Just minutes after a 53-year-old Minnesota man detailed how he kidnapped, assaulted and killed her son almost 27 years ago, Patty Wetterling spoke.
“What I really wanted to say today is, about Jacob, he’s taught us all how to live, how to love; how to be fair, how to be kind. He speaks to the world that he knew, that we all believe in, and it is a world that’s worth fighting for. His legacy will go on.”
Jacob Wetterling was 11 years old when he was taken at gunpoint by a masked man on Oct, 22, 1989, along a rural road in his hometown of St. Joseph. For nearly 27 years, what happened to Jacob remained a mystery.
On Tuesday, for the first time, the Wetterling family got answers. Danny Heinrich, a 53-year-old who last fall was described as a “person of interest” in the case, admitted in court to kidnapping, sexually assaulting, and then killing Jacob on that night. The details are hard to read.
“I want to say Jacob, I’m so sorry,” Patty Wetterling said. “It is incredibly painful to know his last days, last hours, last minutes.”
Jacob’s remains were found last Friday, after Heinrich pointed authorities to the spot he says he buried them. Tests confirmed they were Jacob the next day.
‘She’s my hero’
Patty Wetterling and her husband Jerry spent the years turning uncertainty into action. They opened a child protection center called the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center two years after he went missing.
Patty has continued advocating for support for families of missing children, co-founding Team H.O.P.E., serving on the board of directors for the Association of Missing and Exploited Children’s Organizations, and working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, according to her bio.
She also was “instrumental” in getting the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Sex Offender Registration Act passed on the state level, and as part of the 1994 Federal Crime Bill, the resource center says.
“She’s my hero,” Minnesota’s U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said Tuesday, before Patty spoke. Later, Richard Thornton with the FBI credited Patty with changing how missing child cases are handled around the world.
Patty also thanked the attorneys and law enforcement who helped reach this point, as well as the organizations and groups that work to find missing children and help their families. She also thanked the other victims of sexual abuse who have come forward, especially those who were victims of abuse in central Minnesota around the same time.
“Many of them will never get that full confession … but they deserve so much credit for stirring this pot until [Heinrich] was willing to talk,” Patty said.
She continued by thanking her family for the support, and saying seeing the lives they’ve built, including the children and grandchildren that are now in the world, is “what gets us up in the morning. That is the hope, Jacob’s hope.”
But for now, it was too difficult to speak much more.
“Because for us, Jacob was alive until we found him,” she said through tears. “We need to heal, and we will speak with you. There’s a lot of lessons learned, and there’s a lot more work to do to protect all of our world’s children.”