Minnesota man admits to kidnapping, assault, murder of Wetterling boy in ’89

Daniel Heinrich

MINNEAPOLIS (UPI) — Details of a decades-old kidnapping of a Minnesota boy were revealed in a federal courtroom Tuesday, finally answering a long list of questions regarding what happened to Jacob Wetterling when he disappeared nearly 30 years ago.

Wetterling vanished from his hometown of St. Joseph on Oct. 22, 1989, touching off a cold case mystery that went unsolved for 27 years.

Suspect Daniel James Heinrich, who was evaluated and ultimately dismissed as a potential suspect immediately after the boy’s disappearance, was arrested in October after authorities served a search warrant on his Minneapolis area home.

Tuesday, details of the crime were given in open court as Heinrich pleaded guilty in connection to Wetterling’s death.

With the boy’s family listening in court, Heinrich described how he held Jacob, his brother and a friend at gunpoint as the boys were bicycling home from a nearby convenience store. After asking each boy his age, he took Jacob and let the others go.

After he handcuffed Jacob into his car, Heinrich said, the boy asked what he did wrong.

After assaulting the boy in a nearby wooded area, Heinrich said, he began to cry when he told Jacob he couldn’t take him home.

“I panicked. I pulled the revolver out of my pocket,” Heinrich said. “I loaded it with two rounds. I told Jacob to turn around.”

The admissions were part of a plea agreement that required Heinrich to plead guilty to one count of child pornography, which police found in his home during the search warrant. In exchange, Heinrich would not be charged or prosecuted for Wetterling’s kidnapping or murder, or another assault on a different 12-year-old boy.


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“State officials have agreed that there will be no state prosecution for the crimes committed in 1989,” U.S. District Judge John Tunheim said.

On the child pornography charge, the 53-year-old Heinrich will spend at least the next 20 years behind bars, prosecutors said, meaning it’s likely he will die in prison.

Tuesday marked largely the end of one of Minnesota’s most haunting kidnappings and provided closure and some measure of justice to the boy’s family.

“He’s not getting away with anything,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said. “We got the truth. The Wetterling family can bring [Jacob] home.”

“I want to say ‘Jacob, I’m so sorry.’ It’s incredibly painful to know his last days, last hours last minutes,” mother Patty Wetterling said after the hearing. “Our hearts are hurting.”

Also as part of the plea agreement, last month Heinrich took authorities to the site in Paynesville where he buried Jacob in 1989.

“For us, Jacob was alive until we found him,” Patty Wetterling added.

“Finally, we know,” Luger said.