of a $200,000 reward, few substantive leads surfaced in the case.
In May 2014, investigators announced they believed Jacob’s 1989 kidnapping was related to the sexual assaults of five teenage boys, which had occurred southwest of St. Joseph in 1986 and ’87. The assaults occurred in and around Cold Spring and Paynesville, 11 and 28 miles, respectively, from St. Joseph.
All of the boys, like Jacob, were kidnapped from the roadside. All of the others, however, were taken in daylight. All were sexually molested and, unlike Jacob, were then released. No arrests were made, and no suspects were publicly named.
One of the Cold Spring’s victims, twelve-year-old Jared Scheierl, had been abducted and sexually assaulted in January of 1989, seven months before Jacob’s kidnapping.
It was not until October 2015 that DNA from his sexual assault was found to match that of Danny Heinrich, a lifelong area resident living in Paynesville at the time of the attack.
Heinrich was interviewed by investigators in December 1989, two months after Jacob’s kidnapping, and again several months later. He bore a strong resemblance to the composite made based on Jared’s description of his attacker. Police, however, could find no evidence linking him to the crime, and Jared did not pick him out of a photo lineup.
Heinrich’s DNA was taken, but it would be nearly 27 years before the technology advanced enough to produce a match to that found on Jared Scheierl.
Heinrich could not be charged with the sexual assault of Jared Scheierl because the statute limitations for the crime had expired. When they searched his home, police found thousands of images of child pornography involving young boys on his computer. Heinrich was arrested on October 28, 2015, and charged with multiple counts of possession of child pornography.
Because of the similarities between Jared and Jacob’s cases, Heinrich was also officially named as a person of interest in the 1989 kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling. With the federal pornography charges certain to imprison him for the rest of his life, Danny Heinrich decided it was time to come clean.
In August 2016, the imprisoned Heinrich, through his attorney, told authorities he was the man in the mask from that October evening of nearly 27 years ago. He agreed to lead them to Jacob’s remains in exchange for a reduced sentence.
On September 1, 2016, Heinrich led investigators to some farmland near Paynesville, approximately 30 miles from where Jacob was abducted. After an hour of digging, Jacob’s clothing was found.
Human remains were discovered a short time later. On September 3, dental records confirmed the remains were Jacob’s.
Under the terms of the agreement, for revealing the location of Jacob’s remains, Heinrich, plead guilty to only one of the 25 federal child pornography charges. He had to testify in court about the sexual assault of Jared Scheierl and give the details of Jacob’s kidnapping and murder but would not be charged with either crime.
In a soft, somber tone far from the demanding and thundering tone of 1989, Danny Heinrich described in chilling detail how he ended Jacob Wetterling’s life.
Heinrich testified that he drove Jacob to a remote location near Paynesville, where he handcuffed and sexually molested him. Afterward, he uncuffed Jacob and told him to get dressed. As Jacob was doing so, Heinrich said he was crying, “What did I do wrong?” and begging, “Please take me home.”
Heinrich claimed he told Jacob he would take him home and planned to let him go, but the sirens of a police car racing to the kidnapping scene caused him to panic. Instead of releasing Jacob, as he had done with his other victims, Heinrich shot him in the back of the head and buried him at the locale near a gravel pit.
A year later, Heinrich says he returned to the site and found that Jacob’s jacket had risen to the surface, becoming visible. He then moved the remains and reburied them on the farmland where they would be found.
In accordance with the plea agreement, Danny Heinrich was sentenced to the maximum prison term of 20 years for the child pornography charge. He will be eligible for parole after 17 years, in 2033, when he will be 70 years old.
State authorities may seek Heinrich’s civil commitment as a sexual predator at the end of his federal prison term, which could prevent him from ever going free. Should he ever be released from prison, he will be required to register as a sexual offender for the rest of his life.
Investigators say they are certain Jacob is the only person Heinrich murdered.
Four months after Jacob’s abduction, his parents, Jerry and Patty Wetterling formed the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, an advocacy group for children’s safety. In 1994, the federal Jacob Wetterling Act was passed. It was the first law to institute a state sex-offender registry.
Patty Wetterling ran for the congressional seat of Minnesota’s sixth district in 2004 and 2006 but was defeated both times. She is the current chair of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
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