Jacob Wetterling

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Jacob Wetterling
Born Jacob Erwin Wetterling
(1978-02-17)February 17, 1978
Long Prairie, Minnesota
Died October 22, 1989(1989-10-22) (aged 11)
Rural Paynesville, Stearns County, Minnesota
Cause of death Gunshot
Body discovered September 1, 2016 (2016-09-01)
Paynesville, Minnesota, U.S.
Jacob's final resting place. (undisclosed location).

Jacob Erwin Wetterling (February 17, 1978 – October 22, 1989) was a boy from St. Joseph, Minnesota, who was kidnapped from his hometown and murdered at the age of 11 on October 22, 1989. His abduction remained a mystery for nearly 27 years.

On September 1, 2016, the FBI recovered human remains from a pasture near Paynesville, Minnesota, about 30 miles (48 km) from the site of the abduction. On September 3, the family announced the remains were those of Jacob, and local law enforcement stated that confirmation of their identity had been obtained through dental records.[1][2] The location was revealed by Danny Heinrich, a long-time person of interest in the abduction of another boy, Jared Scheierl, in the nearby town of Cold Spring. On September 6, 2016, Heinrich admitted that he kidnapped and murdered Jacob Wetterling, and that he abducted and sexually assaulted Jared Scheierl.[3]


Red circle: Convenience store
Black circle: Kidnapping location
Blue circle: Jacob Wetterling's home

On Sunday, October 22, 1989, just after 9:00 p.m. (CDT), Jacob Wetterling (11), his younger brother Trevor (10), and a friend, Aaron Larson (11), were biking home from a Tom Thumb convenience store in St. Joseph, Minnesota, where they had gone to rent a video,[4] when Danny Heinrich, wearing a stocking cap mask and armed with an unloaded revolver, came out of a driveway and ordered the boys to throw their bikes into a ditch and lie face down on the ground. He then asked each boy his age. Jacob's brother was told to run toward a nearby wooded area and not look back or else he would be shot. Heinrich then demanded to view the faces of the two remaining boys. He picked Jacob, and told his friend to run away and not look back otherwise he would shoot.[5] This was the last time Jacob was ever seen alive.


On January 13, 1989, roughly ten months before the Wetterling abduction, 12-year-old Jared Scheierl was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and physically threatened by an unknown adult man. The victim's statement given on that night showed the modus operandi was similar to the Wetterling case: the perpetrator, who was later identified as Heinrich, used a gun and upon releasing the boy told him to run and not look back or else he would be shot. That incident occurred ten miles from the location where he stopped Wetterling, his brother, and friend.[6]

On June 30, 2010, investigators with search warrants descended upon a farm near the abduction site. "Items of interest" were found and hauled away in six truckloads of dirt from the site to search for evidence. Forensic testing was unable to "establish, distinguish or identify potential evidence".[7]

Person of interest[edit]

In May 2014, investigators confirmed that they were taking another look at a series of attempted and actual child molestations that occurred in the Paynesville area in the two years leading up to the Wetterling abduction and murder. Between the summer of 1986 and the spring of 1987, five teenage boys were attacked. No one was ever arrested. The authorities re-interviewed some of the victims and worked with the Internet blogger who brought the information to light. After months of research and interviews with some of the victims, investigators believed that these attacks were not random and that the culprit could be connected to the abduction of Wetterling, located just 40 minutes away from the other crime scenes.[8]

Danny James Heinrich[edit]

In October 2015, a person of interest, Danny James Heinrich, was publicly named in regard to Wetterling's disappearance. He had been questioned by the FBI on December 16, 1989 and a DNA sample was taken, but he was not charged with a crime and was let go.[9][10][11] Heinrich's DNA was matched to an abduction of twelve-year-old Jared Scheierl, in Cold Spring, in January 1989.[12] The statute of limitations in effect in 1989 had expired for the Cold Spring kidnapping, meaning Heinrich could not be arrested and charged with that crime.[13] A search warrant was granted, however, with child pornography being found during the search of Heinrich's house, which resulted in his arrest on October 28, 2015. [10][11][13]

Plea and discovery[edit]

Heinrich decided to cooperate with authorities as part of a plea bargain and, on September 1, 2016, led investigators to a burial site.[14] Jacob's clothing and human remains were unearthed from a pasture near Paynesville, about 30 miles away from Wetterling's home and abduction site, and a short distance from where Heinrich was living in 1989.[1] On September 3, the remains were confirmed through dental records to be Jacob's. Jacob's mother, Patty Wetterling, told television station KARE, a local NBC affiliate, that the remains found were indeed Jacob's. She said: "All I can confirm is that Jacob has been found and our hearts are broken. I am not responding to any media yet as I have no words."[15][16][17]

In the plea agreement, Heinrich agreed to plead guilty to one count of the 25 federal child pornography charges brought against him. In addition to revealing the location of the body and pleading guilty, he also agreed to testify what he did to Jacob Wetterling. At a court hearing before Judge John Tunheim of the United States District Court in Minneapolis, Heinrich testified that he kidnapped and handcuffed the boy, drove him to a gravel pit near Paynesville, molested him, killed him, and buried his body. Heinrich said he was able to avoid police that night by listening to a police scanner.[18][19] He said he came back to the site a year later and moved the body, after noticing Wetterling's jacket had become exposed.[3] During the court hearing, Heinrich also admitted to kidnapping and sexually assaulting another young boy earlier that year.[18]

In exchange for Heinrich's plea, the prosecutors agreed not to charge him with Wetterling's murder.[20] In accordance with the plea agreement, Heinrich was sentenced to the maximum sentence for the charge to which he pled, 20 years in prison. In addition, the plea deal allows state authorities to seek his civil commitment as a sexual predator at the end of his federal prison term, which could prevent him from ever going free.[21] In sentencing Heinrich, Judge Tunheim said:

"We won't pretend that this crime and sentence is about child pornography. It is also about changing the lives of so many children and parents, who prayed for Jacob's return, and also feared you coming out of the dark... every child knows the story of Jacob Wetterling. You stole the innocence of children in small towns, in the cities of Minnesota and beyond."

Although in theory Heinrich could be released in 17 years, Judge Tunheim told him that was unlikely, as "this crime is so heinous, so brutal and awful that it is unlikely society will ever let you go free."[22]

In January 2017, Heinrich was transferred to Federal Medical Center, Devens, a federal prison in Massachusetts, to serve his 20-year sentence.[23]


Four months after Wetterling'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 and named for Jacob.[24] It was the first law to institute a state sex-offender registry.[25] The law has been amended several times, most famously by Megan's Law in 1996 and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006.[26]

In 2008, the foundation started by Jacob's parents became the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center.[27] It carries on the work started by the Wetterling family "to educate the public about who takes children, how they do it and what each of us can do to stop it".[28]

The Bridge of Hope, a crossing of the Mississippi River near St. Cloud, is named in Jacob's honor.[29]


  1. ^ a b Ross, Jenna; Brooks, Jennifer (September 4, 2016). "Paynesville reeling with news about Jacob". Star Tribune. Retrieved September 4, 2016. 
  2. ^ "Authorities confirm: Jacob found". SCTimes. Saint Cloud, Minnesota. September 4, 2016. Retrieved September 4, 2016. 
  3. ^ a b Williams, Brandt, case-court-appearance Heinrich confesses to kidnapping, killing Jacob Wetterling. Minnesota Public Radio, September 6, 2016.
  4. ^ Davidson, Beth. "Jacob Wetterling Resource Center History - Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center". www.gundersenhealth.org. Retrieved September 4, 2016. 
  5. ^ Plummer, William; Nelson, Margaret (November 20, 1989). "A Town Prays for a Missing Son". People. 32 (21). Retrieved January 1, 2016. 
  6. ^ "Hidden Traces". CourtTV. November 21, 2002. Archived from the original on November 21, 2002. Retrieved September 5, 2016. 
  7. ^ Forliti, Amy (September 28, 2010). "Minn. officials: No break in 1989 abduction case". Boston.com. Associated Press. Retrieved March 15, 2015. 
  8. ^ Theisen, Scott (September 6, 2016). "Timeline of Events in Jacob Wetterling's Abduction". 
  9. ^ a b Furst, Randy (October 29, 2015). "'Person of interest' named in 1989 Jacob Wetterling disappearance". Star Tribune. Retrieved October 29, 2015. 
  10. ^ a b "Heinrich to be kept in jail, a 'danger to the community'". KARE-11. 
  11. ^ "Assault victim hopes break in his case ends Jacob Wetterling mystery". CBS News. November 3, 2015. 
  12. ^ a b "Court Documents: Annandale Man, 52, A Suspect In Jacob Wetterling Case". October 29, 2015. Retrieved October 29, 2015. 
  13. ^ "Sources: Jacob Wetterling's Remains Have Been Found". KTSP. Retrieved September 3, 2016. 
  14. ^ "Patty Wetterling: "Jacob has been found and our hearts are broken," KARE reports". Northland News Center. September 3, 2016. Archived from the original on September 4, 2016. Retrieved September 3, 2016. 
  15. ^ "Jacob Wetterling Remains Found After 27 Years, Authorities Confirm". Patch. Retrieved September 3, 2016. 
  16. ^ "Jacob Wetterling: remains of boy missing for 27 years are found in Minnesota". The Guardian. Associated Press. September 3, 2016. Retrieved September 4, 2016. 
  17. ^ a b Divine, Mary; Horner, Sarah (September 6, 2016). "In chilling confession, Jacob Wetterling's fate is finally revealed". St. Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved September 6, 2016. 
  18. ^ "Heinrich Admits To Kidnapping Wetterling In Federal Court". CBS Local. September 6, 2016. Retrieved September 6, 2016. 
  19. ^ "Danny Heinrich confesses to abducting and killing Jacob Wetterling". Minneapolis Star-Tribune. September 6, 2016. Retrieved September 6, 2016. 
  20. ^ "Jacob Wetterling's killer: "I am truly sorry for my evil acts"". CBS News. November 21, 2016. Retrieved December 29, 2016. 
  21. ^ Nelson, Tim, 'Truly sorry for my evil acts': Jacob Wetterling's killer gets 20 years. Minnesota Public Radio, November 21, 2016.
  22. ^ Divine, Mary, Jacob Wetterling's killer reaches final prison destination. twincities.com (St. Paul Pioneer Press), January 24, 2017.
  23. ^ Wootson, Cleve R., A Minnesota boy was kidnapped at gunpoint in 1989. Police have finally found his body. Washington Post, September 4, 2016.
  24. ^ Ramirez, Jessica (January 29, 2007). "The Abductions That Changed America". Newsweek. 149 (5): 54–55. ISSN 0028-9604. 
  25. ^ Terry, Karen J. and Ackerman, Elissa R. "A Brief History of Major Sex Offender Laws", published in Sex Offender Laws: Failed Policies, New Directions, table 3.2, p. 54. Springer Publishing Co (2014).
  26. ^ "Who we are: History". Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. Retrieved September 6, 2016. 
  27. ^ "Jacob Wetterling Resource Center History". Winona State University. 2016. Retrieved September 7, 2016. 
  28. ^ "Session weekly – A non-partisan publication of the Minnesota House of Representatives". Minnesota House of Representatives. 12 (16). April 21, 1995. Retrieved September 4, 2016. 

See also[edit]

  • In the Dark, an American Public Media-produced podcast that devoted its first season to the Wetterling case and the Stearns County Sheriff's Office's failure to properly investigate and follow on leads.

External links[edit]