Law enforcement officials are expected to reveal more details this week about the nearly 27-year-old mystery of what happened to Jacob Wetterling.
Federal and state investigators have said little about the case so far, other than to confirm that Danny Heinrich, an early suspect in Wetterling’s 1989 disappearance who is awaiting trial on federal child pornography charges, led investigators to the boy’s grave on a Paynesville farm last week.
On Monday, a spokesperson for the Wetterlings said the family likely will meet with media in the coming days to talk about the case that shocked and saddened a generation of Minnesotans.
Jacob Wetterling was 11 years old when he was abducted near his home in St. Joseph, Minn.
Patty Wetterling posted a new statement Monday on the Facebook page of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. She encouraged people wanting to comfort her grieving family to say a prayer, play with their children and generally “create joy.”
“The Wetterlings are deeply grieving and are pulling our family together. We will be eager to talk to media as soon as we are able. Everyone wants to know what they can do to help us. Say a prayer. Light a candle. Be with friends. Play with your children. Giggle. Hold hands. Eat ice cream. Create joy. Help your neighbor. That is what will bring me comfort today.”
It was the hope that Jacob was alive and might someday return home that sustained the family and close friends for all those years — and why now “it’s so maddening that that isn’t the ending we got,” said Alison Feigh, program manager for the Resource Center and one of Jacob’s middle school classmates. “None of it’s fair.”
There’s been a global outpouring of shared grief for the family, Feigh said, including from other families of missing children. “People hold this story in their hearts,” she said. “They’re reaching out in compassion and love and support.”
Mixed with the grief is fury at the man who stole the life of a smiling little boy on a bike. Feigh, for one, wishes that Jacob’s picture were the only one shown in news stories — not the mug shot of the man who led police to his remains.
“I’m mad. I wish people would forget this other guy’s name,” she said. “I don’t want him pictured with Jacob. It’s not about him. It’s never been about him.”
Tom Heffelfinger, who was U.S. attorney for Minnesota in the early 1990s, said Monday that his thoughts were “complicated” as he processed news of the discovery of Jacob’s remains.
On the one hand, he said, he was proud of the dogged work of many law enforcement agencies working on the case for nearly three decades. But as someone who came to know the Wetterling family on a personal level — and served on the board of the family’s foundation — there was also grief.
“I can’t begin to fathom the pain they are feeling now, because it has always been clear to me that the Wetterlings had hoped and believed that Jacob could come home someday,” he said. “It’s crushing … one can’t even put oneself in their shoes.”
At the Minnesota State Fair on Monday, some Minnesotans took time to reflect on the missing child whose name had circled through residents’ minds for decades.
“I thought, ‘It’s about time,’ ” said Holley McCree, 68, of Roseville.
James Parker, 59, of New Brighton, called the 1980s “an end of innocence.” He said he was glad the family could get closure.
Other fairgoers echoed that comment, and added that they felt terrible for the Wetterling family.
“I can’t imagine having to go through that as a parent,” said Jeff Nelson, 61, of Waconia.
Heffelfinger said he would not speculate on any specific deals or discussions that led to the recent turn of events, but he said he recognized a strategy he’d used years before as a prosecutor. While working on a Hennepin County murder case in 1980, Heffelfinger said he eventually got a confession out of the suspect in the killing of Diane Edwards by pushing hard on separate — but related — cases.
“It seems to me that a similar strategy was adopted here to prosecute Heinrich for any and all similar crimes,” he said.
Heffelfinger said the aggressive pursuit of the case by the federal, state and local law enforcement officials who have worked on the case since Wetterling’s disappearance made a difference.
“In this case, no one has ever given up on it,” he said. “All the men and women who have held these jobs for the last 27 years never gave up.”
Staff writers Jennifer Brooks, Stephen Montemayor and Beena Raghavendran contributed to this report.