Five years ago this week, a shock confession from a convicted sex offender solved the 27-year mystery of a young boy’s murder.
In October 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was out cycling with his younger brother and a friend near his home in St. Joseph, Minnesota. The three were confronted by an armed man who ordered the other two boys to run away and abducted Jacob.
He was never seen alive again.
Between the summer of 1986 and the spring of 1987, similar attacks had been made on eight teenage boys in the area, but no arrests were made in what police called the “Paynesville Assault Cluster”.
In January 1989, 12-year-old local boy Jared Scheierl was kidnapped at gunpoint and sexually assaulted. The description of the attack in Scheierl’s statement matched almost exactly the statements of the two witnesses to Jacob’s abduction.
Danny James Heinrich was interviewed by the FBI in connection with Jacob’s abduction in December of that year. However, they could not find evidence to link him with the crime and he was later released.
But a DNA sample taken as part of that interview process was later matched with evidence from the Scheierl case. While a legal technicality prevented police from arresting Heinrich for that crime, a search of his house turned up a quantity of child abuse images leading to his arrest on October 28, 2015.
Heinrich decided to try to do a deal with prosecutors. In a chilling confession he calmly described the long-unsolved crime to them in horrifying detail.
Heinrich told how he targeted the three young boys: “I stepped out of my car, put on a mask and reached for my revolver. I told them to get in the ditch with their bicycles. I asked their names and their ages.”
The three lads offered to give him the videotape they had just rented but he refused and told two of the boys to “run away and not look back” or he would shoot them.
Then, he said, he handcuffed Jacob’s hands behind his back and bundled the boy in to his car, forcing him to hunch down in the heat so he wouldn’t be seen by passing police cars.
“When we got out of town,” he said, “I told him he could get up.”
Heinrich admitted that he forced Jacob to undress and then sexually assaulted him.
“About 20 minutes later, he said, ‘I’m cold’ …I said, ‘OK, you can get dressed.’”
He described how Jacob started crying during the attack. While Heinrich said he had been avoiding police patrols by using a police radio scanner he panicked when he saw a police car drive by.
Then, he told federal prosecutor Steve Schleicher, “I told him I had to go to the bathroom and to turn around”.
He pointed his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver at the boy’s head and pulled the trigger.
At first the gun wouldn’t fire, so he pulled the trigger again.
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“I looked back, and he was still standing,” he said. “I raised the gun and shot him again, and that’s when he fell to the ground.”
He said he left Jacob’s body at the scene, before returning an hour later and burying it.
Then he led investigators to the crime scene and showed the where he had buried Jacob’s body. In the shallow grave, police finally found hard evidence to link Heinrich with the series of abduction and sexual assaults – and the brutal murder of Jacob Wetterling.
Jacob’s mother Patty Wetterling tearfully told reporters that said listening to Heinrich’s confession was “heartbreaking”.
“I want to say to Jacob, ‘I am so sorry,’ she said.
“It’s incredibly painful to know his last days, last hours, last minutes. Our hearts are hurting. For us, Jacob was alive until we found him.”
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