Heinrich confesses to Jacob Wetterling’s death
For nearly 27 years, Patty Wetterling has asked a simple question to a world that has watched in pain and, until recently, in vain:
That question was answered late last week with the discovery of Jacob’s remains at a Stearns County farm near Paynesville.
On Tuesday, Danny Heinrich admitted in federal court how he kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed Jacob with two gunshots. Heinrich didn’t answer the question of why.
But in wrenching detail and with a flat, matter-of-fact tone, he told a federal judge about the October night in 1989 when he kidnapped 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling at gunpoint, launching one of the most heart-rending mysteries in Minnesota history.
“Finally we know. We know what the Wetterling family and all of Minnesota have longed to know since that awful night in 1989. We know the truth. Danny Heinrich is no longer a person of interest,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger. “He is the confessed murderer of Jacob Wetterling.”
Heinrich, 53, pleaded guilty to one count of receiving child pornography. As part of the plea agreement, he recounted what happened to Jacob after he was taken at gunpoint along a rural St. Joseph road by a masked man who let his brother and his best friend go.
In exchange, Heinrich is expected to receive a 20-year federal prison sentence that allows him the chance to get out of prison if he lives long enough. That plea agreement had the blessing of the Wetterling family.
Heinrich will not be tried in Jacob Wetterling’s death
Heinrich told a packed courtroom that he handcuffed Jacob’s arms behind his back after telling his brother, Trevor, and friend Aaron Larson to run and not look back or he would shoot. A hushed courtroom heard Heinrich recount what a terrified Jacob said next.
“What did I do wrong?” he asked Heinrich.
Heinrich described how he saw the boys bike past him while he was driving on the road leading to the Wetterling residence. The kids were going to rent a video, and Heinrich pulled around in a driveway near the abduction site and waited.
When the boys biked past on their way home, Heinrich put on a mask, grabbed a .38-caliber handgun and ordered the boys into the ditch. One of the boys offered up the video they had rented, apparently thinking that’s why Heinrich was accosting them.
One tried to shine a flashlight in Heinrich’s face. Heinrich slapped the video away and said not to flash the light on him.
He asked each boy his name and age, then let two of the boys go.
He cuffed Jacob and put him in the front passenger seat of his car, driving toward his hometown of Paynesville. With a police scanner in the car, Heinrich could hear the response of law enforcement rushing to the abduction site.
He took Jacob to a rural area near a gravel pit and forced the boy to undress, then sexually assaulted him. After 20-30 minutes, Jacob told Heinrich he was cold. Heinrich let Jacob get dressed.
“Are you taking me home?” Heinrich said Jacob asked him.
“I can’t take you all the way home,” Heinrich said, noting the massive police presence at the abduction site.
“He started to cry,” Heinrich told the court.
“I said ‘Don’t cry,'” Heinrich said.
Then, a police car drove by, with no lights or sirens, and Heinrich panicked.
He loaded the handgun and told Jacob to look the other way because Heinrich needed to urinate, Heinrich told the court.
“I, uh, I uh, raised the revolver to his head” and pulled the trigger, Heinrich said. The weapon didn’t fire and Heinrich fired again. Jacob was still standing when Heinrich pulled the trigger a third time, shooting Jacob again.
“I left him and went home,” Heinrich said.
A couple of hours later he returned to the site with a shovel, but realized he needed more than that to dig a big enough grave. He went to a nearby construction company, commandeered a Bobcat and dug a grave. After filling it in with dirt, he tried to camouflage it with grass and brush.
As he walked home, he took Jacob’s shoes and threw them into a ravine.
About a year later, he returned to the site at night and saw the remains and the red jacket that Jacob had been wearing protruding from the ground. He gathered up the remains and clothing and moved Jacob’s remains to a site on a nearby farm.
Patty Wetterling said at a press conference after the plea that their family’s “hearts are hurting.”
“Jacob, I’m so sorry. It’s incredibly painful to know his last day, his last hours, his last moments,” she said.
Heinrich is an “evil, serial predator,” said Richard T. Thornton, FBI special agent in charge for the Minneapolis Division.
Heinrich also on Tuesday admitted that he had kidnapped and sexually assaulted Jared Scheierl nine months before the Wetterling abduction. In recounting that night, Heinrich said he was “driving around Cold Spring, looking for a child” when he spotted Scheierl on a dark street.
After sexually assaulting Scheierl, Heinrich let him go, telling him to run and not look back or he’d shoot him.
Heinrich kept the boy’s underwear and pants.
“A souvenir I guess,” Heinrich said in court Tuesday.
There were “striking similarities” between the Scheierl and Wetterling abductions, Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said.
A DNA match to the Scheierl case opened more investigative doorways.
“That DNA confirmation triggered a series of carefully planned and thought-out events,” Sanner said.
The DNA match and details of the Wetterling abduction were part of the evidence used to get a search warrant last year for Heinrich’s Annandale house, where investigators found dozens of images of child pornography.
Facing the prospect of a lengthy federal child pornography sentence, Heinrich instead agreed to the plea deal and led authorities to Jacob’s body Wednesday.
“This is not the ending that any of us wanted,” Sanner said.
Luger described Heinrich as volatile and unpredictable, saying that there were windows of opportunity that opened for a plea deal, windows that would close quickly. On Aug. 26, Heinrich’s lawyers reached out and said there was a chance.
“We had to grab the moment,” Luger said.
Heinrich took investigators to a spot where he said he buried Jacob. Investigators found a red St. Cloud hockey jacket consistent with the one Jacob was wearing when he was abducted.
But investigators didn’t find the additional evidence they needed and interviewed Heinrich again Sept. 1. That interview lasted late into the evening, and led to a second excavation that revealed bones, teeth and a shirt with the name Wetterling on it, Luger said.
“There is great sadness and heartbreak in our state today, and an outpouring of grief for Jacob and what he went through and for the Wetterling family,” Luger said. “But I hope that this is also a time for neighbors and complete strangers to come together and begin the healing process.”
Heinrich was arrested, but not charged, years ago for the Scheierl abduction and sexual assault that happened nine months before the Wetterling kidnapping.
A series of attacks and groping incidents happened in the mid-to-late 1980s in Paynesville, near where Heinrich lived at the time. There was no mention of those attacks in court Tuesday and Luger declined to discuss them at a news conference afterward.
He said that Heinrich isn’t considered a suspect in any other cases that investigators know of.
As part of his plea, Heinrich acknowledged that he could be subject to a civil commitment after he serves his criminal sentence.
Heinrich has been jailed in Sherburne County since his arrest last summer. He’s scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 21.