ST. JOSEPH, Minn. -- After nearly 30 years of searching, wondering, waiting and hoping, Patty and Jerry Wetterling finally know what happened to their son Jacob.
The Stearns County Sheriff’s office confirmed Saturday that the remains of 11-year-old Jacob, missing since 1989, have been found.
“Our family is drawing strength from all your love & support,” Patty Wetterling posted on Twitter Saturday afternoon. “We’re struggling with words at this time. Thank you for your hope.”
She declined to comment further.
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The remains were identified as Wetterling’s by the Ramsey County Medical examiner and a forensic odontologist, Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said in a news release Saturday evening. Additional DNA testing will be performed by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. The news release did not say where Wetterling’s remains were found.
Law enforcement officials are reviewing new evidence in the Wetterling case and expect to provide more details on the investigation early next week, Sanner said in the release.
The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center posted a statement to its Facebook page Saturday morning: “We are in deep grief. We didn’t want Jacob’s story to end this way.
“Our hearts are heavy, but we are being held up by all of the people who have been a part of making Jacob’s Hope a light that will never be extinguished,” the statement read. “It shines on in a different way. We are, and we will continue to be, Jacob’s Hope. Jacob, you are loved.”
On Oct. 22, 1989, a masked gunman stepped out of the woods on a rural road in St. Joseph, just west of St. Cloud, and took Jacob. He hasn’t been seen since.
For months, the case attracted national attention and dominated headlines. How in the world, people wondered, could something like that happen in small-town America?
Authorities last year took another look at the case and were led to Danny Heinrich, a man who had been questioned at the time of Jacob’s kidnapping. When Heinrich, 53, of Annandale, was arrested in October on charges of child pornography, law enforcement officials called him a “person of interest” in Jacob’s kidnapping.
Heinrich denied any involvement in Jacob’s abduction at the time of his arrest and has not been charged with that crime. He has pleaded not guilty to 25 federal child-pornography charges and is scheduled to go on trial on those counts in October in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. He had been under increasing scrutiny as authorities have revisited Jacob’s abduction and investigated a string of sexual assaults on pre-teen and teen boys near Paynesville, Minn., in the mid- to late 1980s; Jacob was taken less than a mile from his home in St. Joseph, which is about 20 miles from Paynesville.
Hanging outside the Wetterlings’ home Saturday was the word “hope.” Beside it, even at midday, the porch lights were burning. They have been on since the night Jacob was abducted.
A bouquet of yellow and white daisies and a pot of yellow peonies were left at the foot of the Wetterlings’ driveway. About a half-dozen news reporters gathered outside. Several people slowly drove by the house, checking out the scene.
Statements of support for the Wetterlings came from the highest levels throughout the state on Saturday.
“For nearly 27 years, Minnesotans have held the Wetterling family in their thoughts and prayers, as they never gave up hope and never stopped searching for their beloved Jacob,” Gov. Mark Dayton said. “Today, we continue to offer our love and support, as the Wetterling family finally brings their son home to rest.
“I hope they will find solace in knowing that they do not stand alone,” Dayton said. “Jacob’s story has touched the lives and hearts of Minnesotans for a generation. Today, I pray for a measure of peace for the Wetterling family and for all Minnesotans touched by this terrible tragedy. And I thank the law enforcement officials and others who never stopped searching for him.”
Added Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.: “Patty Wetterling is a friend and I have seen firsthand her extraordinary advocacy for children and how she has turned her grief into action. The Wetterling family and all who knew and loved Jacob are in our hearts today.”
Residents of St. Joseph on Saturday expressed bittersweet relief that the community’s longest-running mystery appeared to be solved.
“I’m glad they found him. It’s affirmation,” said Bob Loso, who has been a city council member in St. Joseph since 1990. “The town, the people who were here at the time, are glad it’s over.”
At the Holiday Station store on College Avenue North, clerk Jordan Minks, who grew up in St. Joseph, said it seemed there was a sense of grief, but also of closure, at the news.
“From what I’ve seen, people are more shocked or surprised,” he said. “It’s kind of a relief to find out, but it’s sad, too.”
Alex Swingly, a barista at the Local Blend, a coffee shop on West Minnesota Street in St. Joseph, said the news was the talk of the town.
“Right away in the morning, people were coming in to tell us about it,” Swingly said. “It’s been hard to talk about, since nothing’s really official, but it’s also hard not to.”
Stearns County Commissioner Mark Bromenschenkel, who represents the area, said everybody’s thoughts and prayers were with the Wetterlings.
“It’s got to be a very difficult time for them - whether it’s true or not - having everything stirred up again, all the emotions,” he said. “I do hope it is true, and that they can finally get some closure to it.”
Court documents filed earlier this summer in the Heinrich case detailed the similarities between Jacob’s kidnapping on Oct. 22, 1989; the Jan. 13, 1989, abduction and sexual assault of a 13-year-old Cold Spring, Minn., boy; and “a string of sexually motivated assaults of young boys in the Paynesville, Minn., area in the mid- to late 1980s.”
“It has long been believed that the Cold Spring and Wetterling abductions were likely to have been committed by the same person,” according to the memorandum, which was filed in U.S. District Court. “The abductions were committed in the same geographic area, involved similarly aged boys, were committed by a lone male suspect and occurred within months of each other.”
Retested DNA evidence last year linked Heinrich to the 1989 kidnapping and sexual assault of Jared Scheierl in Cold Spring, nine months before Wetterling’s abduction. The Pioneer Press typically doesn’t identify victims of sexual assault, but Scheierl has spoken publicly for years about his case. He did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Saturday.
When law enforcement officials searched Heinrich’s Annandale house in July, they found child pornography and photos and videos of young boys. Heinrich was arrested in October and later charged with 25 counts of possessing and receiving child pornography; he pleaded not guilty to those charges in February in U.S. District Court. His jury trial is slated to begin in October in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.
Heinrich cannot be charged in connection with the Scheierl case because the statute of limitations in place at the time has expired.
Heinrich was questioned in 1989 and 1990 about the disappearance, but authorities say he has denied any involvement.
Jacob, the second of the Wetterlings’ four children, was in the sixth grade in October 1989. He liked to play hockey, basketball, soccer and football. He loved to go fishing. He liked to tell jokes. He was happy in school. He was learning to play the trombone. He loved dogs. He wanted to be a veterinarian when he grew up.
“He was the type of person that you’re immediately drawn to,” his best friend, Aaron Larson, told the Pioneer Press in 2009. “He was the type of person who recognizes the good in people.”
Jacob was riding his bicycle with Aaron and his brother, Trevor, about 9:15 p.m. Oct. 22, 1989, when a masked gunman abducted him from a rural road.
The kidnapping took place on a Sunday night. The kids didn’t have school the next day. Patty and Jerry Wetterling at the last minute decided to go to a party in Clearwater. Amy, their oldest child, was at a sleepover, so the couple asked Jacob if he would mind babysitting Trevor, 10, and Carmen, 8. He asked if Aaron could come over.
Trevor later called his parents at the party and asked if the boys could bike and scooter up to the Tom Thumb convenience store to rent a video. Carmen didn’t want to go, so the kids - with the Wetterlings’ OK - arranged for a neighbor girl, Rochelle Jerzak, to come over and baby-sit while they made the trip.
“We were restless 11-year-old boys looking for something to do,” Larson told the Pioneer Press. “It was just a matter of biking two miles - something we did all the time - so biking to the Tom Thumb was not a big deal. It wasn’t like it was anything out of the ordinary - to go get a movie at the store, you know. Especially in a smaller town like St. Joe.”
The boys wanted to watch “Major League,” but it wasn’t available, so they ended up renting “Naked Gun.” Larson told the Pioneer Press he has never seen the movie. If it comes on while he’s watching TV, he changes the channel, he said.
The boys didn’t notice anything or anyone unusual at the store, said Larson, who now lives in Slayton, Minn. “It was 9 p.m. on a Sunday night. There was not too much going on.”
They were on their way home - Jacob and Trevor on bikes, Aaron on a scooter - when they were accosted about a half-mile from the Wetterling house.
“There wasn’t any moon. There weren’t any stars. It was a pitch-black night,” Larson said. “The first thing that I remember seeing was the flash of a gun.”
“Stop! I have a gun!” the masked man told the boys. He then ordered them to turn off their flashlights.
“I think my first reaction was to suppress a laugh because it seemed like a joke - like this was some high-schooler or some kid pulling a prank on us,” Larson said. “I don’t think it hit me that this was a real situation right away.”
The man ordered the boys to lie in the ditch facing away from the road. He then told each boy to look at him and state his age.
Trevor was first. Aaron was next. Jacob was last.
“He told Trevor to run as fast as he could in the woods, and ‘Don’t look back, or I’ll shoot you,’ ” Larson said. “He said the same thing to me next.”
Both boys ran as fast as they could. Larson caught up to Trevor about 100 yards away.
“That’s when we both kind of looked back, and there was nobody there,” he said.
Although the kidnapping has generated more than 50,000 leads over the years, the crime remained unsolved and haunted Minnesota law enforcement officers. It spurred new federal laws requiring states to create sex-offender registries.
Patty and Jerry Wetterling founded the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, which works to help communities and families prevent child exploitation, and Patty Wetterling became a national advocate for children.
“Amid our sadness, we remain profoundly grateful for the tireless advocacy and leadership Jacob’s family has provided on behalf of our country’s missing and exploited children,” U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said in a statement. “With today’s heartbreaking news, all of Minnesota grieves with Patty, Jerry, and the entire Wetterling family. At this tragic time, it is my hope that Jacob will finally rest in peace as he is brought home to his family and so many who love him. I know that all Minnesotans and Americans will join me in keeping the Wetterling family in our thoughts and prayers.”
Lt. Governor Tina Smith said every Minnesota family has felt the Wetterlings’ loss.
“My own sons were small when Jacob was lost, and for more than two decades, our family and all Minnesota families have hurt, prayed, and hoped alongside the Wetterlings,” Smith said in a statement. “That pain won’t end today. But as the Wetterling family finally brings Jacob home, I hope they will find love and support in the thousands of families, including mine, in Minnesota, who have hurt, hoped, and prayed alongside them. The Wetterling family never stopped searching. We stand in solidarity with the Wetterlings as they seek justice, and peace. We will always keep Jacob in our hearts.”