After 26 years of mystery surrounding the abduction of Jacob Wetterling, hope of resolution for his parents and the city of St. Joseph emerged on Thursday.
The arrest of Annandale's Daniel Heinrich on child pornography charges became even more significant when a subsequent link to the case of another Stearns County boy who went missing around the same time as Wetterling was revealed.
Though he has not been charged with Wetterling's abduction and denies involvement, authorities led by U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger went public with the information, identifying him as a "person of interest" in the cold case.
Wetterling's parents Patty and Jerry, who opened a child protection center bearing their son's name after he went missing, issued a statement that was hopeful, but also asked "for time" as the investigation progresses.
"The search for Jacob is an ongoing investigation and we will watch and learn with everybody else," they said, adding: "For 26 years we have said that somebody knows something ... we are so grateful for the prayers, the support and hope shared in our search for Jacob and the search for answers."
The case that changed parenting
Governor Mark Dayton summed up during a press conference Thursday the profound impact the 11-year-old's disappearance in 1989 had on Minnesota and parents' psyche.
"Especially in rural parts of the state, you didn't think twice about letting 11 year old kids go with their friends to rent a movie, leaving your doors unlocked and what not, letting kids go out to play in the neighborhood," he said.
"People have seen it [these kind of incidents] as a way of life, and that respect for public life is not 100% assured as we want it to be and as it should be."
Mother-of-two Teresa Lhotka, executive director of Missing Children Minnesota, described to FOX 9 the day Jacob Wetterling disappeared as the day "we lost our innocence as a state."
"We lost our illusions as a state and they were dangerous illusions," she said.
Missing Children Minnesota was running a child protection workshop in Chaska which FOX 9 attended, with parent Chad Petrie saying it changed the way he parented. "The thought of the whole situation is always with you with everything. It’s like you know hold hands, pay attention. Look for people you don’t know. Don’t run off with them. Fight. Instill it from an early age."
Closure sought in St. Joseph
In Wetterling's hometown of St. Joseph, the memory of his abduction by a "masked gunman" as he returned from a convenience store hangs heavy. Residents are now hoping there can be some closure.
"It's still talked about all the time," local Kevin Cox told the Star Tribune. "Nobody's forgotten about it."
"This doesn't solve it, but it's a good beginning to, hopefully, an end," he added.
"It's just very moving," St. Joseph resident Vera Theisan told KSTP. "I hope it goes somewhere, this has been a terrible case for so many years ... this is very touching."
"My parents made sure I never went too far on my own," another local, Abbey Haugen, added.
Heinrich's arrest and subsequent charging following an FBI investigation also provoked a strong reaction in Annandale.
Neighbor Deanna Picka spoke to the St. Cloud Times, saying her husband would visit with him whenever he was outside.
"My kids sold popcorn at his house. We could always tell something was a little off, so we tried to stay on the other side of the street.
"This really came to our attention this August. The police came and talked to us and said that they had confiscated an entire vanload of materials. And they told us to keep our eyes open and our ears open."