After 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was snatched by a masked gunman in front of his brother and best friend in 1989, he was never seen alive again. What happened to Jacob was a mystery, until Danny Heinrich came clean…


PA Photos

Young Jacob Wetterling was out on his bicycle with his little brother Trevor, 10, and friend Aaron Larson, 11, in October 1989.

A masked gunman approached them near their home in St Joseph, Minnesota.

He told the boys to get in a ditch, asked their names and ages.

Then, the man told Trevor and Aaron to run away. But he told Jacob to stay put.

He then grabbed Jacob, took him back to his car, handcuffed him, put him in the passenger seat.

On the outskirts of the town, the kidnapper pulled onto a country road.

The rural area where Jacob was abducted (Photo: PA Photos)

Next to a row of trees, close to a gravel pit, he opened Jacob’s door and removed the handcuffs.

He then took Jacob near the trees, where he undressed and made Jacob do the same.

The sick predator then sexually assaulted the 11-year-old.

After about 20 minutes, Jacob said he was cold.

‘Take me home,’ he pleaded.

But the man said he couldn’t, and Jacob started to cry.

Moments later, a police car drove past.

Panicking, the abductor grabbed his gun, told Jacob to turn around, then raised the revolver to the boy’s head and pulled the trigger.

The gun clicked once, but didn’t go off. Trying again, it fired, but Jacob was still standing, so the man shot once more.

The execution over, the killer returned to his apartment in Paynesville, and waited a couple of hours before returning to the scene to hide Jacob’s body.

He dragged it about 100 yards, then decided his shovel wasn’t up to the job. So, walking to a nearby construction company, he found a mini digger.

Meanwhile, Jacob’s parents were frantic.

Detectives searched for the missing boy, but Jacob’s body was never found.

A year later, the killer returned to the crime scene. He noticed Jacob’s red jacket sticking out of the shallow grave.

Shockingly, the murderer excavated the body – collecting Jacob’s bones and putting them in a bag.

He then carried it across the highway and dug another grave.

Reburying Jacob, the killer placed the lad’s jacket on top and covered him a final time.

Jacob’s last moments remained a secret for 27 years.

Patty and Jerry in 2009, still looking for their son (Photo: PA Photos)

But, in 2015, police investigating another abduction just nine months before Jacob’s death were led to Danny Heinrich through DNA technology.

Heinrich, 53, had been questioned over Jacob’s disappearance in December 1989, and a DNA sample had been taken. But he hadn’t been charged with the crime.

Detectives searched Heinrich’s house, where they discovered more than 150 graphic images. They arrested him, charging him with 25 counts of child pornography.

Staggeringly, Heinrich agreed to cooperate with police as part of a plea bargain.

He would tell authorities what happened to Jacob Wetterling if they didn’t charge him with the murder.

Instead, he pleaded guilty to one count of child pornography. The other 24 counts were dropped.

In graphic detail, Heinrich revealed how he killed Jacob.

Jacob’s parents Patty and Jerry Wetterling listened as their son’s killer told of the moment Jacob asked Heinrich, ‘What did I do wrong?’

Heinrich led authorities to the spot where he buried Jacob for the last time.

On 3 September 2016, dental records proved the remains were Jacob’s.

‘All I can confirm is that Jacob has been found and our hearts are broken,’ Patty said.

In November 2016, Danny James Heinrich was sentenced to 20 years.

Danny Heinrich (Photo: PA Photos)

At the sentencing, Aaron Larson told the court how he’d spent his life racked with guilt for leaving his best friend that night in 1989.

Patty cried as she described the ‘magnitude of pain’ Heinrich inflicted on her and her family.

‘He hurt my heart, my soul and every fibre of my being when he murdered our son Jacob – a child that I carried for nine months and nurtured for 11 years, eight months and five days,’ she said.

After listening to Jacob’s family, Heinrich apologised. He said he was ‘truly sorry for my evil acts that I have committed against the victims and their families and the shame that I caused, brought onto myself and my family.

Patty is consoled by son Trevor after the hearing (Photo: PA Photos)

‘Mr and Mrs Wetterling, the heinous acts, the selfishness are unforgivable for what I have taken away from you. I don’t know what else to say. I’m so sorry.’

The District Judge said Heinrich’s acts constituted one of the most truly horrible crimes he’d ever seen.

Heinrich will spend at least 17 years behind bars.

But nothing could ever make up for the life he stole, or the years of pain he put Jacob’s family through.