Saturday 24 March 2018

Man confesses to 1989 kidnap and murder of Jacob Wetterling

Patty and Jerry Wetterling with a photo of their son Jacob, who was abducted in October 1989 (AP)
Patty and Jerry Wetterling with a photo of their son Jacob, who was abducted in October 1989 (AP)

A Minnesota man has confessed to abducting and killing an 11-year-old boy nearly 27 years ago, putting to rest a mystery that has haunted the state and led to changes in national sex offender laws.

Danny Heinrich made the admission as he pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges that could put him behind bars for decades.

Asked whether he abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered Jacob Wetterling, Heinrich said: "Yes I did."

Heinrich, 53, of Annandale, led authorities to Jacob's buried remains in a central Minnesota field last week, according to a law enforcement official.

The Stearns County Sheriff's Office said Jacob's remains were identified on Saturday.

Appearing in court, he admitted abducting Jacob from a road near the boy's home in the central Minnesota community of St Joseph on October 22 1989.

Authorities named him as a person of interest in Jacob's disappearance last October when they announced the child pornography charges.

Heinrich had long been under investigators' scrutiny. They first questioned him shortly after Jacob's abduction, but he maintained his innocence and they never had enough evidence to charge him.

They turned a renewed spotlight on him as part of a fresh look into Jacob's abduction around its 25th anniversary.

As part of that effort, investigators took another look at the sexual assault of 12-year-old Jared Scheierl, of Cold Spring, nine months before Jacob's disappearance. Investigators had long suspected the two cases were connected.

Mr Scheierl has spoken publicly for years about his case, saying it helped him cope with the trauma and that he hoped it could help investigators find his attacker and Jacob's kidnapper.

Using technology that was not available in 1989, investigators found Heinrich's DNA on Mr Scheierl's sweatshirt, and used that evidence to get a search warrant for Heinrich's home, where they found a large collection of child pornography.

The statute of limitations had expired for charging him in the assault on Mr Scheierl, but a grand jury indicted him on 25 child pornography counts.

Jacob's abduction shattered childhood innocence for many rural Minnesotans, changing the way parents let their children roam. His smiling face was burned into Minnesota's psyche, appearing on countless posters and billboards over the years.

His mother, Patty Wetterling, always kept hope her son would be found alive. She became a national advocate for missing children, and with her husband, Jerry Wetterling, founded the Jacob Wetterling Resource Centre, which works to help communities and families prevent child exploitation.

In 1994, Congress passed a law named after Jacob that requires states to establish sex offender registers.


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