Nearly three decades of uncommon valor from Jacob Wetterling’s family continued without waver as the long mystery over the boy’s disappearance ended with his killer’s confession this week.
Life in Minnesota ground to halt Tuesday as Danny Heinrich entered a Minneapolis federal courtroom and then matter-of-factly described Jacob’s 1989 abduction, molestation and murder. The heartbreaking details — among them that Jacob asked “What did I do wrong?” as Heinrich handcuffed, then drove off with him — inspired tears, anger and visions of Old Testament-style justice. This monster abused a crying 11-year-old boy, shot him in the head, then calmly lived among us.
Patty Wetterling, Jacob’s mom, didn’t call for vengeance after the grim confession, though her home state would certainly have understood if she had. The mother who turned her grief into impassioned advocacy for missing children instead reacted with her customary courage, thanking U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger and law enforcement officials, then focusing on Jacob’s legacy — helping make the world he loved safer for boys like him.
Minnesotans ought to follow Wetterling’s graceful lead as they mourn Jacob anew. There are questions, even anger as details emerge about the plea agreement that is expected to imprison his killer for 20 years on a federal child pornography charge. Heinrich, 53, will not stand trial for Jacob’s murder. This is difficult to stomach, but it is a deal that had to be struck.
That Jacob’s family agreed with the arrangement should stop any second-guessing about justice being served. Through an attorney, Wetterling reached out to the Star Tribune Editorial Board on Wednesday to say that she is “100 percent behind Andy Luger and the agreement he negotiated.’’ The attorney, Doug Kelley, added that Wetterling is relieved a “bad man” is off the streets. “She has always said it was never about Heinrich; it was always about finding Jacob,” Kelley said.
Luger and law enforcement officials made the system deliver the best possible outcome under difficult circumstances. The case has long stymied investigators and has been light on physical evidence. As Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall explained at a Tuesday news conference, authorities needed Jacob to prove a murder charge. The only person with that information was Heinrich, who wasn’t about to tell where he’d buried the boy so that prosecutors could nail him for murder.
Murder charges aren’t necessary for a lengthy imprisonment. Heinrich’s expected 20-year sentence under the plea agreement — the maximum upward departure on the child porn charge — is roughly the same sentence he might have faced on a state murder charge. In 1989, state sentencing guidelines called for approximately 27 years. Two-thirds of that was typically served. Under this deal, Heinrich could well be behind bars for longer than that.
Also important to note: The lack of a murder charge doesn’t change Heinrich’s eligibility two decades from now for the state’s civil commitment program, which keeps some sex offenders locked up for medical treatment after they have served their prison sentence. The constitutionality of that practice is under challenge, but the program is likely to be reformed, not eliminated. Heinrich would be eligible for that program at release and could be detained for years.
Law enforcement officials made Minnesota proud with their perseverance. Stearns County officials kept working the case, taking advantage of new technology such as DNA testing to pursue leads. Kendall astutely called in the U.S. attorney’s office when a search found that Heinrich possessed child porn. The longer federal sentence for this crime, and the expertise of a special team Luger launched to handle big, difficult cases, played pivotal roles in finding Jacob.
Their work should inspire and inform other law enforcement agencies across the nation. There are thousands of unsolved abductions. In Minnesota, that includes Josh Guimond, a college student who went missing in 2002, and LeeAnna Warner, a Chisholm 5-year-old who disappeared in 2003. Like Jacob, they are not forgotten. Their families deserve answers, too.