They told the Minneapolis Star Tribune this week, in their first media interview since Heinrich’s revelations, that the reality of what happened to their son, Jacob, was even more shocking than they had feared.
“It’s kind of like getting just punched in the head and you’re just spinning,” mom Patty told the paper in a Tuesday interview. “It was that sort of sensation for me. It takes a while before your head settles down. I don’t know that mine is yet. But it was stunning. It was confusing.”
On Sept. 6, Heinrich recounted his crimes in open court, confessing to sexually assaulting and shooting Jacob after abducting him at gunpoint the evening of Oct. 22, 1989.
Heinrich said he approached Jacob, his brother and a friend that night as they rode their bikes through the small town of St. Joseph, Minnesota. He forced the three to lie face down in a nearby ditch. After asking the boys to tell him their age, he told Jacob’s brother and his friend to run into the woods and not look back.
Jacob was never seen again.
In their new interview, the Wetterlings revealed that the first hint of a conclusion to the decades-long case came in late August, when the Wetterlings’ attorney, Doug Kelley, showed up at their home with news of a development:
Heinrich, who had been arrested on child pornography charges 10 months prior, told investigators he’d be willing to provide valuable information about Jacob’s disappearance so long as he never faced prosecution for his death.
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“At this point, we could only tell each other,” dad Jerry told the Star Tribune. “That was tough, too.”
A plea deal was soon struck for 20 years in prison, and Heinrich led officers to a field near Paynesville, Minnesota, and Jacob’s remains. As part of the deal, he also gave a full confession.
“Oh man, I didn’t want it to be him,” Patty said Tuesday of learning the truth. “Either [Heinrich] had to provide evidence or a very convincing story, and I got stuck on that.”
Prosecutors wanted the Wetterlings to sign off on Heinrich’s plea agreement, but it took a meeting with local, state and federal law enforcement officials to sway them, they told the Star Tribune.
“It was really clearly told to us that this would be our one opportunity for answers, and people felt [Heinrich] was willing to share,” Patty said.
The Wetterlings were invited to Jacob’s shallow grave, “which was a gift to us because it was before anybody else knew. We could go there undisturbed,” Patty said.
As the Wetterlings stood there, in the spot where there son had been buried, Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner approached with words that Jerry still remembers: “It’s over.”
“There were a lot of tears,” Patty said.
During Heinrich’s confession in court, the mourning parents sat in the galley, absorbing every painful detail. They heard about how Jacob had asked his captor, “What did I do wrong?” before being shot twice.
The Wetterlings told the Star Tribune they do not believe their son died in vain as laws, conceived in his honor, have been passed since 1989 to keep children safer.
“What is hopeful, that I see, is the way our state has in a sense been, I think, almost catapulted to a different level of caring about this issue,” Jerry said, including recent interest in solving cold cases.
Patty said she will continue her work to find missing kids and prevent abductions, but her approach to that mission has changed since Heinrich’s confession.
“I know that hope is real,” Patty said. “There’s missing children out there who we need to find, and just because our ending was horrific and sad and tragic doesn’t translate into all the other missing kids that we give up on. We still have work to do. We still have prevention work to do.”