One autumn evening in October 1989, a masked man abducted an 11-year-old boy at gunpoint as he rode his bike near his rural Minnesota home. The kidnapping marked the beginning of an excruciating, decades-long search for answers for the boy's family, who never saw him alive again. Now, just days after agreeing to tell authorities where to find the child's remains, Jacob Wetterling's alleged killer has confessed to the heinous crime that terrified a community 27 years after he admittedly committed it — and provided heartbreaking details about the child's ordeal.
Officials investigating the harrowing Wetterling case have long suspected that Danny Heinrich, now 53, was involved with Wetterling's disappearance, but they've never been able to harness the evidence to charge him, according to CBS News. That changed when they took a new, intensive look at the case around the crime's 25th anniversary, and connected Heinrich through DNA evidence to the sexual assault of another boy, and used that revelation to secure a search warrant for his home last October. There, authorities reportedly found enough graphic images to charge him with 25 counts of possession of child pornography.
So, even though he's confessed to being responsible for Wetterling's kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder, Heinrich won't actually be charged for these crimes; He admitted to them as part of a plea deal in the child porn case, and now faces up to 20 years in prison upon sentencing, scheduled for Nov. 21.
On Tuesday, in a crowded courtroom that contained both of Wetterling's parents, Heinrich replied, "Yes, I did," when asked whether he committed the many atrocities against the young boy back back in 1989. He went on to describe how he had spotted Wetterling, his younger brother, and a friend riding their bikes while he drove on a dead-end road, according to The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and soon ordered the other two to run before forcing Wetterling into his vehicle. At a nearby gravel pit, he allegedly molested the boy before shooting him in the back of the head because Heinrich "panicked."
Heinrich then claimed he had buried the boy nearby, and returned to the location a year later to move the body when he realized the grave had become partly uncovered. It was to that new burial site that Heinrich provided investigators with detailed instructions to find last week in exchange for the opportunity to plead guilty to just one charge related to the child pornography.
Heinrich also confessed to the kidnapping and assault of the other boy, who was 12 at the time but is now 40 and has talked openly about his experience.
"Danny Heinrich is no longer a person of interest," U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota Andrew Luger said, according to CBS News. "He is the confessed murderer of Jacob Wetterling, and nearly 27 years after he committed this heinous crime, he has been brought to justice. And Jacob is finally home."
The return of Wetterling's remains to his grieving family is the end of one part of their traumatic journey, but it's by no means a total balm on their aching hearts to know for certain that he is dead, and that he had been for virtually the entire time that they have been looking for him. After the hearing, Wetterling's mother, Patty Wetterling, described her unimaginable grief, as the Star Tribune reported:
I want to say "Jacob, I’m so sorry." 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.
Besides the fact that the people who cared about Wetterling and those who worked for decades to determine what happened to him no longer have to agonize over the possibility of never knowing his fate, perhaps the one truly positive aspect of Heinrich's confession and near-certain impending decades-long incarceration is that he'll be locked away, far from the children he once admittedly terrorized.