One by one, they stepped up to the courtroom microphone and tried to put into words 27 years of sweeping emotion: Anguish. Anger. Fear. Sadness. Unwarranted guilt.
They did it through tears and through quivering voices, finally confronting the man who had abducted, molested and killed an 11-year-old boy whom they dearly loved and greatly missed.
Danny Heinrich was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison Monday after confessing weeks ago to the October 1989 abduction, assault and murder of Jacob Wetterling, an act so brazen and heartbreaking that it gripped a state and region for decades and changed the way parents watched over their children.
But before Heinrich was escorted from the courtroom in Minneapolis to be sent off to federal prison, those closest to Jacob — his parents, siblings and best friend — recounted in detail how the heinous crime changed them forever.
"I lived every day thinking I was the monster that night. I was the coward that left my friend. I was the coward that ran away," said friend Aaron Larson, who rode bikes with Jacob and Jacob's brother, Trevor, to rent a movie in St. Joseph that night when Heinrich, wearing a mask and carrying a gun, jumped out of the darkness and ordered two of the boys to run off before snatching Jacob.
For decades, Larson said, he couldn't handle his feelings. "I left the state. I left the country. I just wanted to be gone."
Wetterling's tearful parents described how they were grateful for community support as their son's abduction tortured them, straining their relationship, curtailing Jerry's work as a chiropractor, and affecting their ability to be a mother and a father to their three other children. They endured absurd rumors and even suspicion.
Amid recounting what they missed about Jacob — his hugs, his smile, his laughter, his jokes — Patty Wetterling addressed Heinrich directly:
"You didn't need to kill him. He did nothing wrong. He just wanted to go home," she said, her voice cracking. "You planned to hurt someone that night. You didn't just bring a gun to scare the boys. You brought bullets."
Jacob's sister Amy choked back tears as she described the family's anguish:
"The worst part is that for nearly 27 years, [Heinrich] let us believe that we would some day be able to see Jacob again," she said. "He watched us suffer through anniversary after anniversary."
Heinrich put an end to nearly three decades of mystery over what had happened to Jacob by confessing to the crime in court in September, days after he led authorities to a rural Paynesville, Minn., pasture where he had buried the boy.
Federal prosecutors had cut a deal with Heinrich, who was awaiting trial on 25 counts of child pornography. Under terms of the agreement, Heinrich would plead guilty to one count of receiving child pornography and accept a 20-year prison sentence in exchange for providing answers and leading investigators to Wetterling's remains. Though he would not be prosecuted for Jacob's kidnapping and murder, Heinrich, after serving his prison sentence, could remain in state custody under Minnesota's civil sex offender commitment.
The unusual deal was struck, officials said, with the approval of Patty and Jerry Wetterling, who have advocated nationally for missing and exploited children.
Before U.S. District Judge John Tunheim formally handed down the sentence in federal court Monday, Heinrich, 53, made a brief, mumbling statement.
"I'm truly sorry for my evil acts" he said, bowing his head and sighing repeatedly. "Many are probably wondering how I kept this secret so long. Well, to spare myself and the humiliation I would have brought to my family for my actions."
But Heinrich never explained why he did what he did.
In reviewing evidence obtained after a search of Heinrich's home last summer, authorities found VHS tapes in which he had recorded news reports and anniversary specials about Jacob's disappearance. They also uncovered a deleted image of Jacob on Heinrich's computer.
"Law enforcement found videotapes that included the anniversary specials and news specials of the Wetterlings looking at the camera and begging and pleading for some answers," prosecutor Julie Allyn said. "So this defendant would have seen that, and he would have just turned off the TV and went about his life, and he did this year after year."
Heinrich also apologized for what he had done to another victim, 12-year-old Jared Scheierl, who he confessed to sexually assaulting nine months before he abducted Jacob. But Scheierl, now grown, wasn't in the courtroom to hear it. In a statement earlier at Monday's hearing, Scheierl had said he was grateful for the support he'd received to maintain a normal life.
Heinrich's words on the night of his abduction "haunted me for years and I don't choose to hear anything he wishes to say at this time," Scheierl said, turning his head briefly and looking at Heinrich.
Addressing Heinrich, Tunheim described the sentence as "the most severe punishment that is available to me." He acknowledged that Monday's hearing was not about the child pornography case.
"It's about taking a childhood away from Jared Scheierl and taking a lifetime away from Jacob Wetterling," Tunheim said. "And it is also about changing the lives of so many children and parents who prayed for Jacob's return and lived in the fear that someone like you, someone evil, would come out of the darkness, out of the woods, out of the bushes, from around the corner, abuse them and take them away, never to be seen again.
"Every child knows the story of Jacob Wetterling. You stole the innocence of children's lives in the small towns, in the rural areas and the cities in Minnesota and beyond."
'Truly horrible' crime
While Heinrich could be eligible for release from prison after 17 years, it is "unlikely that society will let you go free," Tunheim said.
If Heinrich is released, he would serve a lifetime of court-ordered supervision and be registered as a sex offender.
After Jacob's kidnapping, the Wetterlings became advocates for sex offender registration programs as they and others pushed for changes in state and federal laws and sought to bring attention to missing and exploited children throughout the country.
Since their son's remains were found, they and others have promoted living by 11 of Jacob's traits, including fairness and generosity.
While speaking in court Monday, Larson and others described how Jacob made a difference in only 11 years of living.
"Life is hard, but Jacob showed us how great this hard life can be," Larson said.
Tunheim echoed those sentiments, saying the victims' statements in court reflected pain, but also give people intense hope for healing and a promise for brighter days.
"We are in a better place as a society because of the commitment that the Wetterling family has made to Jacob and to protecting other children," Tunheim said.
No one will ever forget Oct. 22, 1989, the judge added, but society will move forward.
To Heinrich, he added: "I wish you good luck as you serve your punishment for one of the most truly horrible crimes that I have ever seen."