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ST. JOSEPH, Minn. — White ribbons flutter along a grade school’s fence here in memory of Jacob E. Wetterling, whose remains were found this month nearly 27 years after he was abducted on a country road. A fresh vase of flowers sits at the spot on the road, silent but for crickets and the whoosh of wind through rows of corn, where Jacob was grabbed so many years ago. And though it is the middle of the day, at the house where Jacob lived, the porch light still is on, just as it has been over a matter of decades — here and at homes across Minnesota — to guide him home.
The disappearance of Jacob in 1989 shattered this city of fewer than 7,000 people, as well as so many other tiny central Minnesota towns in a region of farm fields and ranch homes. “It changed a lot,” Lee Meyer, 94, said.
A generation of parents suddenly kept their children close, and a generation of children learned to worry. “To tell the truth,” said Robert Devore, 42, who was in his teens when Jacob vanished, “I’m still looking over my shoulder to this day.”
Long before an age of Amber Alerts and elaborate tracking of sex offenders, Jacob’s case opened a new conversation in Minnesota about child sexual abuse and abduction. His story helped lead to a significant national policy change: Jacob’s name was on the first federal law in 1994 that required states to keep registries of convicted sex offenders. And, over all the years, the hope here for Jacob’s return never seemed to fade, in large part because of the work of his mother, Patty, who has become one of the nation’s prominent advocates on behalf of missing and exploited children.
As a reporter covering the Midwest for more than a decade, I have focused at times on shifting policies regarding sexual predators — from local bans on where they can live to controversial programs in which states hold offenders, even after they complete criminal sentences, and the legal challenges that have followed. And I have long followed Jacob’s case, and often thought of the grinning boy in the yellow sweater in a frequently reprinted photo as the real stakes in any policy debate.
As a parent, I could never shake the impossibly painful details of the case: a masked, armed man had grabbed Jacob, 11, and his best friend and his brother before ordering the friend and brother to run into the darkness and never look back. I watched as Patty Wetterling created a foundation with her husband, Jerry, dedicated to helping other missing children and preventing abuse; served on the board of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; expressed nuanced views on offender registries; and ran for the House of Representatives twice — even as she waited, with Midwestern resoluteness, for Jacob.
But now it seems the answers were close by all along. Jacob was buried in a farm field in this very county, kidnapped and killed not by someone who had crossed state lines or vanished into the anonymity of some faraway locale, but by Danny Heinrich, who lived about 30 miles away and had first been interviewed by investigators about the case, court records show, within weeks of Jacob’s disappearance.
This month Mr. Heinrich, 53, admitted assaulting and killing Jacob Wetterling on the night he kidnapped him, in October 1989. He had also been investigated months before Jacob’s disappearance in a similar sexual attack on a boy in a nearby town amid a rash of earlier assaults on young boys in Paynesville, another town near St. Joseph. When Mr. Heinrich was questioned not long after Jacob’s disappearance, he denied it all, court documents show, and was not charged. The allegations left this city reeling.
“I have boys around that same age — 13, 11 and 8 — and what’s happened to Jacob just makes you cry,” said Tracy Omann Smith, who owns the local flower shop, where a sign last week read, “Jacob Let Your Light Shine Bright.”
“You have to understand, the family had left everything as it was,” she said. “They never moved from the house, never changed their phone number. They really believed he was coming back, and maybe we all did.”
On Oct. 22, 1989, Jacob and the two other boys were confronted by a man on a darkened road as they rode their bikes back from a convenience store, where they had picked out a movie. The attacker ordered them into a ditch, asked the boys their ages, then sent two of them scrambling off into the woods and threatened to shoot them if they looked back. He handcuffed Jacob and drove him to a pit near Paynesville, where he attacked him, then shot him.
After Mr. Heinrich’s confession in court this month, an emotional Ms. Wetterling thanked law enforcement officials. She also praised a local blogger and another assault victim of Mr. Heinrich’s, for “stirring this pot” the last few years until the truth came out. Then she said her family was not yet ready to speak publicly about the case.
“For us Jacob was alive until we found him,” Ms. Wetterling said. “We need to heal.”
In an unusual plea agreement, Mr. Heinrich agreed to admit to the killing and directed the authorities to Jacob’s remains, buried in a shallow grave in a pasture. But he will not be charged in the killing or the earlier assault on the victim who survived. He pleaded guilty to a federal pornography count, and is expected to serve 20 years in prison. The authorities have raised the possibility that he could be held beyond that, under civil commitment procedures aimed at the most dangerous sex offenders. He told a hushed courtroom what Jacob had asked that night: “What did I do wrong?”
Some here say they have grown skeptical about police work on the case, given the years it took to solve it, the early questioning of Mr. Heinrich that did not result in charges, and the unsolved assaults of young boys in nearby towns over several years before Jacob’s abduction. A new investigative podcast series by American Public Media, “In the Dark,” is examining law enforcement’s handling of the case.
At least eight cases involving boys who were groped or attacked occurred from 1986 to 1988 in tiny Paynesville, where Mr. Heinrich lived at that time, court documents show. The descriptions of the attacker often sounded similar: a husky, short man with a mask and a raspy voice. At points, the local authorities said Mr. Heinrich should be considered a suspect in those cases, though he was never charged.
Jacob’s was a case that drew enormous law enforcement resources to this city. National Guard members were dispatched. Rewards were offered. Thousands of tips poured in. Would Sheriff John L. Sanner of Stearns County do anything differently in the investigation given everything?
“My response has always been the same,” Sheriff Sanner said. “Our energy needs to stay focused on what we can control and not wasted on things we have no control over.”
Much has changed since Jacob Wetterling vanished — from DNA technology to an internet revolution that allows people to know almost instantly when a child disappears, but that also gives predators new ways to reach children without even stepping outdoors. But in a way, this small city has stood still, waiting, like the lights outside the Wetterlings’ home.
Trina Faber, 45, a manager at Bo Diddley’s sandwich shop, grew up around here. Patty Wetterling sometimes comes in for sandwiches. And Jerry Wetterling, the local chiropractor, whose office remains just down the street, has treated Ms. Faber’s back from time to time. So when she heard that Jacob’s remains had at last been found, she burst into tears.
“There has been so much to it for so long,” she said. “In a way I was relieved. He was in peace. But it also meant it was the end.”
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