MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - Danny Heinrich admitted in court Tuesday to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing Jacob Wetterling. The confession comes nearly 27 years after the abduction, and just days after Heinrich led investigators to Jacob’s remains. As part of the plea deal, Heinrich will not be charged with Jacob Wetterling’s murder.
Heinrich, 53, was in court Tuesday afternoon to accept a plea deal in the child pornography case that eventually led to the break in the Wetterling case. Under the plea agreement, Heinrich pleaded guilty to one count of receiving child pornography. The remainder of the 24 charges will be dismissed.
Heinrich faces five to 20 years in prison for the child pornography charge. Both the prosecution and defense recommended a maximum 20-year sentence. He is subject to civil commitment following his 20-year sentence.
The abduction of Jacob Wetterling
Jacob Wetterling was abducted on October 22, 1989 near his St. Joseph, Minn. home. Court documents say he was taken at gunpoint by a masked man when he was just 11 years old.
Heinrich admits he was driving when he saw Jacob, his younger brother Trevor and friend Aaron Larson. He put a mask on, grabbed a gun and told the boys to get in a ditch. Heinrich said the boys tried to shine a flashlight in his eyes, and offered him a tape they had rented from the video store.
Heinrich said he brought Jacob to his car, handcuffed him and put in front passenger seat. Jacob said, "What did I do wrong?"
Heinrich had a police scanner he used to avoid police while he drove Jacob out of town, ordering Jacob to hide below the seat. Heinrich took Jacob on a route that ended in Paynesville. He took Jacob to a field next to a row of trees, by a gravel pit, where he assaulted him.
When Heinrich heard a police car, he loaded his revolver and told Jacob to turn around. He shot Jacob in the head. Heinrich went home, but returned to the scene. He dragged Jacob’s body to a site to "hide the body." Heinrich saw a Bobcat, found the key and dug a grave at midnight. He placed Jacob in the grave and covered him. He then returned the Bobcat to the construction site and camouflaged the burial site with grass and brush.
Heinrich threw Jacob's tennis shoes in a ravine because he forgot to bury them. Jacob was buried in his clothes.
In court Tuesday, Heinrich said he returned to the burial site a year after he killed Jacob. He noticed the grave was partially uncovered, and could see Jacob's red jacket. Heinrich dug up Jacob’s remains and moved them to another spot across the highway. Heinrich re-buried Jacob in the spot where he led investigators last week.
Abduction and assault of Jared Scheierl
After admitting the kidnapping and killing of Jacob Wetterling, Heinrich told the court how he abducted and sexually assaulted Jared Scheierl. He said he was looking for a boy to abduct when he pulled Jared into his car, told him to duck and drove him to a location. Heinrich threatened to kill Jared if he didn’t follow instructions.
Wetterling and Scheierl families approved plea deal
Attorneys noted that the Wetterling and Scheierl families both signed off on the plea deal.
“Any agreement reached or considered was done with full support of Patty and Jerry Wetterling," Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said.
On Aug. 26, prosecutors and defense lawyers drafted a tentative agreement. At a press conference Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said the agreement had two parts: part one required Heinrich to tell authorities where they could find Jacob and also required a full and detailed confession, part two required Heinrich to plead guilty to the child pornography charge and to confess in open court what he did to both Jacob and to Jared.
Patty Wetterling speaks
Patty Wetterling took the podium at the press conference Tuesday following Heinrich's confession in court.
“What I really wanted to say today is about Jacob. He’s taught us all how to live, how to love, how to be fair, how to be kind – speaks to the world that he knew, that we all believe in and it is a world that is worth fighting for. His legacy will go on.
I want to say, Jacob, I’m so sorry. It’s incredibly painful to know his last days, last hours and last minutes. I couldn’t do this without my family. I’m proud, so proud, of the lives that they’ve built and the happiness they’ve found and the children and grandchildren that we so enjoy and that is the world. That is what gets us up in the morning. That is the hope. That is Jacob’s hope. That is what we’re going to continue to do.
I also want to say one huge shout out to Jared and Joy. Jared had the courage to stand up and say, “This happened to me.” And there are others and they found the others and they talked to those others and many of them will never get that full confession. Maybe it was Heinrich and maybe it was someone else, but we know he had other victims. But, they deserve so much credit for stirring the pot until he was willing to talk. Thank you.
We love you Jacob. We will continue to fight. Our hearts are hurting. We will try to and pull I would love to talk to you all but I’m just not ready yet. For us, Jacob was alive until we found him. We need to heal. And we will speak with you. There are a lot of lessons learned and there is a lot of work to do to protect our world’s children. Thank you."
How you can help the Wetterlings
In a statement Monday, Patty Wetterling shared a few things that will bring her and her family comfort as they grieve:
Say a prayer
Light a candle
Be with friends
Play with your children
Eat ice cream
Help your neighbor
"That is what will bring me comfort today," she said.