A Minnesota man behind the 1989 killing of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling has been sentenced to 20 years in prison on a child pornography count, helping to bring closure to a decades-long unsolved mystery, officials said.
Danny Heinrech, 53, bowed his head and apologized to Jacob’s family during an emotional sentencing hearing Monday, saying he was “truly sorry for the evil acts” and for the shame he brought to his own family, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
“Mr. and Mrs. Wetterling, the heinous acts of selfishness are unforgivable... I’m so sorry,” Heinrech said.
On October 22, 1989, Jacob was riding his bicycle with his brother and a friend near his St. Joseph home when a masked gunman ordered the boys to get on the ground and asked their ages.
The gunman ordered the two other boys to run away and not look back, or else they would be shot. Jacob was never seen alive again.
Early in the investigation, Heinrech was questioned but never charged.
Investigators reexamining the case around the 25th anniversary of the kidnapping found Heinrich’s DNA on the sweatshirt of a 12-year-old boy who was abducted and sexually assaulted nine months before Jacob’s disappearance.
That evidence was used to get a search warrant for Heinrech’s home, where authorities found a collection of child pornography last year.
After months of reported denials, Heinrech confessed in court to killing Jacob and the earlier sexual assault.
“What did I do wrong?” Jacob had asked while bound by handcuffs, Heinrech told the court in September, according to the Associated Press.
Heinrech said he drove Jacob to a gravel pit near Paynesville where he molested him and shot him twice in the head after a patrol car with lights and sirens passed nearby. After Heinrech had revealed their location, and the FBI discovered the child’s remains on September 1, 2016, about 30 miles from where he was abducted.
Judge John Tunheim sentenced him to 20 years in federal prison in exchange for providing answers and leading investigators to Jacob’s remains.
The sentence handed down was the maximum the law allowed, though the plea deal allows state authorities to seek Heinrech’s civil commitment as a sexual predator at the end of his federal prison term. Such a commitment could prevent him from ever going free, according to the Associated Press.
Heinrich could possibly be eligible for release from prison after 17 years, but Tunheim said that was “unlikely that society will let you go free.”
If he is released, Heinrech would serve a lifetime of court-ordered supervision and be required to register as a sex offender.
The deal was struck with the approval of Jacob’s parents.
"The long nightmare is not over; there is no closure to the 'why?'" Tunheim said while addressing Heinrich, the Star Tribune wrote. “No one is ever going to forget October 22 of 1989. But we will move forward. We are in a better place as a society because of the commitment the Wetterling family has made to Jacob and to other children.”
Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, became a national advocate for missing children after her son’s disappearance. In 1994, a federal law was named in Jacob's honor that requires states to establish sex offender registries.
“You didn’t need to kill him. He did nothing wrong,” Patty Wetterling told Heinrech at his sentencing. “He just wanted to go home.”
Jacob’s father, Jerry Wetterling, thanked Heinrech for “leading us to Jacob,” to which Heinrech reportedly appeared to tear up.
“I miss Jacob so very much,” Jerry Wetterling said. “It wasn’t just Jacob’s physical body missing these last 27 years. More importantly, I miss the things I never got to experience.”