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What Happened to Jacob Wetterling, the Minnesota Boy Missing for 27 Years Before His Body Was Found?
Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped off the side of the road in October of 1989. He remains weren't found until 27 years later.
In the fall of 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was snatched while on a bicycle ride at night in Minnesota by a masked gunman and never seen alive again. The case haunted the small community he was taken from, as well as the nation.
The boy’s case remained unsolved for more than two-and-a-half decades until 2016, when his abductor confessed to sexually assaulting, murdering and burying Jacob in rural Minnesota farmland.
In October of 2023, 34 years after Jacob’s abduction and murder, his mother released a book dealing with how she coped with the loss of a child and what she did to try to prevent other families from suffering such losses.
While Jacob's killer was never charged for his crimes against the boy thanks to a plea deal, the child's story led to a new law, as well as helped bring resources to families with missing or exploited children.
How was Jacob Wetterling kidnapped?
On the night of October 22, 1989, Jacob was riding his bike home in St. Joseph, Minnesota with his 10-year-old brother Trevor and his friend Aaron Larson. The boys had set out to go rent a video and buy snacks at a local convenience store, according to ABC News.
On their way back to the Wetterling residence, a masked man carrying a revolver stopped the three boys, told them to shut their flashlights off and lay down in a ditch, authorities said.
"I still remember my first reaction was, I think I let out a laugh almost, because I thought this must be a joke," Larson told ABC News. "It became real pretty quick."
The man grabbed Jacob and told the two other boys to run away and not look back or he would shoot them. Jacob and the gunman vanished without a trace.
Trevor and Larson hustled back to the Wetterling home and alerted Rochelle Curtis, a neighbor who was babysitting Jacob and Trevor’s younger sister, per ABC News. The neighbor’s father called Jacob’s parents, and then the police.
The next day, the search for Jacob expanded. The FBI joined the investigation. The community worked tirelessly to conduct searches around the abduction site. Detectives investigated tire tracks and shoe prints. Then came a composite sketch of what the abductor might look like, according to American Public Media.
Jacob’s face appeared on “missing” signs, highway billboards and milk cartons.
Who killed Jacob Wetterling?
Police found similarities in Jacob’s case to a string of child assault cases in Paynesville, Minnesota, which, like St. Joseph, is located in Stearns County. In 2014, the FBI's Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team re-examined the Wetterling case, which led investigators to put a Paynesville resident under the microscope, ABC News reported. His name was Danny Heinrich.
"He was just a name that we heard at the very beginning, and he was probably one of those five to seven that they couldn't clear just because his name kept coming up," Jacob’s mother Patty Wetterling told ABC News.
Heinrich was first questioned shortly after Jacob’s kidnapping but could never be linked to the crime. However, DNA evidence on the clothes of Jared Scheierl — a boy who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted in the same year and county as Jacob — matched with Heinrich, probing investigators to look into him in connection to Jacob’s case, according to NBC News. Heinrich was never charged in the Scheierl case because the statute of limitations had run out.
Heinrich was, however, arrested on child pornography charges in October 2015 based on images found in his home when police issued a search warrant, according to ABC News.
Nearly a year after he was arrested, Heinrich confessed to investigators that he was the man who abducted Jacob all those years ago, as a part of a plea deal in which he would plead guilty to one count of child pornography in exchange for a maximum 20-year sentence, CBS News reported.
Heinrich admitted to confronting the three boys on the night of October 22, 1989, according to a transcript of his confession in court obtained by CBS News,
“I was driving on a road, a dead-end road," he said. “I noticed three children on their bicycles with a flashlight. I pulled into a driveway, passed — after they passed me, turned around and faced the direction of the road that they would be coming back on. Approximately 20 minutes or so later, they came back. I stepped out of my car. I put a mask on. I reached for my revolver. I proceeded onto the road.”
He explained how the boys cooperated as he ordered them to climb into the ditch and asked their names and ages. He said he then took Jacob and told the other two boys to flee.
“I told Trevor and Aaron to run away, not look back or I would shoot, and I took Jacob back to my car,” Heinrich said. “I handcuffed him and put him in the front passenger seat of my car.”
When asked if Jacob said anything to him, Heinrich told the court that Jacob asked him, “What did I do wrong?”
Was Jacob Wetterling ever found?
Heinrich said that he sexually assaulted, then executed Jacob in a grove of trees. He then buried Jacob’s body as best he could. He said he went back a year later and transferred the boy’s remains to some farmland in Paynesville where he took investigators in 2016. On September 3, 2016, Minnesota authorities confirmed that Wetterling's remains were found, 27 years after he was kidnapped, according to NBC News. The Stearns County Sheriff's Office said that a medical examiner and forensic expert specializing in teeth confirmed the boy's identification.
Doug Kelley — the Wetterling family's attorney — told CBS News that the family believes that, without the plea deal, they would have never found Jacob.
"What Patty said to me is, 'Now maybe now we can find peace in our hearts,'" Kelley said.
The Legacy of Jacob Wetterling
For 27 years, Jacob's family and the nation hoped the Minnesota boy would come home. Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, also used that time to do whatever they could to diminish the exploitation and abduction of other children.
In 1990, they founded what is now called the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, which is committed to educating “the public about who takes children, how they do it and what each of us can do to stop it,” according to the website. “They turned their pain into action to help others.”
The Wetterling family’s activism led to the Wetterling Act — as it became known — which required all states to establish a registry of sex offenders.
"Jacob spurred Patty into being a bulldog, you know, for keeping kids safe," Jerry told ABC News.
"I am a believer in children," Patty said.
In her book, Dear Jacob: A Mother's Journey of Hope, Patty revealed the untold story of the near 30-year search for her son, which she faced with hope and optimism as the investigation unfolded.
"From the very beginning, I told her, 'Patty, there are other mothers who have lost their children, and there are other mothers who have missing children,'" co-author Joy Baker told the Star-Tribune. "'But there's no one like you who has gone on and changed laws and caught the attention of Congress and the president and spoke and made such a difference.”
Originally published Oct 13, 2023.