MINNEAPOLIS -- In chilling and heartbreaking testimony, the man who kidnapped and killed Jacob Wetterling described in court on Tuesday the 11-year-old boy’s last hours some 27 years ago.
Danny Heinrich, who said he was armed and wore a mask, said Jacob had one question for him after he abducted him, handcuffed him behind his back and forced him into a car on a rural road near the boy’s home in St. Joseph, Minn., on the evening of Oct. 22, 1989:
“What did I do wrong?”
With Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, watching from the front row of the U.S. District Courthouse in Minneapolis, Heinrich, 53, of Annandale, Minn., calmly described the crime in horrific detail.
He said he forced Jacob to undress and then sexually assaulted the boy. He said Jacob cried after the assault. Heinrich said he panicked after a police car drove by and he shot Jacob twice in the head. He said he left Jacob’s body at the scene, came back an hour later and buried it.
Heinrich’s confession came as part of a plea agreement made by prosecutors and agreed to by the Wetterlings. Heinrich, who had been charged with 25 counts of child pornography, pleaded guilty to one count of receiving child pornography; he faces a federal prison sentence of 20 years.
In return for leading authorities last week to Jacob’s body in rural Paynesville, Minn., and admitting to abducting, sexually assaulting and killing Jacob, Heinrich will not be charged with Jacob’s murder.
“Finally we know. We know what the Wetterling family and all of Minnesota have longed to know since that awful night in 1989,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger. “We know the truth. Danny Heinrich … is the confessed murderer of Jacob Wetterling.”
Patty Wetterling, holding back tears during the news conference, said listening to Heinrich’s confession was heartbreaking.
“I want to say to Jacob, ‘I am so sorry,’ she said. “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.”
NIGHT’S CHILLING DETAILS
On the night of Oct. 22, 1989, Heinrich said he was driving on a dead-end road in St. Joseph when he noticed three boys with a flashlight. He said he pulled into a driveway and then waited for the boys - Jacob, his brother, Trevor, and Jacob’s best friend, Aaron Larson - to bike and scooter back by.
“After about 20 minutes or so, they came back,” Heinrich said. “I stepped out of my car, put on a mask and reached for my revolver. I told them to get in the ditch with their bicycles. I asked their names and their ages.”
When Heinrich brandished his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver at the boys, “they tried to offer me a (videotape they had just rented from a Tom Thumb convenience store),” he said. “I knocked that down. They tried to shine a flashlight in my face. I told them not to.”
Heinrich then said he told Trevor and Aaron to “run away and not look back” or he would shoot. He then handcuffed Jacob’s hands behind his back and forced the boy into the front seat of his car. Heinrich said he monitored his police scanner as they drove away from the scene.
“I told him to duck down and lean forward in the seat,” he said. “When we got out of town, I told him he could get up.”
Heinrich said he drove west out of St. Joseph toward Albany, Minn., and then south toward Roscoe, Minn. He said he then drove to a spot near a gravel pit in Paynesville, where he forced Jacob to get out of the car and took off his handcuffs. He then forced him to undress and sexually assaulted him.
“About 20 minutes later, he said, ‘I’m cold,’” Heinrich said. “I said, ‘OK, you can get dressed.’”
When Jacob said he wanted to go home, Heinrich told him that he couldn’t take him all the way home because he “lived another town away.”
“He started crying,” Heinrich said. “I said, ‘Don’t cry.’”
Heinrich said he panicked when he saw a police car drive by and loaded his revolver with two rounds of ammunition. “I told him I had to go to the bathroom and to turn around,” Heinrich said.
Heinrich aimed the gun at Jacob’s head and pulled the trigger. The first shot failed to engage, so Heinrich said he fired again.
“I looked back, and he was still standing,” he said. “I raised the gun and shot him again, and that’s when he fell to the ground.”
Heinrich said he checked to make sure Jacob was dead and then went to his apartment in downtown Paynesville. He said he returned a couple of hours later to bury Jacob’s body after dragging it to a spot “about 100 yards north of where (he) had shot him.”
“What was the purpose?” asked federal prosecutor Steve Schleicher.
“To bury him and hide the body,” Heinrich replied.
But a shovel that Heinrich had brought with him wasn’t big enough to do the job, he said, so he went to a nearby construction company and took a skid-steer loader that he used to dig a hole and bury Jacob’s body. He said he then concealed the area with grass and brush.
Jacob was wearing a reflective vest, red jacket and blue sweatpants, Heinrich said, but the boy’s tennis shoes came off as he was moving the body. Heinrich said he threw the tennis shoes into a ravine about 100 yards down the road as he walked back to his apartment.
Heinrich said he returned to the crime scene a year later and could see Jacob’s red jacket above the ground and that the grave was partially uncovered. He said he picked up the jacket and Jacob’s bones and skull and placed them in a garbage bag and “took them across the highway.”
“I never dug up anything,” he said. “It was already uncovered.”
Heinrich said he used “an Army entrenching tool,” or a collapsible spade, to dig a hole about 2 feet deep and “put the bones in the hole and the jacket on top and covered it up.”
On Aug. 31, when Heinrich led law enforcement officials to the gravesite, investigators found a red “St. Cloud Hockey” jacket that matched the one Jacob was wearing when he was abducted. When agents saw the jacket, they “stopped in their tracks,” Luger said.
But it wasn’t until they returned to the site Friday and found the boy’s skeletal remains, along with a T-shirt that said “Wetterling,” that prosecutors were confident they had what they needed.
“Finally, we knew,” Luger said. “Finally the Wetterling family could lay their son to rest.”
AN EARLIER KIDNAPPING
In court on Tuesday, Heinrich also confessed to kidnapping and sexually assaulting 12-year-old Jared Scheierl in Cold Spring, Minn., nine months before he abducted and killed Jacob. Heinrich told of “driving around Cold Spring, looking for a child.” Heinrich said he noticed a boy walking down a dark street about 9 or 10 p.m. on Jan. 13, 1989, and asked him if he knew “where the Kramers lived.”
Heinrich said he threw Scheierl in the back seat and sexually assaulted him. He said he then let him go, telling “him to run and not look back or I’d kill him.” He said he kept Scheierl’s underwear and pants as a “souvenir.”
He said he did not have a gun the night he assaulted Scheierl, but acquired one during the summer of 1989, just a few months before Jacob’s death.
Retested DNA evidence last year linked Heinrich to Scheierl’s kidnapping and sexual assault. Authorities said they had long suspected a link between the two cases, leading them to circle back to Heinrich.
The Scheierl abduction was part of the so-called “Paynesville Assault Cluster” - eight attacks on seven boys from 1986 to 1988 in the community about 85 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
In each case, the victims were about the same age and gave similar descriptions of their assailant. Each said their attacker wore a mask and threatened them with violence.
During Monday’s news conference with law enforcement officials, Scheierl, who lives in Paynesville, said he wanted to work with the assault victims and Paynesville community. During his remarks, he often looked at and addressed the Wetterlings, who were seated several feet from the podium.
“I was thrown into this investigation, not by choice, but because I was a victim,” Scheierl said. “A victim of an assault that, in so many ways, defined who I am today.”
“If you would have asked me 25 years ago what my purpose in life was, I wouldn’t have had an answer,” Scheierl said. “If you would’ve asked by 18 years ago what my purpose in life was, I would have told you ‘my daughter.’ Today, I’m in a moment of transcending or finding a new purpose in helping others gain closure -- in what they need to move on, to move forward and to keep it positive.”
GETTING A CONFESSION
Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall said the only hard evidence authorities had tying Heinrich to Jacob’s disappearance back in 1989 was a “similar” tire track and shoe print, neither of which were scientific matches.
Luger said Heinrich agreed to take authorities to Jacob’s gravesite after his attorneys, chief federal public defender for Minnesota Katherian Roe and assistant federal public defender Reynaldo Aligada, struck a deal with prosecutors.
It was a two-part agreement: The first was to tell authorities the location of Jacob’s remains and provide a detailed confession of what he’d done to the boy. The second was to plead guilty to one child-pornography charge and admit that he’d also abducted and assaulted Scheierl.
Without Jacob’s body, prosecutors knew they couldn’t pursue murder charges against Heinrich, Luger said. Given his history of “volatile” and “unpredictable” behavior, Luger said the prosecution felt they had to act.
“We knew he could change his mind at any moment,” Luger said.
Prosecutors reached out to the Wetterling family to see if they were comfortable with the terms of the tentative deal. With their support, it moved forward, Luger said.
“There is great sadness and heartbreak in our state today,” Luger said. “There is an outpouring of grief for Jacob and what he went through and for the Wetterling family … but I hope that this is also a time for neighbors and complete strangers to come together and begin the healing process.”
Heinrich is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 21. As part of his plea, Heinrich has acknowledged that he could be committed civilly after he serves his criminal sentence.
Heinrich’s “unthinkable admissions” in court should make everyone angry, Luger said.
“We will all ask many times ‘Why?’ - and there is no good answer,” he said. “The crimes of Danny Heinrich should increase our collective resolve to protect our youth and bring predators to justice.”
Patty Wetterling said she hopes that will be part of Jacob’s legacy.
“What I really wanted to say today was about Jacob: He has taught us all how to live, how to love, how to be fair, how to be kind,” Wetterling said. “He 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.”
Sarah Horner and Tad Vezner contributed to this report.