ST. JOSEPH, MINN. – Tears and anger flowed in Jacob Wetterling’s hometown Tuesday as residents absorbed the horrifying courtroom confession of Jacob’s killer — along with the news that he’ll spend only 20 years in prison.
All afternoon in the small Stearns County town, people were checking their phones, watching TV and listening to the radio as the media relayed Danny Heinrich’s confession with its gruesome details of Jacob’s last hours.
Overcome with emotion as she listened to radio reports, Ellen Murray pulled her car to the side of the road in downtown St. Joseph and sat sobbing, windows down and radio on.
“Just to think of what Jacob … I can’t … I can’t express my feelings right now,” she said, wiping her reddened eyes with the back of her hand.
Across the street, a different feeling was in the air at American Legion Post 328, where the prosecution’s news conference was playing on TV in the bar.
“What I have to say, you can’t print,” said Reid Schmotzer of St. Joseph. “He better not get out of jail, that’s all I can say.”
Down the bar, Dave Hokenson expressed shock at the length of the sentence.
“I don’t understand how a guy can kill a child and get 20 years,” he said. “I can’t wrap my mind around that. I was in Vietnam, and this is crazier than that.”
Officials said that Heinrich could be subject to a civil commitment after his prison term that could keep him locked up for life. But that legal angle was lost on many Stearns County residents, who were grappling with the sudden and surprisingly detailed end to a 27-year mystery.
In neighboring Waite Park, Tom Isaacson scrolled through Twitter on his phone at the Ultimate Sports Bar and Grill, brow furrowed, exclaiming softly as details of the kidnapping and brutal killing unfolded on the screen.
“Jeez,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “God.”
“It takes your breath away,” Isaacson said. “It’s something no one should have to go through.”
In St. Joseph, Brianna Estevez grew up with the Wetterling kidnapping, which took place when she was 4 years old. The details of the killing, she said, made her “sick to my stomach.
“Jacob saying, ‘What did I do wrong?’ That’s so sad,” said Estevez, co-owner of Joseph’s Hair Salon. “And that he so brazenly killed [Jacob] and buried him.” She, too, is unhappy with the plea bargain.
“It kind of tore the community apart for 27 years, and he’s getting 20 years? It’s kind of outrageous, I think,” Estevez said. “He should get more punishment for what he’s done.”
At Jerry Wetterling’s chiropractic office, a sign on the door told visitors the office would be closed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Outside, a small array of balloons and flowers stood near the doctor’s sign.
A quartet of students from the College of St. Benedict huddled around a laptop in the Local Blend coffee shop, watching the live stream of the news conference. Two of them dabbed at their eyes with napkins as they stared intently at the screen and googled legal terms that were being discussed.
The four are taking a media class and studying how the Wetterling case has been covered. Suddenly, they were a part of it, as reporters from two media outlets interviewed them.
For Amanda Baloun, one of the group, Jacob has always been a part of her life. His abduction took place on Oct. 22, 1989 — exactly five years before the day she was born. Every birthday in her life so far has brought a reminder of Jacob.
“It’s surreal that it’s ended,” said Baloun, 21, of Sartell. “I’ve always been aware of it.” Her feelings, she said, “are a mix of sadness and happiness that they’re getting the closure they’ve wanted for 27 years.”
Alexis Frericks doesn’t look like someone who’d have an opinion on the Wetterling case. But like so many other Stearns County children through the years, the 10-year-old has had to give it serious thought. Dressed in a gray sweater, jeans and high-top sneakers, a long blond braid down her back, she twirled on a stool at the Ultimate Sports Bar and Grill, owned by her father, Tom.
“I think it’s sad. It’s terrible. You can barely trust anyone these days,” Alexis said. “What goes through a person’s mind when he’s killing someone for no reason? If it happened to me, I would think the same thing: ‘What did I do wrong? Why are you doing this?’
“Jacob could have lived a great life,” Alexis said. “But he didn’t — he died.”