Hey, y’all. Today I have a case that influenced legislation and led to the national sex offender registry. In 1989, the kidnapping and killing of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling had a deep and lasting effect on the people of St. Joseph, Minnesota. Despite a decades-long search, the case went unsolved for 27 years, but in 2016, a shocking confession finally revealed the tragic truth about what happened to Jacob. Jacob’s case uncovered not just the terrible acts of one person, but also brought to light a series of distressing attacks on other young boys that took place in the years before Jacob was taken.
On a Sunday evening, October 22, 1989, just after 9:00 p.m., three young boys were riding their bikes back home from a nearby Tom Thumb convenience store in St. Joseph, Minnesota. They had gone there to rent a video.
Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy, his younger brother Trevor, just 10 years old, and their buddy Aaron Larson, also 11, were happily riding their bikes back home from a nearby Tom Thumb convenience store in the small town of St. Joseph, which is in central Minnesota. The boys had ventured out to rent a video, eager for a fun-filled night together.
While they were biking, a masked gunman wearing a mask made from a stocking cap and carrying an unloaded revolver suddenly appeared from a driveway. He commanded the boys to toss their bikes into a ditch and lie face down on the ground. Then, he asked each of them how old they were. The masked man told Trevor, Jacob’s brother, to run towards a wooded area close by, warning him not to look back or he would be shot.
Next, Heinrich looked at the faces of the two remaining boys, Jacob and Aaron. He made his choice and picked Jacob, telling Aaron to run away in the same direction as Trevor. Aaron, too, received the same bone-chilling threat as Trevor had been given. And just like that, young Jacob Wetterling vanished into the night, never to be seen alive again by anyone other than the monster who had taken him away from his loved ones.
In late October 1989, the desperate search for 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling ramped up. The FBI and other agencies joined the investigation, and with tips pouring in, officers and volunteers searched tirelessly for any leads. The Wetterlings decided to go public, hoping that the extra attention would help bring their son home.
An FBI profiler soon joined the case, suggesting the abductor might be a white loner with a dark past. The community united, with hundreds attending a prayer vigil, and the local sheriff speculated that Jacob could be dead. Refusing to give up, the governor activated the National Guard to search a vast area for the missing boy. To raise awareness, a nationwide mailing campaign sent a million fliers across the country. Investigators also released a sketch of a man seen at the convenience store on the night of the kidnapping.
In April 1990, the FBI reported that a shoeprint found at the crime scene “matched” Heinrich’s right shoe, but there wasn’t enough detail to confirm it was definitely his shoe. By February 1991, Heinrich had the property back that had been seized during a search warrant over a year earlier. The case seemed to hit roadblocks, leaving the community desperate for answers.
In 2004, investigators turned their attention to Dan Rassier, a neighbor of the Wetterling family, asking him to admit that he had abducted Jacob. This focus on Rassier persisted for years, with law enforcement even involving Patty Wetterling in October 2009.
She invited Rassier to talk and directly asked him if he had abducted her son. Rassier vehemently denied any involvement in the crime. Despite his denial, on July 1, 2010, investigators searched Rassier’s farm, where he and his parents lived, digging up parts of the property and publicly declaring him as a “person of interest.” The focus on the wrong suspect led to precious time and resources being spent on a dead-end lead, ultimately delaying the resolution of the case.
The Paynesville 8
Months before Jacob’s abduction, a 12-year-old boy named Jared Scheierl was kidnapped, abused, and threatened by an unknown adult man, later identified as Heinrich. The chilling similarities between Jared’s case and Jacob’s raised suspicions.
Meanwhile, several young boys in the nearby town of Paynesville were assaulted by an unknown attacker. These victims, aged 12 to 16, became known as the Paynesville 8 and were often grabbed and threatened by a man sometimes wearing a mask. The assaults often included sexual abuse.
In January 1989, about nine months before Jacob was kidnapped, a 12-year-old boy named Jared Scheierl was taken, sexually abused, and threatened by an unknown adult man. The way the attacker acted that night was very similar to what happened in the Wetterling case.
The man, who was later identified as Heinrich, used a gun and, when he let the boy go, told him to run without looking back, or else he would be shot. This incident happened just 10 miles away from where Heinrich would later confront the Wetterling brothers and their friend.
As time ticked by, it became chillingly clear that Jacob’s abduction wasn’t just a one-off horror show. Despite the eerie similarities between these attacks and Jacob’s abduction, the link between the cases remained shrouded in mystery. It took years of relentless investigating before authorities finally started piecing together the sinister connection between these incidents.
A Break in the Case
In 2016, Danny Heinrich, a man with a criminal history, became a person of interest in the Wetterling case. As part of a plea agreement on unrelated child pornography charges, Heinrich confessed to abducting, sexually assaulting, and killing Jacob Wetterling. Heinrich described the events of that fateful night, revealing that he had been following the boys and had chosen Jacob at random.
In September 2010, law enforcement broke the news that lab tests from a recent search didn’t produce any evidence for Jacob’s investigation. Fast forward a couple of years, and the DNA drama starts to unravel. A mysterious male DNA profile was found on Jared’s sweatshirt from his 1989 abduction and later matched with samples taken from Heinrich in 1990.
In July 2015, investigators searched around Heinrich’s home, uncovering a creepy collection of child sexual abuse images, handcuffs, duct tape, camo gear, and bins full of boys’ clothes. They also stumbled upon hidden videos of neighborhood kids just living their lives. Heinrich, probably sensing that he wasn’t getting out of this one, admitted to having the child sexual abuse images.
Finally, on August 31, 2016, as part of a plea deal to avoid kidnapping or murder charges, Heinrich led investigators to Jacob’s burial site in a pasture near Paynesville. About 30 miles from the Wetterling home and abduction site, the remains were confirmed to be Jacob’s, leaving his family and community heartbroken.
As part of the plea agreement, Heinrich confessed to one count of the 25 federal child pornography charges against him, revealed Jacob’s burial site, and gave a detailed account of the chilling details of the crime. He admitted to kidnapping, handcuffing, and molesting Jacob before killing him and burying his body. Heinrich also confessed to kidnapping and sexually assaulting Jared Scheierl earlier that year.
In exchange, prosecutors didn’t charge Heinrich with Jacob’s murder. He was sentenced to 20 years for the child pornography charge, with the possibility of being civilly committed as a sexual predator after his sentence, potentially keeping him locked up indefinitely. The judge acknowledged the case’s impact on children and parents in Minnesota and beyond, saying Heinrich had “stolen the innocence of children.”
Heinrich began serving his 20-year federal prison sentence in Massachusetts in January 2017. Though he could be released in 17 years, the judge doubted society would ever let him go free due to the heinous nature of his crimes.
Heinrich has never confessed to committing any of the crimes against the Paynesville 8
Heinrich’s confession brought a painful chapter to a close for the Wetterling family, who had spent nearly three decades searching for their son. However, the revelation that Heinrich was also responsible for the assaults in Paynesville exposed a history of trauma for the entire community. Many of the Paynesville victims had struggled in silence for years, with the assaults having a lasting impact on their lives.
As details of the Wetterling case and the Paynesville assaults came to light, it became clear that there were numerous missed opportunities in the investigation. Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson stated that the case had “gone off the rails” in the early stages. Despite Heinrich being questioned in the early 1990s, it would take another two decades before he was definitively connected to the Wetterling case and the Paynesville assaults.
Critics have raised doubts about how the investigation was handled and whether the authorities could’ve done more to protect the community. The fact that Heinrich, a repeat offender, managed to dodge capture for so long has left people scratching their heads and wondering how such a terrible thing could’ve happened.
The heart-wrenching case changed the game for how missing children cases are tackled in the United States. The tragedy of Jacob’s abduction moved his mother Patty Wetterling to create the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act in 1994, setting up a nationwide registry for sex offenders and making our world a little safer for kids.
The sex offender registry is definitely helpful for keeping communities in the loop about sex offenders nearby, but it’s also gotten some flak for its downsides. Critics say the registry can make people feel like outcasts, which makes it tough for them to get back into society, find a place to live or a job, and might even lead to them reoffending.
Patty Wetterling has noticed these concerns and, over time, she’s moved away from just pushing for a registry and started supporting a more balanced approach. Aware of the issue’s complexities, she now roots for well-rounded sex offender treatment programs, prevention efforts, and policies based on solid evidence to better safeguard children and communities.
By doing this, Patty has demonstrated her openness to adjust her advocacy efforts to better tackle the complex issue of sexual abuse and violence. She’s committed to working towards a more effective system that balances public safety with rehabilitation for offenders.