When you were a kid, were you afraid of the dark?
Maybe you needed to keep the hall light on so that nothing could creep up on you from the shadows. Or maybe, when your mum told you to go and get something from the basement, you would run all the way back up the stairs after turning the light off, so that the monsters on your tail couldn’t catch you.
This story begins in the dark.
In 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was snatched while biking home from a convenience store with his younger brother and best friend. The case quickly went cold and remained that way for almost 27 years.
After a shocking confession in 2016, we are finally beginning to get answers.
What happened to Jacob Wetterling?
On October 22, 1989, Jacob, his younger brother Trevor, and his best friend Aaron Larson were having a sleepover at the Wetterling home. His parents, Patty and Jerry, were at a gathering about 20 miles away from their home in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
Their sons called them to ask if they could ride their bikes a mile down the road to the Tom Thumb convenience store to rent a movie. Initially, Patty said no because it was already dark out.
But after the boys told him that Trevor would carry a flashlight and Jacob would wear a reflective vest, Jerry said that they could go.
The boys went to the store and rented The Naked Gun, bought some snacks, and started on their way back.
They were nearly home when the man stepped out of the darkness, brandishing a gun. He was wearing a mask, and he ordered the boys to throw their bikes into the ditch and lie down. According to the two surviving boys, Trevor and Aaron, he asked each of them how old they were. When Trevor told him he was 10, the man told him to run as fast as he could into the woods and not look back, or else he’d shoot him.
He then asked to look at the faces of Aaron and Jacob. Apparently, he selected Jacob, and he told Aaron the same thing he told Trevor: run into the woods and don’t look back, or else he’d shoot him.
He took Jacob Wetterling and disappeared into the darkness.
The Search for Jacob Wetterling
Aaron and Trevor biked home as fast as they could, and told Rochelle Jerzak, the girl they’d called to watch the Wetterlings’ youngest daughter, that someone had taken Jacob.
Rochelle called her father, Merle, who went over to the house and called the police. The dispatcher put out a call on the police radio, and soon, everyone was searching for Jacob.
Deputy Bruce Bechtold was the first on the scene, and he found himself trying to extract the story from two terrified boys – he tried to convince them to take him to where Jacob had been kidnapped, but they wouldn’t agree until Merle Jerzak offered to go with them as well.
Some police officers initially thought that the boys were playing a joke, or maybe Jacob had gotten hurt in an accident and they were covering it up. But it was true – a masked man really had swept Jacob Wetterling into the night.
Searching for Answers
Sheriff Charlie Grafft arrived on the scene just after 10pm, and quickly summoned volunteers from the fire department to begin a search. The men walked through the wooded areas around the abduction site in close formation, believing that the perpetrator had simply walked into the woods with Jacob and was still there. This was 90 minutes after the abduction occurred.
Grafft also requested a helicopter search from the state crime bureau. The helicopter searched everywhere, flying low enough that it nearly clipped several power lines.
Searchers on the ground found footprints in a gravel driveway near the abduction site, likely from an adult sized shoe and a small shoe. There was also a set of tire tracks in the driveway, though it was difficult to tell if these were from a crime.
After all, the boys never reported seeing a car. But to detectives, the only logical theory did involve a vehicle of some sort; there weren’t all that many places to hide around the abduction site without being found by the search team. As if to illustrate their point, it appeared that the perpetrator was long gone by the time the search began, and no sign of Jacob was found that night.
At 3 am, only six hours after Jacob went missing, the search was called off. Considering that there was still about a 25% chance of finding Jacob alive, perhaps that was a fatal mistake. But we’ll get back to that later.
The town of St. Joseph wasn’t so pessimistic: hundreds of residents mounted their own searches, driving and walking through the back roads in the area, ditches and cornfields, forests and gravel pits. Flyers with Jacob’s face on them were on telephone poles, windows, parked cars – anywhere they could be placed, there they were. People began wearing white ribbons pinned to their shirts to symbolize Jacob’s hope.
The Abduction’s Aftermath
Five days after Jacob disappeared, radio stations played Jacob’s favorite song, Red Grammer’s Listen, at 7 am, along with a message from his mother begging for his safe return. A week after that, thousands formed a human chain down a main road in St. Joseph, despite the early winter chill. Two players from the Minnesota Twins baseball team attended, wearing blue warm-up jackets that had been embroidered with Jacob’s initials.
Meanwhile, dozens of officers from different agencies began arriving in town. Sherriff Grafft is reported to have contacted every agency he had access to, including the FBI, State Troopers, National Guard, and local cops from across the state of Minnesota.
More searches were mounted, including horseback and ATV searches through woods, fields, and dirt roads. Nothing helped. Jacob was in the wind.
The kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling sparked a “stranger danger” panic across the United States – parents were hysterical at the idea that a stranger could just walk out of the shadows and snatch a child.
Public service announcements were being aired across the nation, telling children not to trust strange men or go with them under any circumstances. Worried parents began fingerprinting their children, just in case the nightmare became a reality.
Four months after their son went missing, Jerry and Patty Wetterling formed the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, a group with the goal of advocating children’s safety. Patty in particular was incredibly active, giving interviews and pushing for legislation.
The fruit of these efforts was the Jacob Wetterling Act, the first ever federal law to institute a state sex-offender registry. This law has been amended several times by legislature from other parents of murdered children, such as Megan’s Law – named after Megan Kanka – in 1996, and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006.
A Cold Case Warming Up
There have been numerous suspects in the Wetterling case, but none have ever been charged in connection to Jacob. However, in 2014, the sheriff’s office confirmed that they were reopening a series of child molestations and attempted abductions in the area during the two years before Jacob disappeared.
Between the summer of 1986 and 1987, a series of five teenage boys were attacked in the area of Paynesville, Minnesota. The reports were pretty consistent – a man in a blue car, attempting to lure or force these boys into his car. Sometimes he succeeded, and he would molest these boys before letting them go.
The authorities re-interviewed some of these victims and worked with the blogger that had identified this pattern. After a few months of this, they believed that the attacks were not random, and that this predator could have been connected to the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling. And there was another victim just before Jacob was taken – his name was Jared Scheierl.
Jared was 12 in January 1989, when he was abducted, sexually assaulted, and threatened by an unknown man.
This was just ten months before Jacob disappeared, and Jared’s statement told of a modus operandi that was eerily similar to that of the man those boys encountered on October 22.
The perpetrator used a gun, and after he released Scheierl he told him to run and not look back, or else he would shoot him. This closely matched what he told Trevor and Aaron that night. The incident also occurred ten miles from where Jacob was taken, providing an additional geographical link.
The thing about this case that made it so instrumental in the eventual capture of Jacob Wetterling’s abductor was that DNA had been collected during the investigation; DNA that would eventually match a man named Danny James Heinrich.
Danny Heinrich, Boogeyman
Heinrich was initially named as a person of interest in the Wetterling case in October 2015, after his DNA was found to match the sample that had been taken from Jared Scheierl in 1989. Though the statute of limitations had long expired on Jared’s assault, the circumstances were enough for a search warrant to be granted.
Investigators found a large stash of child pornography in his residence, and he was arrested on October 28, 2015. After several interviews with police, he agreed to accept a plea bargain that carried several conditions: he had to plead guilty to one of the 25 federal child pornography charges that he was facing at the time, and he had to reveal the location of Jacob’s body and testify to the details of the crime.
On September 1, 2016, he gave authorities the location of Jacob’s body. It was a pasture near Paynesville, about 30 miles from Jacob’s home and the site of the abduction, and a very short distance to where Heinrich had been living back in 1989.
Human remains and some of Jacob’s clothing, including his distinctive red jacket, were uncovered, and the identity of the remains were confirmed through dental records on September 3. Jacob Wetterling had finally been found.
At a hearing at the US District Court in Minneapolis, Danny Heinrich recounted the horrible events of that night. He said that after he grabbed Jacob, he handcuffed him and put him in his car, which had indeed been parked down that long gravel driveway near the abduction site.
He drove the boy around for a long time, avoiding police because he had a scanner in his car that he listened to. Finally, he took Jacob to a gravel pit near Paynesville and molested him.
After he was finished, he killed the boy and buried him in that same gravel pit, where he remained for just over a year before Heinrich returned to the spot and moved him to the pasture because the jacket, that distinctive red one that had been in all of the flyers and news reports, had become exposed. He also admitted to assaulting Jared Scheierl at that time.
In exchange for the plea deal that made him reveal the location of Jacob’s body, prosecutors did not charge Heinrich for the murder of Jacob Wetterling. Instead, he was sentenced to the maximum term for his child pornography charge – 20 years. Additionally, the plea agreement allows authorities to seek his civil commitment as a sexual predator at the end of this prison sentence, which means that he will likely never be released back into the community.
“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.” – Judge John Tunheim, upon sentencing Danny Heinrich
In January 2017, Heinrich was transferred to Federal Medical Center Devens, a federal prison in Massachusetts, to serve his sentence.
The abduction of Jacob Wetterling changed many lives and continues to shock and horrify parents around the world.
There have been numerous books and documentaries about the case and its shortfalls, including an entire season of the APM Reports podcast “In the Dark”.
Patty Wetterling summed up many people’s feelings about the case in her statement shortly after Jacob’s remains were found: “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.” But for a case that has been open for 27 years, perhaps now there can be healing.