In the end, after nearly 27 years of searching, the heartbreaking answer of what happened to Jacob Wetterling struck his parents almost too quickly.
It was an ending — involving a volatile defendant cutting a plea deal — that unfolded in a matter of days and left Patty and Jerry Wetterling stunned, reeling from learning that their abducted 11-year-old son had been brutally murdered, and trying to figure out how to move forward.
“It’s kind of like getting just punched in the head and you’re just spinning,” Patty said in an interview Tuesday. “It was that sort of sensation for me. It takes a while before your head settles down. I don’t know that mine is yet. But it was stunning. It was confusing.”
The couple granted 20-minute interviews to media Tuesday for the first time since the Sept. 6 courtroom confession from Danny Heinrich, who described sexually assaulting and shooting Jacob after snatching him at gunpoint while he rode bikes with his brother, Trevor, and friend Aaron Larson the night of Oct. 22, 1989.
The first sign that the Wetterlings might finally get an answer to what happened came with a visit from an attorney.
On the evening of Aug. 29, their attorney Doug Kelley showed up at their door and told them of the possibility that Heinrich, who had been arrested on child pornography charges 10 months earlier, might be willing to give answers about Jacob in exchange for a plea deal. But they had to keep it quiet, or risk jeopardizing it.
There was no sleeping with their secret that night.
“At this point, we could only tell each other,” Jerry said. “That was tough, too.”
Heinrich had been a suspect for years and authorities had never found concrete evidence to connect him to Jacob.
“Oh man, I didn’t want it to be him,” Patty said. “Either he had to provide evidence or a very convincing story, and I got stuck on that.”
Law enforcement believed it was Heinrich, but she wanted proof that it was true, she said. “You’ve got to convince me. I was not easily convinced.”
Jerry went to work the next morning at his chiropractic office, then they drove to Minneapolis for an afternoon meeting with local, state and federal law enforcement and prosecutors.
“It was really clearly told to us that this would be our one opportunity for answers, and people felt he [Heinrich] was willing to share,” Patty recounted.
They agreed to a deal that Heinrich would get 20 years in prison on pornography charges if he led them to Jacob.
The next day, after Heinrich directed investigators to a shallow grave in a field outside of Paynesville, some 30 miles from their home in St. Joseph, Patty got a call: They had found what appeared to be Jacob’s jacket.
“They asked if we wanted to go see where this was found, which was a gift to us because it was before anybody else knew. We could go there undisturbed,” Patty said.
Standing in the field briefly, Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner approached with words that Jerry remembers clearly: “It’s over.”
“There were a lot of tears,” Patty said.
Prosecutors had hoped to bring Heinrich into court for a plea that Friday, the Wetterlings said, but authorities decided they needed more evidence and kept digging, eventually finding a T-shirt belonging to Jacob as well as some of his remains.
The next Monday, they heard details of what Heinrich had done to Jacob for the first time, of how Jacob had asked, “What did I do wrong?” before Heinrich fired two shots. The next day, the world heard the details, too, as Heinrich recounted the night in federal court.
For the Wetterlings, nearly 27 years of painful searching — of never giving up hope that somehow Jacob might be alive — had come to a devastating end.
Suddenly, everything was different.
Had Jacob been found right away, they know, he would have been buried quickly and the public’s interest likely would have diminished.
“I think [Jacob’s brother] Trevor said it best,” Patty said. “Jacob had work to do.”
The family takes comfort in knowing that, during the long search for him, laws were passed and attitudes changed to keep children safer.
“What is hopeful, that I see, is the way our state has, in a sense been I think almost catapulted to a different level of caring about this issue,” Jerry said, including recent interest in solving cold cases.
The couple still wrestles with the question of how finding Jacob has changed them.
“It’s changed me from being a searching parent,” Jerry said. “People have no idea the late-night phone calls we’ve had of leads, and as crazy as they sometimes sound, you still put energy into thinking about them. ... So that aspect of life will change and that is one saving positive thing of this whole nightmare that’s been going on.”
Patty’s work to find missing kids and prevent abductions will likely continue, though she said she will have to redefine her role in it.
“I know that hope is real,” she said. “There’s missing children out there who we need to find, and just because our ending was horrific and sad and tragic doesn’t translate into all the other missing kids that we give up on. We still have work to do. We still have prevention work to do.”
The Wetterlings want people to know that they still believe in humanity.
“We’ve had the opportunity to experience all the goodness in life. All the good people coming forward and doing kind things for one another, and that’s the world I’m talking about,” Patty said. “We know it’s possible. We’ve been recipients of it. That’s something worth fighting for.”