Minnesota family has answers after nearly 27 years
By Megan Hopps
SUN PRESS Newspapers
The Stearns County Sheriff’s Office confirmed Saturday, Sept. 3, that the remains of Jacob Wetterling’s body have been found.
The Ramsey County Medical Examiner and a forensic dentist also studied the remains and came to the same conclusion. Wetterling’s remains were found on a Paynesville area farm after authorities questioned long-time suspect, Daniel Heinrich of Annandale, Minn. Heinrich, 53, was named a “person of interest” in the case after officials discovered child pornography photos and video footage at his home as the result of a long-term child exploitation investigation. Officials have also linked Heinrich to the 1989 kidnapping and sexual assault of a 12-year-old Cold Spring boy. It is unclear what prompted Heinrich to disclose the location of the boy’s grave, but legal officials suspect the confession was part of a plea deal.
Jacob Wetterling was biking home from a convenience store with his brother and a friend the night of Oct. 22, 1989, in St. Joseph, Minn. when a masked gunman ordered the boys to throw their bikes into a ditch and lie down on the ground. The gunman kidnapped Jacob and told the other boys to run into the woods and not look back or they would be shot. Jacob was never seen again.
Around the time of Jacob’s disappearance, the area had seen a string of attacks on boys aged 9 to 15. The boys would report similar counts of what they had seen — a husky, masked white man would approach and grope groups of kids as they were walking or on bikes. The boys reported that his voice was raspy and he often made threats. Paynesville area kids knew him as “Chester the Molester.”
Each year on Jacob’s birthday, Feb. 17, 1978, and on the anniversary of his disappearance, Minnesotan’s would keep their porch lights on as a symbol of hope that he would one day return. Jacob’s disappearance would forever change the way parents watched over their children. The case shattered the state’s sense of safety and became the driving force behind the creation of national databases for registered sexual predators. The Wetterlings, who never doubted that their son was still alive, discovered the truth Saturday morning about what happened to their boy nearly three decades ago.
“Our hearts are broken,” Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling said. “We have no words.”
According to a statement issued from the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, Jacob was a boy with a big smile, sandy blonde hair and blue eyes. He loved his family, played the trombone and was the goalie on his school’s hockey team. He said that when he grew up he wanted to be a football player.
The search for Jacob spanned far and wide as case officials chased roughly 50,000 suspects. In the end, the search ended a mere 30 miles from St. Joseph, Minn. in Paynesville, Minn. Several area residents and businesses grieved with the family — some hanging ribbons outside their doors, others leaving flowers at the site where Jacob was last seen and at the end of the Wetterling’s driveway.
While the discovery of Jacob’s body answers some questions, it prompts many more. What happened before he was killed? How was he killed? Did Heinrich kill him right away or keep him alive for a period of time? If the sexual assault cases on Paynesville boys are related and the perpetrator was Heinrich, why would he touch some of the boys and kidnap, rape and kill others? Why Jacob?
And maybe, most importantly, how can we stop this from happening to other children in the future?
“We are in deep grief,” the Resource Center statement read. “We didn’t want Jacob’s story to end this way. Our hearts are heavy, but we are being held up be all of the people who have been a part of making Jacob’s Hope a light that will never be extinguished.”
The Sheriff’s Office said authorities are “reviewing and evaluating new evidence” and expect to provide more information on the developments in the case later this week.
Contact Megan Hopps at [email protected]