Jacob Wetterling's remains found, mother says

ST. JOSEPH, Minn.--Almost 27 years after the abduction of Jacob Wetterling in St. Joseph, a long trail of investigation appears to be near its end. Remains recovered this week in Central Minnesota are being tested to determine whether they are We...

Patty and Jerry Wetterling walk down their driveway to speak to reporters Tuesday at their home in St. Joseph to address the arrest of a "person of interest" in the abduction of their son, Jacob. The Wetterlings said they were surprised when authorities told them they had identified a person of interest in their son Jacob's abduction 26 years ago.

ST. JOSEPH, Minn.-Almost 27 years after the abduction of Jacob Wetterling in St. Joseph, a long trail of investigation appears to be near its end.

Remains recovered this week in Central Minnesota are being tested to determine whether they are Wetterling's. Danny Heinrich, a person of interest in the case, cooperated in the investigation, according to reports that first came from KSTP-TV.

Jacob's mother, Patty Wetterling, told KARE-TV Saturday morning that her son's remains have been found. "All I can confirm is that Jacob has been found and our hearts are broken. I am not responding to any media yet as I have no words."

In a separate message to the St. Cloud Times, she said "we will have words at some point."

Patty Wetterling told the Times that she and her family "are heartsick" and referred media to a statement posted to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center website. That statement said in part: "We are in deep grief. We didn't want Jacob's story to end this way. ... The Wetterlings had a choice to walk into bitterness and anger or to walk into a light of what could be, a light of hope. Their choice changed the world. ... Our hearts are heavy, but we are being held up by all of the people who have been a part of making Jacob's Hope a light that will never be extinguished. ... Jacob, you are loved."Later she sent out a tweet that read: "Our family is drawing strength from all your love & support. We're struggling with words at this time. Thank you for your hope."


U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who worked with Patty Wetterling on legislation related to missing children, referred to Patty as a friend. "I have seen firsthand her extraordinary advocacy for children and how she has turned her grief into action," Klobuchar said in a statement. "The Wetterling family and all who knew and loved Jacob are in our hearts today."

A statement from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children said thoughts and prayers are with the Wetterling family. "Our hope today is that this new information will bring some answers to a family who has never stopped searching for their son and brother," NCMEC President John Clark said in the statement.

Reviving a practice used to remember the search for Jacob, supporters on Saturday used the social media hashtag #lightsonforJacob to promote the idea of leaving lights on to show support.

Stearns County Chief Deputy Bruce Bechtold and County Attorney Janelle Kendall declined to comment Saturday morning. Bechtold is the lead investigator in the Wetterling case. Messages left for Sheriff John Sanner were not immediately returned.

The FBI is not in the position to confirm any details regarding the matter, said Kyle Loven, chief division counsel at the Minneapolis office. There is no indication when the FBI could comment further.

"This remains an active investigation," he said.

Heinrich has been in federal custody since late October, after authorities arrested him on charges of receiving and possessing child pornography. He was indicted in December on 25 child pornography charges - five from October, plus an additional 20 related to possessing and receiving child pornography both in print and digital images. Some of the material featured children under the age of 12, authorities said.

The child pornography case against Heinrich began building last summer, while authorities searched his home looking for evidence in both Jacob's abduction and a separate kidnapping and sexual assault involving 12-year-old Jared Scheierl in nearby Cold Spring nine months before Jacob disappeared.


The abduction

Jacob was 11 when he was kidnapped shortly after 9 p.m. on the night of Oct. 22, 1989, after he and his brother, Trevor, 10, and best friend, Aaron Larson, 11, rode their bikes to a Tom Thumb store not far from the family's rural St. Joseph home to rent a video.

As they headed home, a masked man with a gun appeared on the remote dirt road leading to the Wetterling house, told the boys to lie face down in a nearby ditch and asked each his age. He then ordered Trevor and Aaron to run to the woods and not look back. When the boys did, Jacob and the masked man were gone.

Former St. Joseph Police Chief Brad Lindgren said the news, if confirmed, brings a sense of relief.

"If true, I think it's a good thing for everyone involved to get closure," Lindgren said. "You want to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. It's a big, big closure for that case."

He said that, although the kidnapping happened outside the city limits and was always a county-led investigation, the city of St. Joseph always felt Jacob's disappearance was a part of their identity. And although outsiders might have thought the case was cold and might never be solved, that wasn't the mood of the investigators.

"I never felt like it wouldn't be solved," Lindgren said. "Because there's always someone who knows something."

No one has ever been charged in the case.


Heinrich, who lived in Paynesville, about 30 miles southwest of St. Joseph, at the time of Jacob's abduction, was first questioned by investigators soon after it happened, and several times in 1990. He said at that time that he was not involved in the case, authorities have said.

Heinrich re-emerged as a "person of interest" last summer, authorities have said, because of similarities to the January 1989 kidnapping and sexual assault of Scheierl.

In that case, the driver told the boy after releasing him "not to look back or he would be shot," according to court documents.

DNA evidence later found on the sweatshirt worn by Scheierl, now 39, matched Heinrich. Authorities said in October that Heinrich could not be charged in Scheierl's case because the statute of limitations had run out.

On May 11, Scheierl sued Heinrich, claiming he kidnapped and sexually assaulted him nine months before Wetterling was abducted.

Authorities have long cited similarities in the two cases - both in the description of the suspect and how he approached his victims - as reason to believe the same person could be responsible for both.

'Person of interest'

Authorities said in October that Heinrich consistently has told them, both soon after Jacob's disappearance and again recently, that he was not involved in the case.

They also said that when they searched Heinrich's home last summer, they found nothing to connect Heinrich to Jacob.

At that time, however, they found 19 three-ring binders containing numerous images of child pornography, authorities said. Authorities said the binders included pictures of some known child victims. Child pornography also was found on Heinrich's computer hard drive, the authorities said.

When authorities arrived at Heinrich's house with a search warrant, he described himself as "a dirty old man," but denied creating pornography or sharing it with anyone, according to a federal agent who testified in court.

None of the charges allege that Heinrich distributed pornography.

Heinrich was arrested Oct. 29, 2015. That was the first time authorities mentioned his name publicly in relation to either the Scheierl or Wetterling cases. At a press conference, they called Heinrich a "person of interest" in the Wetterling abduction.

Heinrich lived in the Paynesville area at the time of the Wetterling abduction and a string of unsolved attacks on children in Paynesville.

Heinrich has been held in Sherburne County Jail without bail while his federal case progresses.

The federal charges came after investigators served a search warrant at Heinrich's Annandale residence. They were there looking for any evidence that could connect Heinrich to Wetterling's abduction, the Cold Spring abduction and sexual assault and the Paynesville attacks.

Investigators made public the search warrant executed at Heinrich's residence. That document provided details about why Heinrich was considered a person of interest in the Wetterling abduction.

Some of that included tire and shoe impressions collected from the Wetterling abduction scene that were similar to shoes Heinrich had at the time and to tires that were on his vehicle at the time, according to authorities. Details in the search warrant also described similarities in the way Wetterling was abducted and the way the Paynesville children were attacked and assaulted.

FBI agents interviewed Heinrich on Dec. 16, 1989, about Wetterling, and he told them he couldn't recall where he was on Oct. 22, 1989. He denied any involvement in the abduction of Scheierl or Wetterling.

Heinrich was interviewed again in mid-January 1990 and gave investigators his shoes and the rear tires from the blue Ford EXP he had purchased in 1989. He also gave investigators body hair samples.

DNA from those hair samples couldn't exclude Heinrich from being attacker in the Cold Spring assault. DNA collected from Heinrich during the search of his Annandale home led to an even stronger link to the Cold Spring abduction.

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