Daniel Heinrich made the startling admission that he killed Jacob Wetterling as he pleaded guilty Tuesday to child pornography charges in federal court in Minneapolis

By Chris Harris
Updated September 06, 2016 03:30 PM
Credit: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

On Tuesday, during a Minneapolis court appearance on unrelated child pornography charges, Daniel Heinrich made a startling confession: He was responsible for the 1989 abduction and slaying of an 11-year-old Minnesota boy, the Associated Press reports.

The 52-year-old Heinrich, pleading guilty in federal court to one child pornography charge, admitted in detail how he had killed Jacob Wetterling nearly 27 years ago, according to Fox9.

Heinrich had reportedly been charged with 25 counts of possessing and receiving child pornography. Under his plea deal Tuesday, 24 of those charges were dismissed and he will not be charged in Jacob’s death, according to Fox9 and the Star Tribune.

As part of that agreement, Heinrich had to give a full confession, according to the Tribune. (According to the AP, the Wetterling family approved the deal.)

For Heinrich’s pornography charge, prosecutors recommended a sentence of 20 years in prison, according to the AP – the maximum.

He will also be required to register as a sex offender and “may never be released again,” the county attorney said, according to the Tribune. He could be civilly committed under Minnesota’s sexual offender program, after he is released from prison, according to the AP.

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At a news conference Tuesday, prosecutors hailed the new revelations in Jacob’s case, adding that hopefully the community, including Jacob’s family, will now begin to heal.

“Finally, we know. … We know the truth,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said, according to the Tribune. “Danny Heinrich is no long the person of interest. He is the confessed killer of Jacob Wetterling.”

“Today he is facing justice,” Luger said, according to the Tribune. He said the deal first came together days ago, after Heinrich’s defense team reached out, according to the Tribune.

Both authorities and the Wetterling family felt that the chance to finally find Jacob, and some answers, even via a deal, “was not an opportunity we could pass up,” Luger said, according to the Tribune.

“He’s not getting away with anything,” Luger said, according to the paper. “We got the truth. The Wetterling family can bring [Jacob] home.”

(Heinrich’s plea also required he confess to the sexual assault of a 12-year-old boy months before he abducted Jacob in 1989, according to the Tribune – and, as with Jacob’s case, he will not be charged in return for his admission.)

Jacob’s mother, Patty, also spoke after the hearing, according to the Tribune. Of her son, she said, “He’s taught us all how to live, how to love, how to be fair, how to be kind. … His legacy will go on. It’s incredibly painful to know his last days, his last minutes.”

Teary-eyed, she said, “Our hearts are hurting. For us, Jacob was alive until we found him.”

“I want to say, ‘Jacob, I’m so sorry,’ ” Patty said.

A Horrifying Final Night

In his confession Tuesday, Heinrich provided the first clear details of the night Jacob vanished, on Oct. 22, 1989.

He said he wore a mask and carried a gun when he first abducted Jacob – as the boy rode his bike home with his brother and a friend – before handcuffing him in his car and assaulting him in the woods, according to the AP.

Jacob asked him at the time, “What did I do wrong?” Heinrich said, according to the AP.

Heinrich told the court that after driving Jacob away from the site of his abduction, he walked Jacob from the car into a wooded area where he took off his handcuffs and then stripped and molested him, according to the Tribune.

“I’m cold,” Jacob said, according to Heinrich, the paper reports. “Okay, you can get dressed,” Heinrich says he responded.

When the boy asked if he could go home, Heinrich refused, and Jacob started crying. Heinrich said that he thought he heard a police car, according to Fox9.

“I panicked,” Heinrich told the court, according to the Tribune. “I pulled the revolver out of my pocket … I loaded it with two rounds. I told Jacob to turn around. I told him I had to go to the bathroom. I raised the revolver to his head. I turned my head and it clicked once. I pulled the trigger again and it went off. Looked back, he was still standing.”

Heinrich then “raised the revolver again and shot him again,” he said, according to the Tribune. He said he buried Jacob in a gravel pit, according to the AP, before reburying him a year later.

As Heinrich spoke, Jacob’s parents listened from the courtroom’s front row as some in the galley sobbed, according to the Tribune.

Heinrich’s attorney did not immediately return PEOPLE’s calls seeking comment and Minnesota prosecutors referred questions to the court record.

Authorities previously named Heinrich as a person of interest in the case in October, after he was arrested on the child pornography charges.

Police say it was Heinrich who led authorities to Jacob’s remains last week. His body was recovered from farmland not far from where Heinrich lived with his father.