Minnesotans meet Wetterling news with relief, grief

White ribbons hung to remember Jacob Wetterling
Pedestrians walk past white ribbons hung along Minnesota Street in St. Joseph, Minn. The Stearns County Sheriff's Office says in a statement that Jacob Wetterling's remains were identified on Saturday. Jacob was 11 when he was kidnapped from a rural road on Oct. 22, 1989, near his home in St. Joseph, about 80 miles northwest of Minneapolis.
Kimm Anderson | St. Cloud Times via AP

It seems everyone in central Minnesota knows the story of Jacob Wetterling's disappearance. And on Sunday they expressed relief and sadness at the news that authorities have recovered the remains of his body.

A man wearing a mask abducted the 11-year-old at gunpoint in 1989 near his home in St. Joseph. On Saturday the Stearns County Sheriff's Office said Saturday that investigators identified his remains through dental records.

Reva Mische of St. Cloud is among a generation which has grown up knowing about the case. She was born the year after Jacob was kidnapped.

Talking outside a coffee shop in St. Joseph with a young son of her own, Mische said she's glad investigators finally cracked the case, but said a confirmation of Jacob's death was not the outcome anyone wanted.

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"Central Minnesota has been part of this for years, and everyone quickly banded together, lights were on last night for Jacob, and I think we're just hoping that we can move into a space of healing, the family can finally heal and have some closure or at least some peace," she said.

Soon after Jacob's abduction, authorities questioned Danny James Heinrich, who lived in Paynesville at the time — about 30 miles from St. Joseph.

Authorities arrested Heinrich last October on child pornography charges but they have not charged him with Jacob's disappearance. Heinrich, now 53 years old, led authorities to the remains in recent days. He is in federal custody.

At St. Joseph's Catholic Church parishioners remembered both Mother Teresa — whom Pope Francis had just declared a saint — and Jacob Wetterling. Following Mass, Julie Meyer said this is an important moment for the community to share.

"It was so comforting. We celebrated St. Teresa along with Jacob Wetterling today."

The Wetterling case led to the nationwide adoption of something unheard of a generation ago — mandatory registration of sex offenders. It also led to increased awareness of the still rare crime of stranger child abduction.

Meyer's husband Steve says their children were 3 and 5 at the time of Jacob's abduction.

"Everybody in this area spent more time watching their children, making sure they were safe, just simply being around them more. We do that to this day I think. You just appreciate every day the children you have, and you love them, he said."

Larry Engholm of Roseville was in St. Joseph visiting his grandson this weekend. The Jacob Wetterling abduction made all parents raise their guard. He's glad investigators have finally answered the question of what happened to Jacob.

"I like to think that maybe the grief can be replaced by some relief for the family. I just feel terrible for them. It's tragic," he said."I'm glad it's over."

It's not clear when prosecutors might file charges in Jacob Wetterling's abduction and killing.

The Stearns County Sheriff's office says investigators will conduct additional DNA testing on the boy's remains, and they're continuing to evaluate new evidence.

In a statement on Twitter posted Saturday, Jacob's mother Patty Wetterling said "Our family is drawing strength from all your love & support. We're struggling with words at this time."