Patty and Jerry Wetterling spent more time looking for their son than they spent raising him.
For 27 years they searched for Jacob, just 12 years old when a stranger abducted him in 1989.
Then, in eight days, a case that gripped the nation and defined the Wetterlings’ life was over.
In that time, the Wetterlings went from learning that a longtime person of interest was willing to lead authorities to Jacob’s body, to sitting in court, hearing that man recount how he molested their son and shot him to death out of fear that police were on to him.
“I don’t even know how to describe what it felt like when hearing his words,” Patty Wetterling told CNN affiliate WCCO.
“All I could do is look at him and say, ‘How could you?'”
For the first time since that day in court in September, the Wetterlings sat down with WCCO’s Esme Murphy and reflected on the abrupt end to their search.
“It was actually absolutely stunning to try and process,” Patty Wetterling said. “How you shift your head from hoping and searching and to now knowing that he wasn’t alive, and what a horrible death?”
The plea deal
The case garnered worldwide attention and was featured on the CNN series “The Hunt with John Walsh.”
Jacob disappeared from a dark road in rural St. Joseph, Minnesota, the night of October 22, 1989. He was returning home from a convenience store with his brother and a friend when a man wearing a stocking mask and holding a gun approached.
The man asked the boys their ages, grabbed Jacob and told the others to run into the woods or else he’d shoot. Jacob was never seen again.
Danny James Heinrich was questioned in 1989. He came back into focus in 2015 when law enforcement officers decided to re-examine evidence using DNA testing technology that was unavailable in 1989.
They discovered Heinrich’s DNA on the clothing of a victim in a kidnapping and sexual assault case nine months before Jacob was abducted, according to a criminal complaint. In that incident, a man pulled a 12-year-old boy into a car in Cold Spring, a town about 10 miles from St. Joseph, and forced him to perform oral sex, the affidavit said. The man let the boy go after threatening his life.
Federal agents used the DNA evidence to obtain a July search warrant for Heinrich’s house in an effort to find evidence in the two abductions.
Agents found a large stash of child pornography, most of it concerning young boys, and bins of boy’s clothing, the affidavit said. Among the stash, agents found news reports of Jacob’s abduction, the affidavit said.
Heinrich was charged with four counts of possession of child pornography and one count of receipt of child pornography for alleged crimes between August 16, 2009, and July 28, 2015.
Then, while in prison, Heinrich told authorities he was willing to lead authorities to Jacob’s body in exchange for a plea deal.
The Wetterlings agreed, but it wasn’t easy.
“For nearly 27 years we’ve been looking for Jacob, we wanted to know where is Jacob,” Patty Wetterling said.
The next day, the lead prosecutor called and told them they’d found something. The Wetterlings went to a farm in Paynesville and identified his red jacket.
Even after all that time, one of the hardest things the Wetterlings had to do was break the news to their surviving children.
“One thing nobody will ever know is the intensity of these phone calls, we had to call our children and tell them they found his jacket, those were grueling phone calls to make,” Patty Wetterling said.
Heinrich pleaded guilty to one count of child pornography in exchange for a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. In return, he admitted the chilling details of Jacob’s murder and pleaded guilty to kidnapping and sexual assault of another boy. He will be sentenced later this month.
Today, the agony of the unknown has been replaced with the horrifying knowledge of their son’s final days. With love and support from the community, they’re getting through.
“That gunshot snuffed his breath out October 22, 1989, but his spirit is so strong you can see how it effects people,” Jerry Wetterling said.