|Born||Jacob Erwin Wetterling
February 17, 1978
|Died||October 22, 1989
Rural Paynesville, Stearns County, Minnesota
|Cause of death||Gunshot|
|Body discovered||September 1, 2016
Paynesville, Minnesota, U.S.
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. 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 confessed to kidnapping and murdering Jacob Wetterling, as well as the abduction and assault of Jared Scheierl.
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 where they had gone to rent a video, 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. This was the last time Jacob was ever seen alive.
Ten months prior to the Wetterling abduction another boy had been kidnapped, placed into a car and sexually assaulted before being released. 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.
In early 2009, the Milwaukee Police Department discovered child pornography and an alleged video of Wetterling taken before the abduction in the home of Vernon Seitz, 62, of the St. Francis, Wisconsin, area. Seitz had died in his house, but officers asked for additional assistance after the pornography was discovered. Along with the child pornography, articles involving missing children and maps of the cities from which children had disappeared were found in Seitz's home. Seitz claimed that he had been abducted, sexually assaulted, beaten, and forced to kill a 14-year-old boy in 1959, but family members and local police doubt that this had occurred.
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".
Person of interest
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.
Danny James Heinrich
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. Heinrich's DNA was matched to an abduction of twelve-year-old Jared Scheierl, in Cold Spring, in January 1989. 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. A search warrant was granted, however, with child pornography being found during the search of Heinrich's house, which resulted in him being arrested on October 28, 2015.
Plea and discovery
Heinrich reportedly decided to cooperate with authorities as part of a plea bargain and, on September 1, 2016, led investigators to a burial site. 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. 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, those of 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."
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 Jack 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. He said he came back to the site a year later and moved the body, after noticing Wetterling's jacket had become exposed. During the court hearing, Heinrich also admitted to kidnapping and sexually assaulting another young boy earlier that year.
In exchange for Heinrich's plea, the prosecutors agreed not to charge him with Wetterling's murder. 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. 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."
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. It was the first law to institute a state sex-offender registry. 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.
In 2008, the foundation started by Jacob's parents became the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. 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".
The Bridge of Hope, a crossing of the Mississippi River near St. Cloud, is named in Jacob's honor. In 2016 APM Reports investigated the abduction of Jacob Wetterling and Stearns County sheriff failure to properly investigate and follow on leads. The 9 episode podcast "In the Dark"  serves as reminder that US justice system is one epic mess.
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