The man who abducted, molested and then killed 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in 1989 was sentenced Monday to 20 years in prison, PEOPLE confirms — and he could spend the rest of his life in state custody.
Daniel Heinrich was sentenced on one count of receipt of child pornography in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, nearly three months after his confession in Jacob’s disappearance resolved a decades-old cold case, court officials tell PEOPLE.
At the hearing, Heinrich was confronted by one of his victims and Jacob’s family and friends, according to the court transcript. They shared decades of grief — a chorus of loss — all because of Heinrich.
“Words can’t express the magnitude of pain that Danny Heinrich has inflicted on me and my family every day of our lives since he hurt my heart, my soul and every fiber of my being when he murdered our son Jacob,” Patty Wetterling, Jacob’s mom, said at the sentencing.
“I miss Jacob so very much,” said Jacob’s dad, Jerry Wetterling, adding, “More importantly, I miss all the things I didn’t get to experience [with him].”
Jacob’s brother, Trevor, said Heinrich did not deserve to be out of custody: “This monster was able to live free with his secret for almost 27 years, 9,815 days free, without paying for what he did to my brother.”
Jacob’s sister Carmen said, “I am taken back to this nightmare every time the leaves start to change. The time I have spent hoping, praying, searching for my brother cannot be measured.”
And Jacob’s sister Amy said, “While I have no idea what my life would be like if Jacob had never been taken, I do know that it would have been without 27 years of pain directly caused by Danny Heinrich.”
“All the times our parents went on TV begging and pleading for answers, and he just watched,” she said.
Jared Scheierl, who was 12 when Heinrich abducted and sexually assaulted him months before Jacob vanished, also read a statement in court: “We’re here today to hear the level of pain and trauma that Danny Heinrich has inflicted on a number of people through the course of 27 years or longer.”
‘I Am Truly Sorry’
Heinrich read a brief statement himself, apologizing to Scheierl and the Wetterlings for his crimes.
“I am 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, for the victim impact statements that I read and the suffering and pain that they have spoken here today, I will always remember,” he said.
“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.”
Heinrich continued, “Many are probably wondering how I kept this secret so long. Well, to spare myself and the humiliation I would have brought to my family for my actions.”
“There is no more, your Honor,” he said. “I, I — there is no more. I can’t do it.”
Before Heinrich spoke, one of his defense attorneys addressed the court, saying, “He [Heinrich] hopes, if in some little bit, to contribute to [the] healing.”
But prosecutors dismissed that, describing Heinrich instead as a “cold, calculating predator of children” — noting that investigators had discovered he kept taped TV specials about Jacob’s disappearance, including his parents’ previous media appearances.
While Heinrich may be eligible for release after 17 years, he could be civilly committed as a sex offender in Minnesota and remain in state custody. If he is released, he will be required to register as a sex offender and be under a lifetime of court-ordered supervision.
Since Jacob’s abduction, the Wetterling family has become noted advocates for missing and exploited children, founding a resource center in his name and lobbying for legislation.
“Today’s sentencing marks the close of a sad chapter in Minnesota history,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said in a statement Wednesday. “Danny Heinrich hurt countless lives, none more tragic than Jacob Wetterling. I encourage all Minnesotans to draw on the example of Patty and Jerry Wetterling, who transformed their grief into hope.”
(Heinrich’s defense team did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment on the sentencing. The Wetterlings have not responded to inquiries since Heinrich’s confession.)
‘We Will Move Forward’
Speaking from the bench on Monday, Judge John Tunheim, who sentenced Heinrich, said, “This long nightmare is not over. There is no closure to the ‘why,’ but there is closure today and an opportunity for healing. … No one is ever going to forget Oct. 22 of 1989. But we will move forward.”
“I know that we’re in a better place as a society because of the commitment the Wetterling family has made to Jacob and to other children,” Tunheim said.
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Indeed, as Jacob’s loved ones remembered his death, they also spoke of his inspiring life and spirit.
“In 11 years, I think Jacob taught us all so much about life, how to make a difference, how to be happy, how to make others happy,” Jacob’s best friend, Aaron Larson, said at the hearing.
“Life is hard,” Larson added, “but Jacob showed us how great this hard life can be.”
The Wetterling family said in a statement following the sentencing, in part, “We are so grateful for the collaborative effort that it took to find answers.”
“We are getting stronger every day and we will deal with the finality of the search for answers, but like many other realities of life, healing has its ebbs and flows,” the Wetterlings said. “We are feeling good one moment and may be in tears from hearing a song that touches our hearts the next moment.”
In a bargain with prosecutors that was approved by the Wetterlings, Heinrich admitted to Jacob’s abduction, assault and slaying, as well as Scheierl’s abduction and sexual assault — and he at last led investigators to Jacob’s remains.
In exchange, he was only sentenced on one count of child pornography, following his 2015 arrest. He was not prosecuted for his other crimes, and he waived his right to appeal his sentence.
“We won’t pretend today that this crime and sentence is about child pornography, although it technically is. It is not,” Judge Tunheim said Monday. “It’s about taking a childhood away from Jared Scheierl and taking a lifetime away from Jacob Wetterling.”
Heinrich was named as a person of interest in Jacob’s disappearance in October 2015, when authorities say they also recovered 19 binders and several hard drives with images of minors in sexual situations from Heinrich’s home.
But the lack of other evidence pointing toward him, including a body, hindered the investigation and any possible prosecution. Then Heinrich’s defense team reached out on his behalf, earlier this year, offering information in exchange for a deal.
As a federal prosecution source previously explained to PEOPLE, “[Heinrich] is not getting away with murder. It wasn’t a choice we really had. It was a bittersweet moment, but we got there.”
“The choice wasn’t to try him for murder or not,” the source said. “It was to bring Jacob home or not.”
And so in September, Heinrich confessed in full, in court, to having abducted Jacob at gunpoint near his home, molesting him and then fatally shooting him in the head on Oct. 22, 1989.
Speaking at Monday’s sentencing, Jacob’s father thanked Heinrich for finally revealing what had happened to their son and leading police to his body.
Patty also addressed Heinrich directly: “You didn’t just bring a gun to scare the boys, you brought bullets. Why would you bring bullets if not to use them?
“You didn’t need to kill him,” Patty said. “He did nothing wrong. He just wanted to go home.”