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Minnesota mother opens up on latest developments in son's disappearance

PAYNESVILLE, Minn. -- Patty Wetterling is convinced authorities will learn if the man named recently as a "person of interest" in the abduction of her son Jacob was responsible for the crime. For Daniel James Heinrich "to be called a 'person of i...


PAYNESVILLE, Minn. -- Patty Wetterling is convinced authorities will learn if the man named recently as a “person of interest” in the abduction of her son Jacob was responsible for the crime.

For Daniel James Heinrich “to be called a ‘person of interest,’ I mean that’s a strong statement,” Patty Wetterling said Wednesday in a phone interview in advance of Sunday’s community meeting in Paynesville, Minn., on recent developments in their son’s case.

“If this is the guy, we need to have answers,” she said. “Hopeful is a hard word; I couldn’t say that I’m hopeful about this guy. No. But if it is him, I am convinced they’ll find out.”

Wetterling said she and her husband, Jerry, were “caught off guard” when Heinrich was arrested Oct. 28. Heinrich, 52, of Annandale, Minn., has been charged in U.S. District Court in St. Paul with five counts of child pornography possession in another case.


Authorities found dozens of pornographic images of young boys during a search of Heinrich’s house and garage for evidence related to a 1989 kidnapping and sexual assault of 12-year-old Jared Scheierl in Cold Spring, Minn., nine months before Jacob’s abduction.

The Pioneer Press typically doesn’t identify victims of sexual assault, but Scheierl has spoken publicly for years about his case, saying it has helped him cope with the trauma and could help investigators find the attacker and Jacob’s kidnapper.

The Wetterlings had heard Heinrich’s name mentioned “over the years” in connection with their son’s disappearance, Wetterling said.

“For years, we felt like there was a strong possibility he was tied to Jared,” she said, “and when they absolutely, positively proved that it was, like, ‘Oh, wow. Now what?’”

Renewed interest in Jacob’s case

Wetterling said she has never talked to or met Heinrich.

“Everybody wants to know what I think of him, and I don’t think anything of him because I don’t think about him,” she said.


“We want to know: Where is Jacob? I’ll let the rest of the world decide what happens to the guy.”

Wetterling said she and her husband have welcomed the renewed interest in her son’s case.

“There was a big team at the beginning with the FBI, BCA (state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) and Stearns County, and then everybody goes about their own unit and own business, and now the whole team is back,” she said.

“They’re all working on different aspects, but they’re all working on it, so I’m happy about that. ... Maybe we’ll have more answers when they are done.”

Wetterling said she’s heartened that people still care about Jacob and pay so much attention to his case.

“We have felt so supported for such a very long time,” she said. “Obviously, we still need the world. We still need everybody to help us find Jacob, because we’re just not there yet.”

Hoping for a break


Speaking from Washington, D.C., Wetterling said she agreed to be interviewed in order to continue to raise awareness about her son’s case.

“I can tell you the enemy of time with a long-term abduction is silence, so this is good,” she said.

“People are talking, and in the talking, maybe we’ll get one more person who’s no longer afraid or we’ll get a piece (of information) that nobody thought was significant, so that part is helpful to have.”

Jacob hasn’t been seen since he was abducted Oct. 22, 1989, near the Wetterlings’ house in rural St. Joseph, about 20 miles from Paynesville. A string of unsolved sexual assaults on young Paynesville boys preceded his disappearance.

The Wetterlings will be in Paynesville on Sunday to host a community meeting to help the town’s residents cope with recent developments in their son’s disappearance. It will be at 7 p.m. at Paynesville High School Auditorium.

“Since the October 29th announcement of a new person of interest in our son’s kidnapping, our lives and yours have been thrown together in a state of chaos,” the couple wrote in a flier for the meeting.

“Our hope is to connect with the residents of Paynesville for a night of sharing and healing, so we can all move forward with positive energy and renewed hope to find answers.”

The Wetterlings will ask reporters to leave toward the end of the meeting in case any survivors of the Paynesville attacks are present and have a sensitive question or want to ask a question off camera.

“Every time I speak, people come up and talk to me, so I’m certain that there will be some conversation (with survivors),” she said. “We are looking for opportunities to build a better, safer world for kids and the people in Paynesville.”

Cold Spring assault

Heinrich has not been charged in Jacob’s abduction, but authorities searched his home in July seeking ties to the boy’s disappearance. Among the items listed as targets in a search warrant: human remains and Jacob’s clothing.

Authorities instead found child pornography and photos and videos of young boys engaged in routine activities, such as playing on playgrounds and riding bicycles. The images spanned decades, but photos of Jacob were not among them, investigators said.

Heinrich was linked by freshly retested DNA evidence to Scheierl’s assault in Cold Spring, and investigators have long believed that attack was related to the Wetterling case and to assaults on eight boys in Paynesville from 1986 to 1988.

In each case, the victims were about the same age and their assailant had a similar description, wore a mask and threatened violence.

Jacob was taken less than a mile from his home as he, his brother and a friend rode bikes and scooters home from a Tom Thumb convenience store.

Heinrich was questioned in 1989 and 1990 about the disappearance, but authorities say he has denied any involvement.

Her letter to the unknown man

Wetterling said she doesn’t know what she would say to Jacob’s abductor if he were ever found.

“I wrote a letter to him once, about nine years after Jacob was taken,” she said. “It was called ‘To the man who took Jacob.’ I reminded him that he was once an 11-year-old child and (said) ‘it makes me wonder what happened, what happened to you, and I’m sorry for whatever happened to you, but you can’t do that. You can’t harm all of these kids.’”

She said she still holds on to hope that her son will be found alive.

“It’s a possibility until somebody proves to me that he is not,” she said. “I will always hope. They have found hundreds of children who were returned after 10 years and 15 years, and we need to know that there are some missing kids out there who are still alive.

“I don’t know if Jacob is. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer. That’s what we’re fighting for: Where is he?”

Wetterling, who has six grandchildren, said she has no plans to stop searching.

“I have focused on children, and the world Jacob knew and the world that I want to provide for our children and grandchildren,” said Wetterling, who serves as board chairwoman of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“And I really find that strengthening and heartening and a reason to get up in the morning. … We can do better. But it’s going to take all of us.”

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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