United in grief and loss: Jacob Wetterling, 1978-1989

By Hope Mueller

It’s supposed to be safe, riding your bike into town with friends. This time it wasn’t.

11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was biking home from the Tom Thumb in St. Joseph, on Oct. 22, 1989 with his brother Trevor
Wetterling, 10, and best friend Aaron Larson, 9, when a masked kidnapper with a gun told the boys to lay face down in the ditch.

After examining the three boys, the abductor chose Jacob. The others were told to run and not look back or else they’d be shot.

This was the last time Jacob was seen alive.

After nearly 27 years, the Wetterling family and the St. Joseph community have an answer to the mystery that has haunted them for so long.

Daniel James Heinrich, 53, of Annandale, Minnesota was brought in as a person of interest in October of 2015. Heinrich was also questioned in 1990 regarding Jacob’s abduction but was not charged with the crime. His DNA sample matched that of a 12-year-old Cold Spring, Minnesota boy, but the statute of limitations had run out on the case.

In July 2015 Stearns County investigators searched Heinrich’s home for evidence related to the Wetterling and Cold Spring case but found no connections. Heinrich was later arrested when they discovered 19 binders of child pornography.

After being in jail for almost a year, and still being a person of interest in the Wetterling case, investigators and Heinrich reached a plea bargin with the condition that he provide info on Jacob’s whereabouts.

Heinrich pleaded guilty to one count of receiving child pornography in exchange for the location of Jacob’s remains. Although Heinrich will not be prosecuted for the kidnapping and murder of Jacob, he’s expected to serve 20 years in prison for child pornography charges and potentially remain in state custody under Minnesota’s civil sex offender commitment.

Now and in 1989, the community of St. Joseph and CSB/SJU reacts to the loss of 11-year-old Jacob.

Fr. Rene T. McGraw, OSB, a member of the St. John’s community since 1949, recalls what campus was like following the kidnapping.

“Things got quieter. Very somber,” McGraw said. “The kind of quiet that goes on when there’s a major tragedy.”

Colman O’Connell, OSB and St. Ben’s President during the abduction, illustrates how students, staff and faculty reacted to the tragedy.

“Students from here had a candlelight procession…they went to the scene of the crime and had a prayer service there,” O’Connell said.

The day following the abduction students approached O’Connell before she went to an all-campus faculty meeting.

“[The students] came to me before the faculty meeting to say we’ve asked the Prioress for $500 and the Abbot for $500 and we’d like to take a collection from the faculty.”

Knowing the search for Jacob would be costly, CSB/SJU students took the opportunity to help in any way possible.

The town was searched. Basements, garages, no inch of St. Joseph was left untouched.

Twenty-seven years passed with little to no evidence found in-between.

After Heinrich’s confession, Jacob’s remains were found and the details surrounding his abduction were made clear.

“We all know how we wanted the story to end, it wasn’t the happy ending we got,” SJU senior Noah Ice-Cook said.

Ice-Cook’s family has been a part of the community since 1989 and his parents, communication professor Jeanne Cook and Provost Richard Ice, began working at CSB/SJU shortly after.

Students at CSB/SJU were fast to respond to the latest news in Jacob’s story.

“I woke up Saturday morning and it was the first thing I saw…I threw up,” CSB senior Liz Martinez said. “My heart was heavy. I could not fathom how the Wetterling family was feeling. If this is my reaction, imagine them.”

Martinez knew she wanted to do something to show her support toward the family.

She made a poster for students to sign reaching over 300 signatures.

“People would write in any open spot they had, just because they wanted [the Wetterling’s] to know that they were there with them in this time of need,” Martinez said.

CSB President Mary Dana Hinton reflected on the influence Jacob’s story has had on the CSB/SJU community.

“CSB and SJU are privileged to be a part of the local community,” Hinton said. “It is when we all come together, in service of the common good, that we make the world a better place. I hope that our entire community will continue to come together in the future, in both good and difficult times.”

The clock has turned forward and Minnesota, St. Joseph and the Wetterling’s have been given solace, hope and answers to a long-time mystery.

“This isn’t closure,” O’Connell said. “It may be coming full circle, but this isn’t the end.”

Jacob’s story and Hope live on.