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Heinrich confesses to taking, killing Jacob Wetterling

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Patty Wetterling said,
Patty Wetterling tells the media that it is a difficult time for her family, because "to us, he was alive."
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Updated: 5 p.m. | Posted: 1:25 p.m.

Danny Heinrich
Last year, authorities named Danny Heinrich as a person of interest in the abduction of Jacob Wetterling, who was snatched from a rural Minnesota road on Oct. 22, 1989.
Sherburne County Jail

Danny Heinrich, the Minnesota man who led authorities to the remains of Jacob Wetterling, admitted in court Tuesday he abducted, sexually abused and then killed Jacob. The confession ended a nearly 30-year mystery, but not the agony.

The admission came as part of plea deal on federal child pornography charges that dropped all but one of the those counts and made clear Heinrich would not be prosecuted for Jacob's killing.

Heinrich is expected to be sentenced on Nov. 21 to 20 years in prison on the federal child pornography charge.

With Patty and Jerry Wetterling, Jacob's parents, present in the courtroom, Heinrich described in heartbreaking detail how he abducted 11-year-old Jacob from a rural central Minnesota road on Oct. 22, 1989. 

Jacob was riding his bicycle with his brother and a friend near his home in St. Joseph, Minn., when a masked Heinrich abducted him at gunpoint, holding onto Jacob, threatening to shoot the other boys and telling them to run. 

Heinrich handcuffed Jacob behind his back, put him in his car and drove away as Jacob asked, "What did I do wrong?"

A memorial  left near the farm in Paynesville.
A lone balloon blows in the wind attached to flowers, a memorial left near the farm in Paynesville.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Heinrich admitted sexually abusing Jacob and then shooting him twice, apparently panicking as Jacob cried after the assault.

Heinrich said he left Jacob's body and went home, then returned later to hide the body, using a Bobcat to dig a hole. He returned to the site a year later to discover Jacob's jacket partially exposed. He moved the remains to a field in Paynesville, Minn.

The Stearns County Sheriff's Office said Jacob's remains were identified Saturday.

In brief comments following Heinrich's confession, Patty Wetterling thanked all who worked on the case.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling after the hearing.
Patty and Jerry Wetterling, right, sit with their family during the press conference.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

"Jacob, I'm so sorry," she said. "It's incredibly painful to know his last days, his last hours, his last minutes."

Jacob, she added, has "taught us all how to live, how to love, how to be kind. He speaks to the world that he knew, that we believe in."

She found it hard to say more.

"For us," she said, her voice choked with emotion, "Jacob was alive until we found him."

The FBI has said Heinrich matched the general description of a man who assaulted several boys in Paynesville from 1986 to 1988. 

Earlier this year, Heinrich's DNA was found on the sweatshirt of a 12-year-old boy who was snatched from Cold Spring, Minn., and sexually assaulted just nine months before Jacob's abduction.

The site of Jacob Wetterling's remains.
Disturbed dirt lies at the location in a cow pasture of a farm in Paynesville, Minn., where Jacob Wetterling's remains were found.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Heinrich on Tuesday also admitted to that sexual assault.

Heinrich was questioned by authorities shortly after Jacob's disappearance, but he denied involvement. Court documents say his shoes and car tires were "consistent" with tracks near the site of the abduction, but couldn't be ruled an exact match. 

The Wetterling abduction gripped Minnesota and the nation. It led Congress to enact legislation in 1994 that required states to create sex offender registries. It was one of several child abduction cases that changed how Americans raised their children.

"Finally ... we know the truth. Danny Heinrich is the confessed murderer of Jacob Wetterling," U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andrew Luger told reporters after the hearing. 

"The unthinkable admissions that we just heard in court should make all of us angry," he said. "We will all ask many times, why. There is no good answer."

Asked why Heinrich killed Jacob after sexually assaulting him, Luger said authorities believed he panicked that night after seeing a police car nearby.

Trevor Wetterling hugs his mother.
Trevor Wetterling hugs his mother after she spoke at the press conference.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Luger said that given Heinrich's volatile and unpredictable nature, there was limited time to reach an agreement that would answer the question: Where is Jacob?

"Heinrich was open for the moment to tell us what happened," Luger said recounting the steps that led to the confession. "Danny Heinrich was ready to talk and we had to grab the moment."

Luger also dismissed ideas that Heinrich was getting off easy, noting he'll spend 20 years in prison and likely face civil commitment after that. 

"He's not getting away with anything," he said.

On Tuesday, Jacob Holck of Paynesville came to the site where Jacob's body was found. A blue balloon was tied to bunches of yellow flowers along the road.

Holck said the revelations have shaken the community. But he hopes that finally knowing what happened to Jacob will allow the community to start to heal.

"As devastated as the Wetterling family is, Paynesville is just bleeding right now, and we're just really having a hard time with this," Holck said. "I think that we can close this chapter and maybe work for some peace together, for both the Wetterling family and the Paynesville community."

Lorrie Gottwald moved to Paynesville just a few years after Jacob's abduction. She said the discovery of his body at a nearby farm was a shock to residents.

"It was what used to be the old highway in and out of town, they rerouted the highway a few years ago, but that was the way in and out of town that everyone took," Gottwald said. "It's just amazing to find that he was actually just right there and we just drove by."

In Annandale, Minn., Heinrich's home now sits empty. 

Neighbor Megan Champlin recalled Heinrich as a man always outside who kept his yard meticulous but generally kept to himself.

"We'd chat about the weather, just small talk, nothing in depth," Champlin said. "We never really thought he was a threat of any sort, didn't give us the creepies or anything like that. Just someone who kept to himself."

Champlin now has four children, including a 4-month-old. She said she was sickened by the details of Heinrich's confession.

"I couldn't believe that, having small children, living right next to him, and our block being full of small kids, and that he was the one who did those horrible things to Jacob," Champlin said. "It's a really raw feeling right now."

MPR News reporter Tim Nelson contributed to this report, which also includes background material from the Associated Press.

Heinrich deal: key points

Why was Heinrich sentenced to 240 months?

This is the statutory maximum for the federal child pornography charge to which Heinrich pleaded guilty. The sentence is part of plea deal on federal child pornography charges that dropped all but one of the those counts.

Will he be prosecuted by the state?

The plea agreement is described as a global resolution of all matters regarding the Jacob Wetterling case, as well as the sexual assault of Jared Scheierl in 1989. There will be no formal charges related to these crimes and no further state prosecutions. The agreement was signed off on by the Stearns County Attorney as well as the Wetterling family.

What will happen next? 

There is no parole possible in the federal system so Heinrich will likely serve the full 20 year sentence. After that, he could be civilly committed.

How does civil commitment work?

Under the Adam Walsh Act, federal officials (the U.S. Attorney General, Department of Justice or Bureau of Prisons) can certify an individual as "sexually dangerous." 

After that, a hearing is held to determine if the individual is sexually dangerous based on "clear and convincing" evidence. If the person is determined to be sexually dangerous, the Attorney General releases the individual to the state.

In Minnesota, civilly committed individuals are sent to one of two sex offender treatment programs (Moose Lake or St. Peter). A legal battle is currently underway over the constitutionality of the program.

-- Molly Bloom, MPR News