ST. JOSEPH, MINN. – Standing at the end of their driveway, Patty and Jerry Wetterling addressed a dozen cameras for the first time since authorities named Daniel James Heinrich, 52, a “person of interest” in their son Jacob’s abduction. But despite the development in the case, their refrain was the same.
“We still don’t know who took Jacob,” Patty Wetterling said. “We have as many questions or more as all of you.”
They thanked law enforcement, advocated for hope and asked the general public to come forward with tips. They did not say whether they believe that Heinrich might be linked to the abduction of their 11-year-old son in 1989. Heinrich, of Annandale, Minn., was charged last week with receiving and possessing child pornography. He is scheduled to make a preliminary court appearance Wednesday in U.S. District Court in St. Paul.
“We will let law enforcement and the courts and the process play out,” Patty Wetterling said, her husband beside her. The Wetterlings were “caught off guard, like all of you’’ by the naming of Heinrich in Jacob’s case, she said.
The Wetterlings chose to hold the news conference on their quiet cul-de-sac in St. Joseph because “this is where it happened,” Patty said.
On a warm October night, Jacob, his younger brother, Trevor, and best friend, Aaron Larson, rode their bikes to the Tom Thumb to rent a video.
As they headed home, a masked man with a gun appeared. He ordered them off their bikes and into a ditch. He asked their ages. Then he told Trevor and Aaron to run into the woods and not look back, or he’d shoot. Jacob has never been found.
It’s been 26 years since the Wetterlings got the call — “an amazing length of time,” said Patty, now 66. Before she and Jerry, 67, emerged to make their statement, Alison Feigh, program manager of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, offered the gathered press chocolate chip cookies that Patty had made.
Each year, on the anniversary of Jacob’s disappearance, Patty brings a batch to the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office.
Law enforcement officers have vetted some 50,000 leads in the case. But Heinrich is the first “person of interest” they’ve named in recent years. Investigators said last week that Heinrich has long denied any involvement in Jacob’s disappearance.
This year, DNA evidence linked Heinrich to another boy’s kidnapping and sexual assault in nearby Cold Spring in January 1989. After making that link, investigators searched Heinrich’s home in Annandale in July, discovering computer folders and 19 three-ring binders containing child pornography. Authorities said last week that they found no evidence of Jacob.
Patty Wetterling said she’s proud of the victims who have come forward, including Jared Scheierl, now 39, who has spoken publicly about the attack he endured when he was a boy in Cold Spring.
“What we do know is that child sexual abuse and abduction is something we can’t tolerate,” Patty said. “And I refuse to be silenced by this man.”
As board chair for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Patty Wetterling has fought against the victimization of children, including child pornography. Last year, the center investigated more than 1 million images showing child sexual abuse, pornography or sex trafficking. And that record was broken in the first three months of this year, Patty said.
Over the years, she has watched as media replayed the tape of Jacob telling the camera what he wanted to be when he grew up. “That’s what we’re fighting for,” she said, “ ‘When I grow up I want to be …’ ”
Fits and starts
The Wetterlings have lived through more than a quarter-century of false starts and empty leads.
Within days of the abduction, authorities scrutinized 100 potential suspects and more than 3,000 tips. Reports cast suspicion on white Chevrolets, red Chevettes and light brown vans. Investigators re-examined reported abduction attempts in the region and heard new reports of several more, including at least one that was later recanted by a teenager who admitted to making it up.
Police released sketches of both a burly middle-aged man and a younger man. They looked locally, across Minnesota and across the country, wondering if a kidnapper passing through could have driven off with the boy. They looked at Heinrich.
Law enforcement continued to quietly work the open investigation for years. About 15 years after the abduction, they re-examined potential suspects who had lived within walking distance of the crime scene, prompted by new information that tire tracks found there that night could have belonged to a curious motorist, not the kidnapper.
Five years ago, authorities ordered earth-moving equipment to dig through ashes from a wood-burning boiler at a farm near the abduction scene. A man who lived there with his parents, but was home alone the night of the abduction, had been questioned and had given DNA samples years earlier. Authorities continued to call him a “person of interest” in the case as they sifted through six truckloads of dirt from the farm. But no evidence emerged to solve the case.
Jerry Wetterling, who still wears a white “Jacob’s Hope” button, asked for the public’s help in finding his son. “No one plays a more important role than you, everyday citizens,” he said, “reporting that little piece of information added to other pieces of information [that can] bring Jacob home.”
Said Patty: “We will hope and pray that one day we will have the answer to the one question we’ve asked forever: Where is Jacob? Somebody knows, and we’re begging for those answers.”
After speaking for six minutes, the couple took no questions. They walked back up the driveway to their home, their arms around one another.
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.