TIME Crime

11-Year-Old Jacob Wetterling’s Killer Apologizes for ‘Evil Acts’ at Sentencing

Danny Heinrich, of Minnesota, appeared in federal court on Sept. 6, 2016, in a child pornography case.
Sherburne County Sheriff's Office—AP Danny Heinrich, of Minnesota, appeared in federal court on Sept. 6, 2016, in a child pornography case.

Danny Heinrich, who confessed to the killing, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on a child pornography count

(MINNEAPOLIS) — A Minnesota man who abducted, sexually assaulted and killed 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling 27 years ago apologized in court Monday for his “evil acts” as he was sentenced to 20 years in prison on a child pornography count that let authorities close the books on a mystery that had haunted the state for nearly three decades.

Danny Heinrich, 53, led authorities this summer to the field where he buried Jacob’s remains. As part of his plea bargain, prosecutors agreed not to charge Heinrich with murder.

“I am truly sorry for my evil acts,” Heinrich said as he stood before U.S. District Judge John Tunheim and the Wetterling family.

Heinrich told Jacob’s parents and siblings that his actions were “heinous” and “unforgivable,” and apologized for what he took away from them. He said he kept silent for nearly three decades because of his fear.

The sentence was the maximum the law allowed, and Heinrich technically could complete it in 17 years with good behavior, but the plea deal allows state authorities to seek his civil commitment as a sexual predator at the end of his federal prison term, which could prevent him from ever going free.

“What you’ve done is so heinous, so brutal and so awful that I don’t believe society will let you go free,” Tunheim said.

While some questioned whether it was adequate punishment, Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, have agreed with prosecutors that it was their best hope.

Jacob was abducted by a masked gunman on Oct. 22, 1989, while biking with his brother and a friend near his home in the central Minnesota community of St. Joseph. Early in the investigation, authorities questioned Heinrich, who maintained his innocence. But he came under renewed scrutiny when authorities decided to take a fresh look at the case around the 25th anniversary of the kidnapping.

As part of that effort, investigators used new technology to go back to a sex assault cause of a 12-year-old Cold Spring boy that happened nine months before Jacob’s disappearance. They found Heinrich’s DNA on that boy’s sweatshirt, and used that evidence to get a search warrant for Heinrich’s home in Annandale, where they found his child pornography collection last year.

After months of denials, Heinrich agreed in late August to confess to killing Jacob and the Cold Spring sex assault.

Heinrich detailed his crimes in chilling detail in court in September, recounting how a handcuffed Jacob asked him, “What did I do wrong?”

He said he drove the boy to a gravel pit near Paynesville and molested him. After a patrol car with siren and lights passed nearby, he fired two shots at Jacob’s head, killing him.

Patty Wetterling became a national advocate for missing children after Jacob’s disappearance. A 1994 federal law named for Jacob requires states to establish sex offender registries.

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