Nov. 22, 2016 story: Wetterling family tells killer of anguish he caused

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jacob Wetterling's younger sister Carmen is afraid of helicopters, can't stand to be alone and struggles to answer the question: "How many brothers and sisters do you have?" When older sister Amy closes her eyes at night, she sees ...

The Wetterling family stands onstage at the community memorial service for Jacob Wetterling at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in St. Joseph, Minn., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. From left: Patty, Amy, Trevor and Carmen. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)
The Wetterling family stands onstage Sept. 25 at the community memorial service for Jacob Wetterling at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in St. Joseph. From left are Patty, Amy, Trevor and Carmen. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)


MINNEAPOLIS - Jacob Wetterling's younger sister Carmen is afraid of helicopters, can't stand to be alone and struggles to answer the question: "How many brothers and sisters do you have?"

When older sister Amy closes her eyes at night, she sees "an innocent young boy, cold and afraid, in those last moments of his life."

Aaron Larson felt so much guilt about what happened on the night of Oct. 22, 1989, the night that Danny Heinrich abducted, molested and killed his best friend Jacob, that he left the state and later left the country.

"I just wanted to be gone," he said.


For nearly 45 minutes Monday morning, Danny Heinrich's victims approached the podium in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis and spoke of the sorrow, anguish and pain he inflicted on them.

"It caused me to push people away, to be scared, to cry," Larson told the packed courtroom. "I lived every day thinking I was the monster that night. I was the coward that left my friend, I was the coward that ran away. Every day, I lived with believing that me running away was a choice. During all these years, every decision I made in life revolved around Jacob, and the guilt I felt because I was still here. I was the last person who cared about Jacob to see him, to be right next to him, and I just left him. I hated it. I hated how I left him."

Heinrich was sentenced Monday to 20 years in federal prison, two months after confessing to abducting, molesting and killing 11-year-old Jacob nearly three decades ago in central Minnesota. For years, the case attracted national attention and dominated headlines.

Authorities last year took another look at the case and were led to Heinrich, a man who had been questioned at the time of Jacob's kidnapping. When Heinrich, 53, of Annandale, was arrested in October 2015 on charges of child pornography, law enforcement officials called him a "person of interest" in Jacob's kidnapping. He confessed to the crime in September.

In court Monday, Patty Wetterling cried as she described the "magnitude of pain" Heinrich inflicted on her and her family "every day of their lives."

"He hurt my heart, my soul and every fiber of my being when he murdered our son Jacob - a child that I carried for nine months and nurtured for 11 years, eight months and five days," Patty Wetterling said. "Jacob was a boy with many gifts that the world will never realize because of this cruel and unnecessary murder."

She said she misses her son's touch, smell, smile, laughter, jokes, questions and zest for life.

In killing Jacob, Heinrich "took away a wonderful human being who cared deeply for family and friends and sports and music and theater and jokes, hugs and kisses, football and piggyback rides," she said.


Patty Wetterling then turned to Heinrich and addressed him directly:

"You didn't need to kill him," she said. "He did nothing wrong. He just wanted to go home. You planned to hurt someone that night. You didn't just bring a gun to scare the boys; you brought bullets. Why would you bring bullets if not to use them?"

The Wetterlings said the fact that Heinrich kept his crimes a secret for 27 years was particularly heinous.

"Losing Jacob was hard enough, but for this man to hold this secret for almost 27 years and continue to be free is, as Jacob would say, 'entirely not fair,' " said younger brother Trevor Wetterling.

Added sister Amy: "The worst part is that for nearly 27 years he let us believe that we would someday be able to see Jacob again. For nearly 27 years, he let me hold onto the image I had in my mind and in my dreams of Jacob running up the driveway back into our home to a huge group hug, with all of the people who loved him so much. All the times our parents went on TV begging and pleading for answers, and he just watched. He watched us suffer through anniversary after anniversary. Twenty-seven years is a long time."

Heinrich was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for one count of receiving child pornography. Under a plea agreement approved by the Wetterlings, Heinrich confessed to Jacob's kidnapping, sexual assault and shooting and agreed to lead authorities to the boy's body. In return, Heinrich will not be prosecuted for murder, which has no statute of limitations, and 24 other counts of pornography have been dropped.

Heinrich also had to confess in court to kidnapping and sexually assaulting 12-year-old Jared Scheierl in Cold Spring on Jan. 13, 1989, nine months before he abducted and killed Jacob.

"The words that he had spoke to me on that evening haunted me for years," Scheierl said. "I would just simply like to say to him: 'There is nothing uncommon about common sense. I just wish you had more common sense.' "


Saying he didn't want to hear anything Heinrich had to say, Scheierl, sitting in the front row next to the Wetterling family, left the courtroom when Heinrich approached the podium to address the court.

Heinrich said he was "truly sorry for my evil acts that I have committed against the victims and their families and the shame that I caused, brought onto myself and my family."

"Mr. and Mrs. Wetterling, the heinous acts, the selfishness are unforgivable for what I have taken away from you. I don't know what else to say. I'm so sorry," he said. "To Jared Scheierl, the innocence I have taken away of not just him, but from other victims, the emotional, the psychological trauma that I have caused him and his family and others, I'm sorry."

Heinrich, dressed in a light-brown sweater and dark pants, said he kept his crimes a secret to spare himself and his family any humiliation. "There is no more, Your Honor. There is no more. I can't do it."

Heinrich's acts constituted "one of the most truly horrible crimes that I have ever seen," Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim said.

"We won't pretend today that this crime and sentence is about child pornography. ... It's about taking a childhood away from Jared Scheierl and taking a lifetime away from Jacob Wetterling," Tunheim said. "It is also about changing the lives of so many children and parents, who prayed for Jacob's return and lived in the fear that someone like you - someone evil - would come out of the darkness, out of the woods, out of the bushes, from around the corner, abuse them and take them away, never to be seen again. Every child knows the story of Jacob Wetterling. You stole the innocence of children's lives - in the small towns, in the rural areas and the cities in Minnesota and beyond."

Heinrich will spend at least 17 years in prison at a location that will not be made public until after he arrives there; all federal prisoners must spend a minimum of 85 percent of their sentences behind bars before being eligible for release. There is no parole in the federal system.

After he finishes serving his criminal sentence, Heinrich is expected to be civilly committed as a sex offender because what he did was "so heinous and so brutal and awful that it's unlikely that society will let (him) go free," Tunheim said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Allyn called Heinrich a "cold, calculated predator of children" whose crimes were "reprehensible."

"If the defendant had one ounce of remorse ever, he would have ended the anguish for so many people so long ago, but he did not," Allyn said. "He only ended anything now, with his confession, because he was caught, and he only pled guilty because the numbers were good for him. Danny Heinrich only does what is good for Danny Heinrich."

During a search of Heinrich's home in July 2015, investigators found videos that included news reports about Jacob and anniversary specials that showed the Wetterlings "looking at the camera and begging and pleading for some answers," Allyn said.

Heinrich "would have seen that, and he would have just turned off the TV and went about his life - and he did this year after year," Allyn said. "It is beyond horrible to molest children and to have murdered a little child, but the unsolved nature of this crime he let become a tragic force that ripped through these families and these communities. The defendant, is a cruel narcissist. ... This family died a death of a thousand cuts, and this man let that happen, year after year. He caused unparalleled anguish for so many people. His crimes were reprehensible and his silence devastating."

Jacob, the second of the Wetterlings' four children, was in the sixth grade in October 1989. He was riding his bicycle with his friend Aaron and brother Trevor about 9:15 p.m. Oct. 22, 1989, when Heinrich, masked and armed, abducted him from a rural road near the Wetterling home in St. Joseph.

The kidnapping took place on a Sunday night. The kids didn't have school the next day. Patty and Jerry Wetterling at the last minute decided to go to a party in Clearwater. Amy, their oldest child, was at a sleepover, so the couple asked Jacob if he would mind baby-sitting Trevor, 10, and Carmen, 8. He asked if Aaron could come over.

Trevor later called his parents at the party and asked if the boys could bike and scooter up to the Tom Thumb convenience store to rent a video. Carmen didn't want to go, so the kids - with the Wetterlings' OK - arranged for a neighbor girl, Rochelle Jerzak, to come over and babysit while they made the trip.

When Heinrich stepped out of the woods, he asked the boys their ages and then ordered Larson and Trevor Wetterling to run to the woods and not look back. Trevor Wetterling said he has felt tremendous guilt since that night since he was the one who pushed the boys to go out that night.

"No matter how much you tell yourself it wasn't your fault, it is always in the back of your mind," Trevor Wetterling said. "It is not normal for a 10-year-old to sleep on the floor of their parents' room. It is not normal to miss so much school in the fourth grade to have to hire a tutor to catch you up to speed and have your parents lobby to the teacher not to hold you back. ... It is not normal for your entire identity to be stolen away and to be transformed into being 'Jacob's brother.' "

Before he read his statement, Jerry Wetterling thanked Heinrich for coming forward and showing authorities where Jacob was buried.

Wetterling, a chiropractor, said his business suffered after his son's abduction.

"Many people were pointing the finger at me as responsible for Jacob's kidnapping because I didn't show enough emotion during many media interviews," he said. "So not only was I in high emotional distress missing Jacob, I was looked at by many as being responsible."

He said he and Patty spent "thousands of dollars" hiring psychics and private investigators and that their marriage suffered.

"We were both hurting so deeply that we couldn't be there for each other as we normally would," he said. "Thus, we looked to other people for support, which didn't help our relationship with each other. We survived that, but not without faith, great heartache and financial and time expenditures for counseling."

Wetterling said he misses all the things he didn't get to experience with his son - "laugh-filled fishing outings, pride-filled school events, such as music concerts, plays, sporting events, graduation, April Fools' pranks, watching games together on TV ... possibly going off to college."

After their son was abducted, the Wetterlings founded the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, which works to help communities and families prevent child exploitation, and Patty Wetterling became a national advocate for children.

The crime also spurred new federal laws requiring states to create sex-offender registries.

Concluded Tunheim: "No one is ever going to forget October 22nd of 1989, but we will move forward, and I know that we're in a better place as a society because of the commitment that the Wetterling family has made to Jacob and to protecting other children."

Related Topics: CRIME
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