The Jacob Wetterling abduction

Jerry and Patty Wetterling: 'Closure' a confusing word after truth about Jacob's death

Jerry and Patty Wetterling
Jerry and Patty Wetterling at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Sometime in 1990, a California man was flying out of Amsterdam. He was convinced he had seen Jacob Wetterling in an airport waiting area.

That was just one of the myriad leads that poured in after Jacob went missing on the night of Oct. 22, 1989. The case had captured the nation's attention.

Jacob Wetterling
Jacob Wetterling
Courtesy of Wetterling family

From the day he went missing, Patty and Jerry Wetterling did everything they possibly could to find their son.

"I was frustrated because I couldn't get the FBI to go through the manifest of that particular flight," Jerry Wetterling said Tuesday.

Now, the Wetterlings finally have answers about what happened to their son.

But the idea of having any "closure" is confusing for Patty and Jerry.

"I've always felt that what everybody else wanted for us was closure," Jerry said, "and I'm not sure exactly what they thought that meant. ... The fact that Jacob's been away from us for 27 years, that's not gonna change."

"Closure," Patty Wetterling said, implies she could go back to how she was before her son disappeared. Instead, she prefers the phrase, "We have answers."

And the answers were brutal: Last month, a man named Danny Heinrich confessed to assaulting and killing Jacob in the hours after he abducted the boy.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling haven't said much publicly since then. But on Tuesday, they sat down for a wide-ranging interview with MPR News host Tom Crann.

Heinrich's confession was part of a plea deal in which all charges against him would be dropped, except for a federal child pornography charge. He's expected to get 20 years in prison.

Patty acknowledged that there have been questions surrounding the plea deal. Some people thought it was too lenient for such heinous crimes.

But they didn't know what the Wetterlings did.

"It was heartbreaking, but I also knew the rest of the story," Patty said of the plea deal. "And I believe that anybody who would judge whether it was the right thing to do or not wasn't in the room, wasn't given the information that we had to act on."

The likely years in prison notwithstanding, Patty says Heinrich "sentenced himself" nearly 30 years ago. "He's lived a life of isolation, he's lived in fear of being caught, he's lived a really sort of hellish life — or a non-life. He didn't have any friends, anything he regularly did."

The Wetterlings say the investigation into Jacob's disappearance was done right.

Patty praised the efforts of several agencies and said they did all they could.

"The reality is it happened so fast. They couldn't have saved Jacob," she said. "With today's world and everything we know, it would be handled differently, and that's good, that's part of Jacob's push to get things better."

In their over 20-minute interview with Crann, Jerry and Patty Wetterling shared a lot. They talked about how the plea deal came together, how Jacob's disappearance affected their family life and what's next for their advocacy efforts.

To hear the full interview, use the audio player above.