The man who confessed Tuesday to abducting and killing 11-year-old Minnesota boy Jacob Wetterling in 1989 accepted a plea deal on a single child pornography charge and will never be charged with the boy’s murder.
The maximum sentence for the child pornography charge is 20 years, and federal prosecutors have vowed to ask for the maximum. Still, a federal prosecution source tells PEOPLE it’s possible Daniel Heinrich, 52, may never walk the streets a free man again.
After serving his 20-year sentence, Heinrich could be committed to a high-security facility through the state’s sex offender program, the source explains. “He may not ever be released from custody – that would obviously be a good thing,” says the source.
In his confession Tuesday, Heinrich – who led investigators to Jacob’s remains last week – provided disturbing details about the autumn night Jacob vanished.
He admitted to wearing a mask and abducting Jacob at gunpoint as the boy rode his bike home with his brother and a friend. Jacob was handcuffed in Heinrich’s car, and was driven to a wooded area where he was sexually assaulted.
“What did I do wrong?,” the confused child apparently asked Heinrich, who later shot Jacob in the head before burying the boy’s body in a gravel pit.
He said he returned to the crime scene a year later to dig up the child’s remains, moving them to a second shallow grave.
Heinrich was arrested last October and charged with 25 federal child pornography counts after investigators recovered 19 binders and several hard drives containing images of minors in sexual situations.
“He was also into what’s called ‘morphing,’ where he would print out graphic images and then, cut a child’s face out of a picture and put it on bodies of other children,” the source says.
While the plea agreement has been criticized as too lenient, the source tells PEOPLE none of the prosecutors involved in the negotiations that led investigators to Jacob’s remains “are second guessing” the decision to cut a deal.
“He is not getting away with murder,” the source says. “It wasn’t a choice we really had. It was a bittersweet moment, but we got there.”
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Closure for Jacob’s Parents Was Goal, Says Prosecution Source
The goal for the prosecution, the source explains, was to provide some closure for Jacob’s parents while resolving a murder mystery that had detectives baffled for nearly three decades.
“It is important that people understand this was a difficult negotiation that took almost a year to finalize,” the source tells PEOPLE. “Heinrich’s attorneys contacted us on Aug. 26 and said, ‘We think he’s willing to talk about Jacob.’ Now, he’d never admitted to us this was something he had been involved in, but his lawyers were saying that he could show us where he put Jacob. Part of this negotiation was he wouldn’t face murder charges. It was important to him for some reason that he not be charged with murder.”
The source says that Heinrich’s willingness to talk put prosecutors in a peculiar position. They didn’t have Jacob’s body, so they couldn’t file murder charges against Heinrich for the killing.
“The choice wasn’t to try him for murder or not, it was to bring Jacob home or not,” the source explains.
According to the prosecution source, even if Heinrich had been tried for Jacob’s killing and a jury eventually convicted him for the crime, a judge would have been barred from imposing a lengthy prison term because the judge would have been forced to abide by the less-stringent sentencing guidelines that existed back in 1989.
“Under the state sentencing guidelines from the time he committed the crime, he would have received 17 to 18 years if convicted,” the source explains. “He’ll be getting 20 years for the charge he pleaded to, and then there’s the possibility civil commitment will be imposed. Even without that civil confinement, you’re still looking at a lengthier sentence than if he was convicted of Jacob’s murder.”
As part of that agreement, Heinrich had to give a full confession.
According to the source, Jacob’s parents were consulted about the deal’s terms ahead of time, and signed off on the agreement.
“It was important to everyone working this the case that Jacob’s parents understand what was happening and why, and it was important to us that they were supportive,” the source explains. “Now, they can give him a proper burial.”
Jacob’s remains were recovered from a farm in Paynesville, Minnesota, on Aug. 31, authorities have said.
After his arrest last October, investigators were able to establish a DNA link between Heinrich and the sexual assault of a 12-year-old boy just nine months before Jacob vanished.
Heinrich was questioned by authorities shortly after Jacob disappeared, but he had long denied any involvement in the child’s abduction.
Under the terms of his deal, Heinrich also had to confess his involvement in the sexual assault of the 12-year-old. He will face no charges for that offense.