Jared Scheierl got the call while driving, his 12-year-old son beside him in the passenger seat. The man who had kidnapped and assaulted him in 1989 — when Scheierl himself was 12 — had led investigators to Jacob Wetterling’s remains.
He looked at his son through tears.
“I said, ‘Wow, you’re like one of the first people to know: They found Jacob Wetterling.’ ”
The call was an answer to the question Scheierl had been raising for years: Was the man who snatched him from a dark road in Cold Spring in January 1989 responsible for taking Jacob nine months later?
Investigators had long explored a possible connection. But in recent years, Scheierl, 40, put a face to the question by telling his story publicly, pressing investigators for answers and asking other victims to come forward. This week, Danny Heinrich confessed not only to killing 11-year-old Jacob, but kidnapping and assaulting Scheierl.
“That day in court … there are no words for it,” Scheierl said Thursday. “It was so long awaited, so necessary and so moving.”
The news hit Scheierl hard. He has been overwhelmed by the notes of gratitude and praise. He’s relieved that the Wetterlings have answers. He is also deeply sad that Jacob never made it home.
In public notes Thursday, others close to Jacob and the Wetterling family expressed similar emotions: Aaron Larson, the best friend who was with Jacob and his younger brother Trevor on that warm October night in 1989, thanked people for all the “thoughts and messages.”
“I feel Jacob and the goodness of him all around me,” he wrote. “That doesn’t stop. Hope doesn’t stop.”
On Facebook, Jacob’s siblings said they’d received support “from people all over the world who have been touched by Jacob’s Hope,” adding: “We feel your love.”
From the beginning, Scheierl spoke up to get answers for the Wetterling family, he said. “It wasn’t about me,” he said. That they found out what happened to Jacob is “a miracle.”
In the end, DNA found on the sweatshirt Scheierl was wearing during the 1989 attack matched Heinrich, leading to the search of his Annandale home and federal child pornography charges.
A month before Heinrich was set to go to trial on those charges, he agreed to a plea deal, bringing authorities to the farm on the outskirts of Paynesville, not far from where Heinrich was living at the time Jacob disappeared.
Scheierl was struck by the coincidence: His family had moved to Paynesville when he was 13, and he lives there today, on 80 acres on the river. That land has been “my little sanctuary” during dark days of investigation, he said.
“It’s been a long, strange trip,” he said.
In May, Scheierl sued Heinrich in Stearns County, just before the end of a three-year window opened by Minnesota Child Victims Act.
For nearly 25 years, Scheierl thought he was the only other victim.
But then, more than three years ago, a blogger named Joy Baker contacted him. Together, they dug into old articles and new leads.
“It was Jared who willingly put himself out there, reaching out to victims and sharing his own story so that they might, in turn, be willing to share their own,” Baker wrote in a blog post this week. “Without Jared, this story would never have unfolded the way it did.”
Heinrich’s arrest last year came with news of the DNA match. That match “would not be expected to occur more than once among unrelated individuals in the world population,” according to the criminal complaint.
“I didn’t need a confession,” Scheierl said Thursday. “I had an answer.”
But from the front row of a packed federal courtroom this week, Scheierl got a confession anyway.
“On Jan. 13, 1989,” a prosecutor asked Heinrich, “did you in Cold Spring, Minnesota, abduct and sexually assault Jared Scheierl?”
“Yes, I did,” Heinrich said.
Heinrich recounted “driving around Cold Spring, looking for a child,” when he noticed a boy walking on a dark street.
Heinrich rolled down his window and asked Scheierl for directions. Then he grabbed him and stuffed him in the back seat. He parked on a winding road, sexually assaulted him, told him to get dressed, but kept his pants and underwear. “For what purpose?” U.S. Attorney Steve Schleicher asked.
“Souvenir, I guess,” Heinrich said. He told Scheierl to run, and “not look back or I would kill him.”
Scheierl, sitting near the Wetterlings, looked down. He was praying, he said Thursday, trying to find peace through meditation. It was “strange” to hear Heinrich own up to his crimes, he said. “I didn’t sense any sense of remorse.”
At a news conference after the hearing, an emotional Patty Wetterling thanked Scheierl, with whom she’s become close.
“Jared had the courage to stand up and say ‘This happened to me, and there are others,’ ” she said.
By Thursday morning, Scheierl’s voice mailbox was full. Reporters, family members, friends. On Facebook, dozens of messages — some from fellow survivors — from as far as Denmark, Dubai. Many called him a hero.
He praises others as the unsung heroes, including online sleuthers, law enforcement and Patty and Jerry Wetterling. But on Thursday, deciding to “have a little fun,” he wore a T-shirt with the Captain America shield. While he was interviewed on CNN, victims rights activist John Walsh suddenly appeared on screen.
“I think Jared has the perfect T-shirt on, Captain America,” Walsh said, “because he is one of the bravest victims I have ever met.”
Later, Scheierl didn’t mention Walsh’s praise. But he did tell the story of someone else calling him a hero: his son.
Staff writer Jennifer Brooks contributed to this report.