Wetterling case confession brings pain to central MN kids, parents

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, Minn., where Jacob Wetterling's remains were found. Danny Heinrich , who led authorities to the location, confessed Tuesday in federal court in Minneapolis to the abduction, sexual abuse and killing of Jacob Wetterling in 1989.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Updated: 1:15 p.m. | Posted: 7:28 a.m.

Ellen Murray sat in her car Tuesday afternoon on a street in St. Joseph, Minn., listening to the press conference where officials described convincing Danny Heinrich to say what happened to Jacob Wetterling that night in 1989.

During the press conference, Jacob's mom, Patty Wetterling, said "our hearts our hurting. For us, Jacob was alive, until we found him."

"I just started crying," Murray said. "I know some people that knew the family really well and they're just taking it really hard."

• Timeline: 27 years of agony in Jacob Wetterling case

For some in central Minnesota, Jacob's disappearance made them wary — both as children and as parents. The details of the nearly 27-year-old case had been a mystery for years until they were revealed in court Tuesday.

"It's always in the back of my mind," Murray said. "When I got my doctor's there's a Jacob Wetterling banner up there all the time, so every time I see that I always go back to the day."

The story of what happened to Wetterling was told in disturbing detail on Tuesday as Heinrich recounted that night.

As part of a plea deal, the 53-year-old confessed to Wetterling's killing. He also confessed to kidnapping and sexually assaulting Jared Sheierel nine months earlier in Cold Spring. He pleaded guilty to one federal child pornography charge.

Prosecutors recommend he get 20 years in prison. He will not be charged in connection to the Wetterling or Sheierel cases.

That's not enough for some people.

"I would've assumed a lifetime in prison if not something worse than that," said Samantha Johnson, a College of St. Benedict student. "I think 20 years isn't long enough."

In Paynesville, where Heinrich lived at the time of Jacob's abduction, there was a makeshift memorial of bunches of yellow flowers, with a blue balloon tied to them.

Jacob Holck stopped by to see the spot, near where Heinrich said he buried Wetterling's body 27 years ago.

"As sad as it is, and I think we were all hoping for something hopeful, but at least there's answers now," he said.

Those answers were tough for Megan Champlin to hear. For the last two years, she lived next door to Heinrich in Annandale.

"He always was out, working on his yard, just keeping to himself," Champlin said. "We'd chat about the weather or you know, just small talk, nothing in depth. We didn't know him well either. You would never think he was the guy."

When she learned of Heinrich's confession to sexually assaulting and shooting Jacob, she thought of her four children.

"The fact that he, he really was the person that did those horrible things to Jacob," Champlin said "It's really a raw feeling right now. And it makes you kind of afraid of your neighbors and kind of afraid of where your kids are going and who they're playing with and, it's just, it's not a good feeling."

Heinrich is expected to be sentenced in late November.

MPR News reporters Jon Collins and Curtis Gilbert contributed to this report.

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