Minnesota, the state known for it’s nice people and multitude of lakes, has been on the national stage in the past few weeks since Daniel Heinrich, a sex offender, pedofile, and (not that it has to be mentioned) all-round rotten human being, admit to the rape and murder of an eleven year old boy who has been missing for nearly 27 years.
Jacob Wetterling is not a name most people in the united states know, but for those who live in Minnesota, the name, and the story are all too familiar.
In October 22, 1989, eleven-year-old Jacob Wetterling was biking home from a convenience store near his home in St Joseph, Minnesota with his ten-year-old brother and a friend when the three were stopped on a dead end road by a man in a black mask. At gunpoint, the man told the boys to get off their bikes, then after asking their names and ages, told Jacob’s brother, Trevor and friend, Aaron to run away and not look back or else he would shoot. Jacob, nor the man in the mask were ever seen again.
Daniel Heinrich had been a suspect in Jacob Wetterling's case since the very beginning. He matched the basic description of the masked man that Trevor Wetterling and Aaron had given the police, and his car matched a description several boys in the next door town of Paynesville had given in relation to a rash of molestations going on. Somehow, he made it off the hook at the time but never off the suspect list.
From my understanding, by the time Heinrich was arrested in fall of last year on charges of possessing child pornography, the Minnesota state police, and on a larger scale, the FBI, had more or less known Heinrich was their man for a decade but didn’t have the kind of evidence they needed for an arrest or conviction. But with him in prison on already serious charges, they had the perfect chance to get him to admit.
The plea bargain was made. Heinrich would confess to Jacob’s kidnap and murder, and lead investigators to the body. In return, he wouldn’t be charged with the murder (It’s extremely important to understand that even without the murder charge Heinrich will likely be spending the rest of his life in prison for the crimes he is being charged for). Heinrich agreed to the terms and on September 2nd of this year, lead police to where he buried Jacob’s body nearly 27 years ago. On September 6th, he made a full confession detailing the kidnap, sexual assault, murder, and disposal of Jacob Wetterling. The transcript of Heinrich’s confession has been made public, I won’t go into detail about what it said except that I felt sick after reading it.
Living in Minnesota for so many years I was familiar with the Wetterling case. I remember the sense of relief that washed over the state last year when it was announced that a long time suspect in the disappearance was arrested for the possession of child pornography. Do to a similar instance of sexual assault in a nearby town only nine months before Jacob Wetterling went missing, it was highly suspected that Jacob had been sexually assaulted sometime between his kidnapped and probable murder so the discovery that Heinrich was definitely the kind of sick person who could pull that off lead everyone to feel that this case was finally coming to a close.
News broke on Saturday, September 3rd that Heinrich had lead investigators to the body of a child outside Paynesville, Minnesota. The next morning the headline of the Star Tribune announced that dental records had confirmed, Jacob Wetterling was found. The twenty-seven-year's nightmare is finally coming to an end.
I was eating my breakfast when I read the article on the Star Tribune news app that I still use to keep up with news. I wanted to go running from my dorm all over campus yelling that Heinrich had confessed, Jacob was found. The relief I felt on behalf of the Wetterling family was overwhelming. But as I went through the day, it was almost as though I was the only person who knew what had happened. It didn’t touch anyone around me that this colossal case was being solved as we spoke. In contrast, when I spoke to my dad who works in news, later that week he told me how all the news stations had pulled out of the MInnesota State Fair, where they usually do all their coverage from while it’s on because of the levity of the news. A news station doesn’t just “pull out” of the Minnesota State Fair, it’s practically their Christmas, the biggest publicity stunt of the year. My dad barely got time off to move me into college because of the impending start of the thing. A news station doesn’t pull out of the Minnesota State Fair for anything. Anything accept news of national importance. And whether or not most of America knows it, Jacob Wetterling is of national importance.
In 1989 sexual predators were a nonproblem. Of course, they were around, of course, they were known about. They were about as infamous as the boogeyman. About as believed in as well. There was a sense that, yes they existed, but not here. Wherever “here” was, the sexual predators were somewhere else. Jacob Wetterling changed that.
St. Joseph's is a small town. The kind of town where everyone knows one another, the kind of town where outsiders don’t go, insiders don’t leave. St. Joseph was “here”. And then Jacob disappeared. And St. Joseph became somewhere else. It hit the United States like a sock in the jaw. The idea that an eleven-year-old boy could be kidnapped, probably by a sexual predator, in a town like St.Joseph, and the perpetrator could get away with it, meant that it could happen anywhere. New York, Cincinnati, Spokane, Dillon, even Shakespeare, New Mexico (population: 1).
Suddenly, the boogeyman became a very real threat. Parent’s began to keep a closer eye on their kids, doors were locked at night. Neighbors were suspicious of neighbors. America was a very different place.
In 1994, congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children And Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act which now requires sexual offenders to register on a national list allowing them to be monitored making it the first law of its kind in the United States. This was closely followed by Megan’s Law in 1996, which requires law enforcement to release information about sex offenders registered under the Jacob Wetterling law to the general public. Both these laws allow people to know about threats in their community, and more importantly have a basis to start at when things like what happened to Jacob take place. So that no other family will have to wait 27 years for answers.
If you don’t live in Minnesota, you probably don’t know Jacob Wetterling by name. But you certainly know him. Despite his anonymity, Jacob changed us all. The way we were raised. How we live our lives, who we speak to, and what we know about those around us. Because of Jacob, the world is a very different place, an argument can be made about whether this is for the better or worse but that’s not the point. Jacob, the boy who changed the lives of children and adults across generations, can finally be put to rest, closing one of the most impactful cases in American history. And for that, we should all be grateful.