In a sit-down interview, the Wetterlings described their shock over the sudden end of their search for Jacob, their horror at the details of his death, and how they are overwhelmed by the tributes to their son.
“For almost 27 years we’re searching, and then in seven days, it was eight total, it’s over,” Patty said.
The Wetterlings say it is Jacob’s spirit that has helped them cope.
“That gunshot snuffed his breath out in Oct. 22. 1989, but his spirit is so strong you can just see how it affects people,” Jerry said.
It was just six weeks ago when they were first told of the possibility that Heinrich, awaiting trial on child porn charges, might be willing to lead investigators to Jacob’s body in exchange for a plea deal.
The Wetterlings agreed to the deal the very next day. They say agreeing to the deal was not a hard decision.
“For nearly 27 years we’ve been looking for Jacob, we wanted to know where is Jacob,” Patty said.
She got a phone call from the lead prosecutor less than 24 hours later.
“It was around noon I think when they found Jacob’s jacket, which was heartbreaking to me,” Patty said. “One thing that nobody will ever know is the intensity of these phone calls, to tell Jerry. It was hard. We later had to call our children and tell them that they’d found his jacket, and those were grueling phone calls to make. In all of these years, we’ve never had any piece of evidence to show Jacob was not alive.”
They both went to the farm that day where investigators were digging, staying only briefly.
“Jacob wasn’t alive there and I didn’t want to stay,” Patty said.
More of Jacob’s remains were found over the next few days. The family was given the details of Heinrich’s confession on Labor Day, and the next day they heard Heinrich in court. He explain how he abducted Jacob, handcuffed him, drove him to Paynesville, molested him and then shot him when he thought law enforcement was approaching — all stated in a matter-of-fact tone.
“I don’t even know how to describe what it felt like hearing his words. When he came into the courtroom all I could look at him and say is ‘How could you?'” Patty said. “It was actually absolutely stunning to try and process, how you shift your head from hoping and searching and to now knowing that he wasn’t alive, and what a horrible death.”
They both say they are not second guessing law enforcement. Heinrich was an early suspect, but dropped off investigators radar for a quarter of a century.
“If you look at things 27 years ago, we didn’t have … fast communications we have now, and things were held more tightly between departments,” Jerry said.
As for the future, the Wetterlings say they will continue their work on behalf of child safety and the work of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center.
“There’s still a lot of work to do, and we’re gaining strength to help,” Patty said. “We are strengthened by so many people who still believe in the spirit of who Jacob was and how we can get a better world where children are safe.”
The Wetterlings will be offering a victim impact statement when Heinrich is sentenced on child porn charges Nov. 21.
Heinrich faces 17 years in prison. Prosecutors say he then faces the likelihood of civil commitment as a sex offender.