For parents, not knowing where their child is or if they’re safe is a literal nightmare that will only end when their child is safely in their arms again.
When an 11-year-old boy from a small town in Minnesota vanished without a trace in 1989, his parents were distraught that they didn’t know where their son was and if he was OK. Tragically, that nightmare went on for the next 27 years, until they finally got answers in 2016.
An Unseasonably Warm Day
On the afternoon of October 22, 1989, kids throughout St. Joseph, Minnesota spent the day playing outside and reveling in the unseasonably warm weather. Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy from the town, had gotten up that day and went fishing with his dad, Jerry. After spending the day by the water, the pair went home and watched the Minnesota Vikings play the Detroit Lions.
Later that evening, Jerry and his wife, Patty, left to go to a get-together at a friend’s home about 20 miles away. The couple left Jacob home with his younger brother, 10-year-old Trevor, and their little sister, 8-year-old Carmen. Amy, the couple’s oldest child, was out at a friend’s house.
A Long Weekend
Normally, on a Sunday night, the kids would have been getting ready for the upcoming school week. However, there was no school the next day, so Jacob invited his best friend Aaron Larson to over for a slumber party. After Aaron arrived, Jacob ordered a pizza for dinner and they hung out.
A Late-Night Trip to Town
At some point, however, the boys decided they wanted to bike into town to go rent a movie from the movie store. But before they could go, Jacob had to get his parents’ permission. After calling his parents and telling them the plan, Patty originally immediately told them no since it was too dark out.
Jerry also told Jacob he didn’t think it was a good idea either. “My whole concern was a car hitting them,” Jerry said, according to APM Reports. Jacob begged for their permission and promised they would wear reflective vests and bring a flashlight.
A Safe Town
Jerry finally agreed as he didn’t think there was any risk if the boys wore reflective vests while they biked into town. At the time, everyone believed the small town, which had a population of just 3,000, was a perfectly safe place to raise a family. Nothing bad ever happened there and it was a place where almost everyone knew each other. Kids would go out adventuring without adult supervision and rode their bikes everywhere.
The Phone Call
In fact, the area was considered so safe that the chief of police didn’t even carry a gun with him. However, the next call the couple received made everyone think twice about just how safe St. Joseph was. “Someone took Jacob,” Aaron and Trevor had screamed when they ran in the house, where Rochelle Jerzak, the next door neighbor, was babysitting Carmen. “There was a man with a gun and he took Jacob!”
Calling For Help
In shock, Rochelle called her dad over. He immediately called Jacob’s parents and then the police. Jerry and Patty rushed home as fast as they could. When they arrived, the police were already there and the boys both looked traumatized. Aaron and Trevor explained they had taken the dead-end country road into town. The ride took them about 15 minutes. Once in town, they went straight to the movie store, rented a movie, and headed home.
The Masked Man
They were riding back on the dark country road and were almost home when a man dressed in all black appeared on the road. According to the boys, it was the same spot where they had heard rustling in the cornfield while on their way into town. The man, who they didn’t get a good look at because he was wearing some kind of mask, started walking toward them.
Not a Prank
He told the three boys that he had a gun and ordered them into a ditch on the side of the road. At first, they thought it was some kind of prank, but then the man started asking the boys their ages. After hearing Trevor was 10, he ordered him to run into the woods and told him not to look back. After hearing Aaron and Jacob were 11, he grabbed Aaron’s crotch and groped him.
Vanished Without a Trace
He then ordered Aaron to run into the woods. If he looked back, he threatened to shoot him. According to Aaron, he did as the man told him. By the time he did finally look back, the man was gone. Jacob was gone too. Tragically, Jacob was never seen again.
A Small Window of Time
According to reports, 85 percent of abducted children are dead after five hours of being taken. By the end of 24 hours, almost every child in this situation has been killed. Local authorities knew they had to act quickly if they were going to find and bring Jacob home.
The Search Begins
That night, the police went out to the place where Jacob had been taken. They went out on foot looking for the sixth grader and his abductor in the woods. They even had a helicopter out searching that was flying so low to the ground it nearly cut power lines.
Out of Their Depth
Sadly, they didn’t find anything that night. And in the coming days and weeks, they failed to find any clues or shreds of evidence that could lead them to Jacob or the masked man. The Stearns County Sheriff’s Office told the public they were doing everything in their power to solve the case, but in reality, they were out of their depth.
Inexperienced And Overwhelmed
In total, almost 100 officers from the FBI, the state crime bureau, the National Guard, and the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office worked on the case following Jacob’s disappearance. But there were so many holes in the investigation, and the authorities became overwhelmed by the number of tips they received once Jacob’s case garnered national attention.
Holding Onto Hope
Jacob’s case would go on to be one of the longest and biggest law enforcement investigations in the United States. Tragically, Patty and Jerry spent the following decades not knowing where Jacob was or if he was even alive. They devoted themselves to advocating for missing and exploited children. All the while, they held onto hope that Jacob would one day be found alive.
27 Years Later
27 Years after Jacob vanished, however, the couple finally found out the truth about what happened to Jacob. The answer finally came after police arrested Danny Heinrich, who had long been a suspect in Jacob’s case. In 2015, a DNA test linked Heinrich to another kidnapping and sexual assault case. They then searched Heinrich’s home and found more than 150 sexually graphic images of children. At that time, they arrested him and charged him with 25 counts of child pornography.
The Plea Deal
While in custody, Heinrich reached a deal with prosecutors. He told them he would confess to Jacob’s kidnapping and murder as long as he wasn’t prosecuted for those crimes. With Patty and Jerry’s permission, prosecutors accepted his plea. Heinrich led authorities to the site where he buried Jacob’s body. He also detailed exactly what happened that late October night. After taking Jacob, Heinrich confessed he handcuffed Jacob and put him in the passenger seat of his car.
Jacob’s Last Moments
He made Jacob duck down while he drove from St. Joseph to his hometown of Paynesville, which wasn’t far away. He pulled over on a country road, un-handcuffed Jacob, and led him over to a tree. Heinrich then got naked, undressed the 11-year-old, and sexually assaulted him. About 20 minutes later, Heinrich allowed Jacob to get dressed and got back in the car. Jacob started crying and asked to go home, but at that point, a police car drove by and Heinrich panicked.
‘Our Hearts Are Hurting’
He took out his gun, loaded it, and shot Jacob two times. Heinrich then fled the scene and returned hours later to bury the body. For now, Heinrich faces 20 years in prison, but will likely be committed to a sex offender program and may never be released. “I want to say ‘Jacob, I’m so sorry.’ It’s incredibly painful to [imagine] his last hours, last minutes. Our hearts are hurting. For us, Jacob was alive until we found him,” Patty told reporters after hearing of her son’s death. “We need to heal.“There’s a lot of lessons learned and there’s a lot of work to do to protect all our world’s children,” Patty said in a statement reported by the Star Tribune. “He’s taught us all how to live, how to love, how to be fair, how to be kind. He speaks to the world that he knew, that we all believe in. It is a world worth fighting for. His legacy will go on.”