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Without Tuesday's plea deal, 'Jacob would not have been found'

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The plea deal was the only way officials were going to find Jacob Wetterling, and help answer questions that have been on Minnesotans' minds for nearly three decades, officials said Tuesday.

"Danny Heinrich is no longer a person of interest," U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said Tuesday. "He is the confessed murderer of Jacob Wetterling and nearly 27 years after he committed this heinous crime, he has been brought to justice. And Jacob is finally home."

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Danny Heinrich pleaded guilty to one count of receipt of child pornography Tuesday, admitting he knowingly had roughly 150 images of child pornography in his Annandale home in July 2015 when investigators executed a search warrant in hopes of finding information about the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling.

Seeking leverage

Although the search didn't directly connect Heinrich to Jacob, officials believed the discovery of child porn – and bringing federal charges against Heinrich – was the only way to lead them to the truth about what happened to Jacob, Luger and Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall explained at a news conference Tuesday. (Watch the entire news conference here.)

"[We were] literally seeking leverage that a substantial federal prison sentence could provide to further the Wetterling investigation," Kendall said. (Federal child porn charges carry a stiffer penalty than state charges, and a looming prison sentence can get people to change their minds on what they're going to do, Luger explained.)

And that appeared to work.

Reaching the deal

Just 10 days ago, Heinrich's defense team reached out to prosecutors to say a plea agreement was possible – and it would include a confession and information that could lead to finding Jacob's remains, Luger said.

"After nearly 27 years, Danny Heinrich was willing to talk and we had to grab the moment," Luger said, explaining that Heinrich was a "volatile and unpredictable person" who would change his mind any minute and "clam up."

But the deal didn't come easily, and prosecutors were worried up until Heinrich signed the plea deal in court Tuesday afternoon that he would change his mind, Luger said.

The plea agreement, which was supported by the Wetterlings, included Heinrich leading them to Jacob's remains; giving a detailed statement about what happened Oct. 22, 1989 (the night he abducted Jacob); and admitting he kidnapped and sexually assaulted Jared Scheierl in January 1989; as well as a lengthy prison sentence.

Getting away with murder?

As a result of the plea deal, Heinrich will not be charged in Jacob's death.

When asked if Heinrich was literally getting away with murder, Luger said: "He's not getting away with anything. We got the truth. The Wettering family can bring him home."

That was the most important thing for the Wetterlings, and without Heinrich's help through the plea deal it wouldn't have happened, Kendall explained.

"Jacob wouldn't have been found and the details would not have been told without the events of today," Kendall said.

Heinrich will be sentenced to 20 years in prison (that's the maximum allowed by law for a receipt of child porn conviction) at his Nov. 21 sentencing hearing. After that, he'll be evaluated for sex offender commitment – "and may never be released from custody again," Kendall said.

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