Heartbroken family of missing schoolboy finally have answers 27 years after their son was abducted

On their way back from the local video store, three young boys rode their bikes down a remote country road in rural Minnesota. It was October 1989 and the road was dark as 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, his younger brother Trevor and best friend Aaron Larson used torches to see their way. They had no idea that danger lay in wait.

Out of the dark jumped a masked man with a gun who told Trevor and Aaron to run away as fast as they could. Jacob was never seen again.

Jacob’s abduction brought the fear of ‘stranger danger’ to the forefront of every parent’s mind. Decades rolled by and there was no trace of Jacob, but his heartbroken parents never gave up searching. Then, in September this year, the world finally learned what had happened to young Jacob – and all hope was lost.

Sandy-haired Jacob lived with his brother Trevor, 10, his two sisters Carmen and Amy, and his proud parents Patty and Jerry. Their home was in St Joseph, Minnesota, a small town of just 3000 people. It was an idyllic place to grow up.

Jacob was a kind, popular boy who loved spending time with his best friend Aaron, 11. Mum Patty treasures the video of Jacob and Aaron laughing and messing around in a swimming pool on Jacob’s 11th birthday, just eight months before he was abducted.

No trace
The sun was setting on October 22, 1989, when Jacob, Trevor and Aaron cycled back from the video store. Patty and Jerry were out with friends that night and had given the boys permission to go. Back then, no one thought twice about letting their kids roam free. Bad things just didn’t happen in St Joseph.

But at around 9pm, the masked man stopped the boys and threatened them with a gun. He made them throw their bikes in a ditch and lie face down. After asking their ages, he told Trevor to run as fast as he could into the woods.

GettyPatty WetterlingJacob's mum Patty never gave up on her son
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Man admits abducting and murdering schoolboy who vanished while riding bike 27 years ago
"If you look back, I’ll shoot you," he threatened. The man looked at the faces of Jacob and his best friend before telling Aaron to run too. Jacob was taken.

Back at the house, Trevor and Aaron called 911 and police rushed to the scene but there was no sign of Jacob. His distraught parents returned home to a living nightmare. Local search parties scoured the area along with over 200 National Guard. But they found nothing.

The abduction sent shock waves through America. Parents were reminded that there was evil out there, and kids were kept close. A photo of Jacob smiling in a yellow jumper became a symbol of broken innocence.

With no trace of his body, there was always the chance that Jacob was alive, and for 
27 years, his parents lived in hope. Patty and Jerry set up the Jacob Wetterling Foundation to raise awareness of child safety.

In 1994, the first law to start a state sex-offender registry – the Jacob Wetterling Act – was brought in. It was ground-breaking. But behind it all, was a family desperate to have their boy home. They kept his name in the headlines and Patty even wrote an open letter to the abductor pleading for answers.

Every year, they celebrated Jacob’s birthday and this February was no different. On the day that Jacob would have turned 38, Patty told the media that she’d never give up and shared a letter to her son.

"How I wish I could wrap my arms around you and hug you tight," she wrote. "My birthday wish is for you to come home. We love you Jacob and we’ll never stop searching."

Patty was about to get answers – but it would bring her no comfort.

In October 2015, Danny Heinrich had been arrested on charges of child pornography. Police had long suspected he was involved with Jacob’s disappearance. He’d even been interviewed at the time but there was not enough evidence to convict him. Investigators believed he’d also abducted a 12-year-old boy called Jared Scheierl as he walked home from a café, just nine months before Jacob was taken. Jared had been set free.

Police used DNA from Jared’s sweatshirt and matched it to Danny using updated technology. The statute of limitations had expired for charging him for assaulting Jared, so they’d searched his home and charged him with counts of child pornography. But what about Jacob?

GettyDanny HeinrichDanny Heinrich confessed to Jacob's abduction and led police to his body
After nearly a year in prison, Danny made a deal. He confessed to Jacob’s abduction and, in return for taking police to his body, he’d avoid charges in connection with the crime. It was a deal approved by Jacob’s grieving parents who’d waited almost three decades for answers.

On September 1, the FBI recovered bones and clothing buried in a pasture near Paynesville, 30 miles from where Jacob was taken. Dental records confirmed it was Jacob. His red hockey jacket and a t-shirt with the label ‘Wetterling’ were also found nearby. Jacob’s loved ones were devastated.

"Our hearts are broken," said Jacob’s mum.

At the court hearing weeks later, Danny Heinrich pleaded guilty to 25 child pornography charges and revealed what happened that fateful night. It was excrutiating for his parents to hear.

'I was driving on a road, a dead-end road. I noticed three children on their bicycles with a flashlight," Danny told the court. He lay in wait for them. When they returned 20 minutes later, he confronted them with a revolver. Danny told the court he’d handcuffed Jacob. As they were driving away, Jacob had asked, "What did I do wrong?"

Danny drove Jacob to a gravel pit near Paynesville where he was sexually assaulted. When Jacob had asked Danny to take him home, Danny said he couldn’t, so Jacob started to cry. Then, Danny saw a police car drive by.

Incredibly painful
"I panicked and pulled the revolver out of my pocket," he said. "It was never loaded until that point. I loaded it with two rounds and told the victim to turn around, I had to go to the bathroom."

Danny aimed at Jacob’s head and pulled the trigger, but it just clicked. So he pulled it again, killing Jacob. Danny returned later to bury Jacob in a shallow grave. A year later, he’d returned to the site and saw Jacob’s red hockey jacket exposed, so he collected the remains and moved them across the highway.

Danny, now 53, also admitted kidnapping and sexually assaulting Jared Scheierl. The judge recommended a sentence of 20 years. He will face no charges over Jacob’s death.

Afterwards, mum Patty spoke to reporters.

"I want to say, “Jacob, I’m so sorry.” It’s incredibly painful to know his last day, last hours, last minutes," she said, fighting back tears. "For us, Jacob was alive until we found him."

She spoke of the importance of protecting every child and promised Jacob’s legacy will go on.

"He’s taught us all how to live, how to love, how to be fair, how to be kind," she said.

Jacob’s family has urged their community to wear the number 11 in his name and follow the 11 traits that Jacob had. They include: be fair, be kind, be a good friend and be understanding. Patty continues to work tirelessly on behalf of missing children.

Tragically, her son, who won the heart of a nation, will never be coming home.
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