Kidnapped boy's body found 27 years later

Remains of child whose abduction 27 years ago captured national attention found, but statute of limitations may help killer evade justice.

David Rosenberg ,

Jacob Wetterling
Jacob Wetterling
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

Police in rural Minnesota made grisly discovery last week when they uncovered the remains of Jacob Wetterling, who was kidnapped nearly 27 years ago.

The 11-year old St. Joseph native was abducted on the evening of October 22nd, 1989 by a gunman while Jacob, his brother, and a friend were riding their bicycles back home from a video rental store.

Along the way a masked man accosted the three boys, holding them at gunpoint before telling Jacob’s brother and friend to flee. Until Saturday, Jacob’s whereabouts and fate had remained a mystery.

The remains uncovered on Thursday were positively identified as belonging to the missing boy on Saturday.

The discovery of Jacob’s body was a devastating blow to his family, who despite the years had still held out hope for his recovery.

“Jacob has been found and our hearts are broken,” Patty Wetterling, Jacob’s mother, wrote.

“She held out hope right to the very end,” said Ellie Quarry, a neighbor of the Wetterlings. “God, I prayed for that.”

“We didn’t want Jacob’s story to end this way,” a statement from the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center read.

“Our hearts are heavy, but we are being held up by all of the people who have been a part of making Jacob’s Hope a light that will never be extinguished.”

Despite the recovery of Jacob’s remains, his killer may never be brought to justice for the murder.

Investigators say Daniel James Heinrich, who police had called a “person of interest” in the case as far back as 1990, led them to the unmarked location where Jacob’s remains were buried.

Police had questioned Heinrich four times following Jacob’s disappearance, and said that tire tracks and footprints found near the abduction site were “consistent” with the tires on Heinrich’s 1982 Ford EXP and sneakers found at his home.

DNA evidence from another abduction case nine months prior to Jacob’s disappearance was recently confirmed to tie Heinrich to the kidnapping and assault of a then-12-year old boy in a nearby Minnesota town.

But the federal and state statutes of limitations in effect at the time of the 1989 abduction have precluded Heinrich’s prosecution over the first kidnapping case, despite the DNA evidence.

A 2015 search of Heinrich’s home revealed a massive stash of child pornography and recordings of news coverage about Jacob’s disappearance.

Heinrich has since been indicted in a federal court on child pornography charges.

Following his arrest, Heinrich, who has denied abducting Jacob, led investigators to his remains.

The statute of limitations, which barred prosecution of Heinrich in the prior abduction case, will also likely prevent criminal charges from being filed over Jacob’s abduction. He may, however, be charged with murder if the ongoing investigation can sufficient evidence for Heinrich’s involvement in Jacob’s death.