PAYNESVILLE, MINN. – The search for Jacob Wetterling ended here in a rural pasture last week. The search for answers is just beginning.
Residents of this central Minnesota city were reeling Sunday from news that the remains of the 11-year-old boy, kidnapped on an October night in St. Joseph almost 27 years ago, had been buried in a grove of trees on the outskirts of town. Until Danny Heinrich, a former Paynesville resident now in jail and facing federal child pornography charges, led authorities last week to the site, the community was hoping against hope that Jacob might someday make it home.
But on Saturday morning, they heard the grim news: In that spot between the trees, they had found Jacob’s remains.
“It’s shocking,” neighbor Robert Meyer said. “Twenty-seven years and he’s been right there the whole time.”
As residents tried to make sense of the news, they wished that it might offer some closure to Wetterling’s parents, Patty and Jerry, with whom they’ve worried and hoped for years. They also struggled with what it means for local boys stalked and groped here in the 1980s — attacks federal authorities detailed in Heinrich’s court documents, dubbing them the “Paynesville assault cluster.”
“We’re trying to process it, yet. There’s a lot of anger, hurt, confusion — a lot of questions,” said Doris Wendlandt, a lifelong resident who owns Queen Bee’s Bar & Grill. She hopes investigators will reveal more details, including whether Heinrich has said anything about those attacks. “ ’Cause those boys need healing, too.”
Last year, authorities named the 53-year-old Heinrich, who lived within blocks of those attacks, a “person of interest” in the Wetterling case.
Heinrich, who was questioned after Jacob’s abduction, has been sitting behind bars since October while awaiting trial on child pornography charges.
‘Pass it every day, probably’
Troy Cole lives just blocks from where, as a 13-year-old, he was yanked off his bike, pulled into some pine trees and sexually assaulted. On Saturday morning, the 43-year-old awoke to word that Heinrich, the man Cole believes assaulted him, had led authorities to Wetterling’s remains “just down the road.”
“I pass it every day, probably,” he said, sitting in the living room of his Paynesville home. “I can’t believe it’s so close to here.”
Last year, Cole told the story of his assault to help with the Wetterlings’ quest for answers. Blogger Joy Baker, of New London, Minn., had called attention to the series of attacks in Paynesville after finding a front-page article in the local paper from May 1987: “Local police seek help in accosting incidents.” Boys, including Cole, were being groped in public, after dark, by a chunky man sometimes wearing a mask. Baker showed the article to Jared Scheierl, who as a boy was kidnapped and assaulted in nearby Cold Spring, Minn. Together, Scheierl, who now lives in Paynesville, and Baker reached out to other victims.
Cole needs no answers from Heinrich, he said, but he does have one last question for the officers working in law enforcement at the time of his attack: “Why? We were kids back then. Why didn’t they help us out?” After he and his father reported the attack to Paynesville police, they heard nothing, Cole said. As far as he knows, police never went to the scene, interviewed others or followed up.
“And that’s going to bother me, probably until my grave,” he said.
But Cole knows that, unlike Jacob, he and his friends were lucky: “At least we got to go home,” he said.
Since becoming a father — his daughter is 5 years old — Cole says he better understands the Wetterlings’ love for their children and their strength since Jacob disappeared.
“I’m grateful that Patty and Jerry finally got some closure,” Cole said. “I’m so sorry that he’s not going to come home.”
A few cars whipped by along the county road Sunday morning, some slowing as drivers stared out their windows at the newly significant swath of land.
Meyer, the neighbor, shook his head. It’s a well-traveled road, not far from Hwy. 23, he noted. Strange that over all these years, people passed by the organic farm without realizing what was buried there.
On Thursday night, coming home from work, Meyer, 59, noticed a few trucks and a back hoe digging between trees on the farmland across the road. He knew the owners were planning a new culvert, so he figured they were clearing branches and brush. He didn’t suspect investigators were there, looking for Jacob.
“It’s mind boggling,” said Meyer, who grew up in Paynesville, a town of nearly 2,500 residents about 85 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
More details to come
Dental records confirmed that the remains found were Jacob, who was abducted by a masked gunman as he biked home on a rural St. Joseph road with his little brother and best friend the night of Oct. 22, 1989. The spot where he was buried is about 30 miles southwest of the Wetterling home in St. Joseph, and a little more than a mile from the Paynesville home where Heinrich lived at the time of Jacob’s abduction.
“The fact that Jacob was found in Paynesville, where Jared and I had both focused so much of our energy to finding answers … that was profound,” Baker said by e-mail. “It gave validation to everything we were trying to do.”
For years, Baker used her blog, “Joy the Curious,” to raise questions about whether the series of attacks on boys in the small Stearns County city might be connected to Wetterling’s disappearance.
“To have this mystery start in Paynesville and end in Paynesville brings it all full circle,” she said.
As of Sunday, it was unclear what compelled Heinrich — who was first interviewed about Jacob’s disappearance shortly after it happened — to lead authorities to the grave site. It was also unclear how or when Jacob died, how Heinrich is involved, and whether he provided information to investigators as part of a plea agreement.
While Jacob’s remains have been identified, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is conducting additional DNA tests.
The Stearns County Sheriff’s Office said Saturday that authorities are “reviewing and evaluating new evidence” and expect to provide more details on the case this week.
The FBI declined to comment Sunday about the investigation. Heinrich’s attorney also couldn’t be reached for comment.
The owner of the farm where Jacob’s remains were found, who declined to be interviewed or identified, was equally unwilling to talk Sunday: “It’s too soon to have any conversations at this time.”