Inside Jacob Wetterling's Kidnapping And Murder

Jacob Wetterling was only 11-years-old when he was kidnapped a few blocks away from his St. Joseph, Minnesota home (via Mamamia). On October 22, 1989, Patty and Jerry Wetterling left their three children at home — including Jacob — while they went to a dinner party nearby. Unbeknownst to them, it would be the last time they saw their oldest child. According to CNN, Jacob, his brother Trevor, and friend Aaron got on their bikes and headed to a local store to rent a video with permission from the Wetterlings. The boys got the video and headed back home in the dark when they were suddenly stopped by an unknown figure.

NBC News writes that the man was armed with a gun and asked each boy what their age was. He then told Trevor and Aaron to run away and to not look back, or he would shoot. The man, however, grabbed Jacob and yanked him away. Trevor and Aaron made it back to the Wetterling home, and a neighbor called the police. Although authorities were on the scene within minutes, there was no trace of Jacob. Both the FBI and National Guard got involved, but they turned up nothing. Regrettably, it would take nearly three decades for Jacob's parents to know what truly happened to their young son.

A writer helped revive the case

Although authorities received countless tips about Jacob Wetterling's disappearance, CNN writes that they looked into a previous case that was incredibly similar. According to NBC News, Danny Heinrich was a local man who was suspected of abducting and assaulting 12-year-old Jared Scheierl. This incident occurred in Cold Spring — 10 miles away from St. Joseph — months before Jacob's disappearance. Scheierl was let go by his captor and was also told to run and to not look back unless he wanted to get shot. Despite the same modus operandi as Jacob's disappearance, there was not enough evidence to tie Heinrich to either boy's case.

Years went by without any plausible leads or developments. In 1998, nine years after his abduction, Patty Wetterling told The New York Times that she believed her son was still alive. Over a decade later, Joy Baker, a Minnesota-based writer and blogger that was interested in the case, discovered Scheierl's story (via Mamamia). Baker befriended him, and they concluded that his abduction and Jacob's were indeed connected.

Baker discovered that several young boys had been assaulted between 1986 and 1989 in Paynesville, Minnesota, a city that is close to both St. Joseph and Cold Spring. The police disagreed with this assessment, but Baker and Scheierl pushed on, and one name kept coming up: Danny Heinrich. In 2014, Baker and Scheierl went on CNN's "The Hunt with John Walsh," which ultimately reinvigorated the case (per Fox43).

Jared Scheierl — victim and warrior

According to Fox43, Danny Heinrich had been let go in regards to Jared Scheierl's abduction and assault because the then-12-year-old boy could not identify him. Although they did have DNA from Scheierl's clothing, testing in 1989 was primitive. However, the revival of the case prompted investigators to test the clothes. NBC News reports that the DNA testing proved that Heinrich had been Scheierl's assailant after all, and investigators believed he was most likely Jacob Wetterling's too. Although the statute of limitations had run out for Scheierl's case, a search of Heinrich's house found child pornography. He was subsequently arrested, and authorities believed this might be their only chance for the Wetterlings to get closure.

Per Mamamia, with Heinrich facing decades of prison time for child pornography, they struck a plea deal. If Heinrich confessed to Jacob's murder and abduction, he would not face charges for the homicide. He agreed, and Heinrich confessed and revealed the body's location. Jacob's remains were found in 2016, nearly 27-years after his disappearance. This proved that Heinrich had not lied and was the boy's killer. He pled guilty to the child pornography charges and is currently serving a 20-year sentence (via MPR News).

As for Scheierl, he also received a form of justice — MPR News writes that he was awarded $17 million in a civil lawsuit against Heinrich. Although it's unlikely he will receive any money, the judge praised Scheierl for his efforts in reopening the case and noted that this was the only retribution Heinrich would receive for what he did to him.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Tragic details of Jacob Wetterling's murder

Per NBC News, Jacob Wetterling's murder was senseless and beyond cruel. Danny Heinrich stated that after abducting the boy, he handcuffed him and took him to a secluded area to assault him. Jacob was stripped of his clothing and complained of being cold. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes that at one point, he asked, "What did I do wrong?" and told his captor that he wanted to go home. When Heinrich said he couldn't take him back, Jacob began to cry. That's when Heinrich took out his revolver and shot Jacob in the head twice. The killer then left the scene but returned to bury the body.

A year later, Heinrich had to move and rebury Jacob because his remains became uncovered. Investigators found bones and teeth at the burial site along with Jacob's hockey jacket and a shirt that said "Wetterling." At a press conference shortly after, Patty Wetterling apologized to Jacob for what he went through and stated (via The Guardian), "It's incredibly painful to know his last days, his last hours, his last minutes." She also thanked Joy Baker and Jared Scheierl for helping solve the decades-old case (per CBS Minnesota).

Law enforcement mishandled the case

According to APM Reports, it took nearly 30 years for Jacob Wetterling's case to be solved because of a series of mistakes made by authorities. The publication points out that law enforcement failed to see the connection between Jacob's abduction, Jared Scheierl's case, and the series of assaults that occurred in Paynesville, Minnesota. Despite Danny Heinrich being considered a person of interest early on, his name was not mentioned in any file for years, and investigators openly admitted to these errors in 2018 (via The Star Tribune). Most grievously, they believed another man, Dan Rassier, was the culprit and tried to pin the case on him.

APM Reports writes that Rassier was a music teacher and Jacob's neighbor. He later became a person of interest, and authorities went as far as to release his name to the public and dig up his farm. Furthermore, they attempted to get a confession from him. Despite later being cleared of any crime, these actions severely impacted Rassier's professional and personal life. In 2017, after Heinrich's confession, Rassier sued investigators for $2 million, but the case was dismissed in March 2020 (via CBS Minnesota). Notably, Season 1 of the podcast "In the Dark" focuses on the botched investigation of Jacob's case.

Jacob Wetterling's case changed the law

After Jacob Wetterling's abduction, Patty Wetterling devoted herself to advocating for the rights of missing and exploited children (via NBC News). Per CNN, she helped develop a sex offender registry first in Minnesota and then throughout the U.S. GovTrak writes that this law was called the "Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Registration Act." The Zero Abuse Project was also created to aid in the prevention and education of sexual abuse in children. The organization includes the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, which aims to help both children and adults. Elsewhere, Patty co-created Team Hope for parents who are dealing with their child's abduction.

"Most parents know nothing about child abduction, so when it happens, you just scramble for what's out there," Patty told CNN. Since Jacob's murder and kidnapping, the St. Cloud Times writes that investigators have changed how they deal with the abduction of children. Notably, Amber Alerts, advanced forensics, and technology have made it easier to locate missing and kidnapped children.