Just before Christmas, a small white house will come crashing down and erase the last trace of Jacob Wetterling’s killer from the city of Annandale.
“There would always be a stigma on that house. Residents were constantly reminded, just by glancing at it,” said Annandale Mayor Dwight Gunnarson. “That reminder will be gone by Christmastime.”
The one-bedroom house on the corner lot once belonged to Danny Heinrich. Last year, authorities searched it and discovered a trove of child pornography, surveillance videos of little boys at play, and the leverage they needed to coax Heinrich to confess that he was the one who snatched 11-year-old Jacob off his bike 27 years ago and murdered him, leaving the Wetterling family and the state to a futile decades-long search for the boy.
Heinrich is now in prison. But his empty and foreclosed house remained a distressed and distressing community landmark. Hundreds of neighbors petitioned the city to buy the property at auction and raze it. The city tried three times, Gunnarson said, but couldn’t put up enough money to satisfy the bank.
Until Tim Thone, a real estate developer from Woodbury, saw a news story about the house. He and his wife were young parents in 1989, when Jacob was stolen away by a masked gunman. Their four children, like so many others, grew up in the shadow of that tragedy, with parents who were afraid to let them play alone in the front yard.
“Our hearts broke” for the Wetterling family, Thone said. “As parents, and as Minnesotans, it had a profound effect.”
Thone, who has built more than 400 homes around Woodbury, decided he would buy this one, then demolish it as a Christmas present to his now-grown children.
“I turned to my wife and I said, ‘If that house is available, I’m going to buy it and I’m going to tear it down,’ ” he said. “This is an icky thing and we’re just trying to make a good thing. To make everybody feel good for three minutes, because you’ll never really feel good” about what happened to Jacob.
Thone plans to spend around $58,000 on the property he calls “the predator’s house.” He’s talked with Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, about his plans for the house and he’s hoping for some sense of “finality” when it comes crashing down.
It took the combined efforts of Thone, his business associates, the city, state agencies and the governor’s office to push the sale through before Christmas. Assistant Commerce Commissioner Martin Fleischhacker made a series of calls to the New York offices of JPMorgan Chase — which held the paper on the foreclosed home — trying to explain, a spokesman said, that “this property is not like any other property and it would be to everyone’s benefit to try to expedite the transaction.”
Thone hopes to close on the house Friday. His attorneys are working on the transaction at no charge. Red Pine Industries of St. Paul volunteered to inspect the property, at no cost, to ensure it is free of hazardous materials. DSM Excavating of Hastings is donating its services to demolish the house and its contents and backfill the site. Once the work is complete, Thone said he plans to donate the vacant lot back to the city of Annandale.
“A lot of people have a lot of ideas about what we should do with the property,” Gunnarson said. But for the moment, the city plans to wait, let grass and flowers grow across the lot and “maybe give it a mow, every once in a while” as the community heals.
As for the house’s impending destruction: “You could say it’s proof that Christmas miracles do exist,” he said.
Thone has gotten offers from people willing to chip in to help buy the house. He directs the donors to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, which works to protect children from abuse, neglect and exploitation.
“They say money is the root of all evil, but occasionally you can do some good with it,” he said. “If you can make a donation [to the Wetterling center] that’s all we’re asking.”