That all changed last week, when the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office confirmed Jacob’s skeletal remains had been recovered, finally bringing closure to a family who’d never stopped hoping Jacob would be found alive.
Here’s what you need to know about the case so far.
1. Man Who Authorities Said Led to Jacob’s Body Is Facing Child Porn Charges
According to investigators, a former National Guardsman provided them with crucial information about where Jacob’s remains had been buried.
Daniel Heinrich, 52, was arrested last year on federal child pornography charges. Soon after, he was named as a person of interest in Jacob’s disappearance, police said.
Through recent advancements in DNA science, police said they were able to link Heinrich to a sexual assault that was committed against Jared Scheierl – then 12 years old – nine months before Wetterling’s disappearance.
Though the statute of limitations prevented charges in Scheierl’s case, police did secure a warrant and searched Heinrich’s home, allegedly unearthing several binders filled with sexually explicit images of children.
Heinrich allegedly told detectives about a farm where he said they would find Jacob’s remains. He’ll be tried next month in federal court on 25 child porn charges and it was not immediately clear if he had retained an attorney.
2. Heinrich Has Always Been the Focus of the Disappearance Investigation
Police say they have long suspected Heinrich was involved in Jacob’s disappearance and, years ago, conducted surveillance and searches of his father’s farm. However, detectives found no hard evidence at the time connecting Heinrich with Jacob’s case.
Police said Heinrich was interviewed four times by law enforcement in the months after Jacob disappeared and that it appeared shoe prints and tire tracks from the scene matched his prints and tires.
Heinrich, a high school dropout who served for several years in the National Guard, has previous convictions for drunken driving and burglaries, records show.
In court documents, authorities detailed why they believed the same person who had sexually assaulted Scheierl was involved in Jacob’s case:
“The abductions were committed in the same geographic area, involved similarly aged boys, were committed by a lone male suspect and occurred within months of each other.”
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3. Jacob’s Disappearance Led to National Legislation
While Jacob’s family has long grappled with the mystery of his disappearance, and now the new grief of his confirmed death, they and others have also focused on creating positive outcomes from the case, including preventing more crimes against children.
For example: Long before there was Megan’s Law, there was the “Wetterling Act.”
In 1994, Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Bill, which included the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sex Offender Registration Act. The new law required each state to create a specific program to register sex offenders and maintain information about their whereabouts.
The Wetterling Act was amended in 1996 by Megan’s Law, which required states to not only register sex offenders, but to inform the public whenever such persons move into a community.
4. The Wetterling’s Community Has Rallied Around Them
As the heartbreaking news spread of Jacob’s death, many in his community wondered how to honor his life and pay respect to his family.
One such event was organized on Facebook, called Lights on for Jacob Wetterling, which encouraged people to keep their outdoor lights on through Monday night, “in memory of Jacob and to show respect to his family.”
More than 15,000 people have participated in the event, posting photos of their porch lights on social media.
5. A Resource Center Was Founded in Jacob’s Name
In 2003, the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center was created to raise awareness for the safety and prevention of crimes against children. It also works toward the unified goal of creating a world where kids can grow up safe.
The center, in Winona, Minnesota, works to “educate and assist families and communities to address and prevent the exploitation of children, by putting online and in-person safety information in the hands of every man, woman and child.”
“Light a candle. Be with friends. Play with your children. Giggle. Hold hands. Eat ice cream. Create joy. Help your neighbor,” Patty wrote Monday on the center’s Facebook page.
“That is what will bring me comfort today,” she concluded, after introducing her post by writing, “The Wetterlings are deeply grieving and are pulling our family together. We will be eager to talk to media as soon as we are able.”