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Disappeared: The Jacob Wetterling Story

On October 12th, 1989, Jacob Wetterling recorded a video for school in which he described himself. Jacob, eleven-years-old, described himself and his favorite things, including his favorite food as steak and his best friend as his neighbor Aaron. The video became a precious reminder of Jacob for his loved ones when Jacob disappeared just ten days later. Jacob’s family and friends searched for Jacob and prayed for his safe return for twenty-seven years. Finally, in 2016, the mystery of Jacob’s disappearance was solved and is nothing less than shocking. This is Jacob’s story.



Jacob Erwin Wetterling was born February 17th, 1978, in Saint Joseph, Minnesota. His parents, Jerry, a chiropractor, and Patty, a homemaker, lived in Saint Joseph, Minnesota with their four children: Amy, Jacob, Trevor, and Carmen. In 1989, Jacob was a sixth-grade student at North Community School. He was a straight A student and gifted athlete, participating in baseball, soccer, and hockey. He was also learning to play the trombone in the band. His father said, “Jacob has a delightful smile that lights up his face and makes others smile” (Lowe & Haukebo, 1989).

On the night of October 22nd, 1989, Patty and Jerry went out together, leaving Jacob, Trevor, and Carmen at home. Jacob’s friend and neighbor, Aaron, and his older sister were also hanging out at the Wetterling house that night. Aaron and Jacob wanted to rent a movie, but it was getting late. The Wetterling house was down a dead-end road a few miles from the Tom Thumb video store. Jacob called his parents and asked if he, Aaron, and Trevor, could bike to the video store and rent a move. Patty told the boys no because she was afraid that they would get hit by a car on the dark road. However, Jerry overruled the boys’ mother and gave the boys permission to go.

Aaron, eleven, and Trevor, ten, joined Jacob on the trip to Tom Thumb. As the boys road their bikes up the rural roadway, they passed several fields and a long gravel driveway. Aaron and Trevor later said they thought they heard rustling in the field near the driveway on the way to Tom Thumb. It was dark, and the boys had only one flashlight to guide them. On the way home, the boys got close to the driveway again when something tragic happened.

At approximately 9:15 pm, a man “wearing something dark over his face” (In The Dark, 2016) jumped out in front of them. The man had a gun and told them to put their bikes in the ditch and lie on the ground. He asked Trevor his age and then looked at his face. The man told Trevor to run home and not look back or he would shoot him. Trevor quickly took off. The man then asked Aaron and Jacob their ages and looked them both over. He told Aaron to run just as he did Trevor. Aaron took off after Trevor and the two ran as quickly as they could to the Wetterling home.

Once the boys reached the house, they alarmed Aaron’s sister of what happened, and Jacob’s parents were quickly called along with 911. The boys were interviewed and showed police where they left their bikes and the abduction occurred. There was no sign of Jacob Wetterling at the scene. The bikes were still lying in the ditch. Police did find some tire tracks on the long driveway and made casts of those tracks.

Down the driveway from the abduction site was Daniel Rassier. Dan called 911 around ten p.m. that night to report several people walking around his rural property with flashlights. On the podcast “In the Dark” (2016), he said he thought people were trying to steal his firewood and he wasn’t sure he could handle that many people. However, the dispatcher explained that police were outside looking for a missing child. Dan then went out to meet with the officers. He said they explained someone had been abducted but did not ask to search the home or outside buildings. The search ended quickly, and Dan said he wasn’t asked about his whereabouts or questioned heavily.

In 1989, Daniel Rassier was in his thirties. He was a music teacher at a local school. He was living in the rural farmhouse with his adult parents, who were out of town the night of Jacob’s abduction. Dan was somewhat socially awkward but was a talented musician and marathon runner. He was home alone the night of October 22nd, 1989, organizing his extensive record collection. He said that his dog barked about 9:15pm and he looked out to see a blue car turning around in his driveway and driving away. He said when the dogs barked again around ten pm, he found the search party in his yard.

The search for Jacob was one of the largest searches for a missing person in Minnesota and United States history. Ground and air searches were utilized early on, and thousands of leads were followed up on. On the “In The Dark” (2016) podcast, some youth from the nearby town of Paynesville said they alerted police to a series of molestations occurring in their neighborhood by a stranger. Additionally, a neighbor of the Wetterling family said he informed police of a suspicious man in a blue car that had followed him home shortly before Jacob’s abduction. What was done with these leads is not clear.

There was another abduction just nine months before Jacob’s disappearance in a nearby town called Cold Springs, Minnesota. The victim in that case was able to provide a description of his attacker, who he said abducted him by gunpoint. The man took him somewhere, molested him, and then told him to run away and not look back or he would be shot. This was very similar to the abduction account by Trevor and Aaron. DNA evidence was obtained in that case, although DNA was not widely utilized at that time.

The victim from Cold Springs informed police that then man had a police scanner in his car and wore camouflage. This trigged police to look at a man from Paynesville named Danny Heinrich. Heinrich had been pulled over recently and noted to have a police scanner in his car. He was a suspect in the molestations occurring in Paynesville already. During a lineup, the victim from Cold Springs picked two men he thought looked like his abductor, one was Heinrich. However, he could not positively identify Heinrich exclusively as his attacker and the case went cold.

As days turned to weeks and then months, Patty and Jerry refused to give up hope and continued to search for their son. This disappearance shook the community to its core and created understandable anxiety among families in the community. “Children are more aware of the need to watch out for their personal safety, and many say they no longer go outside alone” (Wilder, 1990).


Four months after Jacob disappeared, Jerry and Patty (right) formed the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, a non-profit agency committed to child safety education. One thing police told Patty and Jerry was that it would be helpful in investigating Jacob’s abduction if they had a record of where sex offenders lived in order to locate potential suspects. This promoted Patty to petition lawmakers to develop and pass the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act of 1994 (Wikipedia, 2021). The bill was signed into law in 1994 by President Bill Clinton and required all states to develop a sex offender registry.

Despite success with political action, the Wetterling family was no closer to finding Jacob. Police searches continued to come up empty. It was as if Jacob had just vanished. The case gained some traction again in 2004 when a new Sheriff in Stearns County took over the case.

Upon reviewing old leads it was discovered that a man had come forward stating he saw the bikes in the ditch around 9:30 pm the night of the abduction when he turned his car around in the driveway near the abduction site. The man said he had newer tires at the time, which would be consistent with the tire tracks found. The sheriff concluded that the car was therefore unrelated to the crime and the boys denied seeing a car nearby or on the road during the abduction. To the Sheriff, a likely suspect was clear and living at the end of that driveway.

Police interrogated Dan Rassier again fifteen years after Jacob’s abduction. The man was still living in the house with his mother. He continued to teach music to kids and had very little social life and no romantic relationships. Police went forward to obtain a search warrant of the home in 2010, but the judge questioned the probable cause at first. His location to the crime, the fact that he only received one Christmas card that year, and other trivial “evidence” was used to secure the warrant. This included a comment that Dan made about “running to escape” when questioned about why he ran marathons. “They submitted false information to secure a search warrant” (Chanen, 2021) his lawyers said.

In 2010, police publicly named Daniel Rassier a “person of interest”. They also executed the search warrant on his property, tearing up his farm. They found nothing to connect Rassier to Jacob’s disappearance and the case again went cold. However, Dan Rassier said that he was labeled a “person of interest” and that comment ruined his life. He was not able to date, and parents refused to hire him to give music lessons to their children. This cloud would follow Dan for several more years.

When a man named Vernon Seitz died in his home, his psychiatrist came forward claiming Vernon admitted to murdering two boys in 1958. A search of his home found several disturbing items including child sex abuse images, bondage devices, books on cannibalism, newspaper clippings about missing children, and a laminated poster of Jacob Wetterling. More disturbing, Patty confirmed that Vernon Seitz had come to see her twice in the years following Jacob’s disappearance, claiming to be a psychic. Although Seitz seemed to be a likely suspect, no definitive evidence linked him to the crime (Crime Museum).

Twenty-seven years passed without an answer for Jacob Wetterling’s family. No justice had been served for the Cold Springs victim either. The victim himself came forward and asked for investigators to take another look at his case, despite the statute of limitations having already expired. Authorities linked the Paynesville sexual assaults to the Cold Springs case based off similarities. These similarities had been identified early on, but for some reason never escalated further. It seemed the leads pointed back to an old suspect: Danny Heinrich.

A search warrant on Heinrich’s home in Paynesville led to a disturbing discovery. Police found several child sexual abuse images in his home. Danny Heinrich was arrested on federal child pornography charges. Upon his arrest, DNA was taken and matched to the Cold Springs case. Danny Heinrich was the abductor and child molester. However, the statute of limitations prevented him from being charged in that case. There is not statute of limitations on murder, however.

Police consulted with the Wetterling family on how to proceed with their prime suspect in 2016. It was determined that there was insufficient evidence to take Heinrich to trial, but they firmly believed he was responsible for Jacob’s disappearance. With Jerry and Patty’s blessing, authorities made a deal with the devil. If Danny Heinrich would confess to Jacob’s murder and lead authorities to his remains, they would not charge him for the murder. Danny Heinrich took the deal.

In September of 2016, fifty-three-year-old Danny Heinrich confessed in open court to abducting, sexually assaulting, and murdering Jacob Wetterling on October 22nd, 1989. He said that after he told Aaron to run, he forced Jacob into his car. He said Jacob asked what he did wrong. The man drove him to a remote location and sexually assaulted him. He then claims that he saw cop cars and got panicked, so he shot Jacob twice in the head. He later buried the boy in a shallow grave. He led authorities to Jacob Wetterling’s remains and Jerry and Patty were finally able to bury their son twenty-seven years after he disappeared.

US Attorney Andy Luger said “He’s not getting away with anything. We got the truth. The Wetterling family will bring him home” (Associated Press, 2016). “It’s incredibly painful to know his last days, last hours, last minutes. To us, Jacob was alive until we found him” Patty said (Associated Press, 2016).

In 2017, Danny Heinrich was found guilty on the child pornography charges and sentenced to twenty years in federal prison. Danny Heinrich told his brother “I was a monster back then, but I stopped” (Marohn, 2018). In transcripts of phone calls between Heinrich and his brother, the man claims that he never committed any other sexually violent acts after Jacob’s murder. He also states he hopes to be allowed to live outside Minnesota upon his release from federal custody since Minnesota can legally civilly commit him as a sex offender. He is schedule for release in 2033. At that time, he will be seventy years old. Heinrich is also suspected in dozens of molestation cases that occurred in Paynesville in the 1980s but cannot be charged any longer in those cases.


Jacob’s abduction and murder rattled the small community in central Minnesota, changing the way parents parented and children played. His legacy lives on through The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, which is committed to providing safety education to children and families. The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act of 1994 laid the groundwork for several stricter laws that created the sex offender registry that we have today. Patty Wetterling has been outspoken about the shortcomings of the current system, stating she intended the registry to be a law enforcement tool originally. The public registries have created obstacles for offenders to find work, housing, and other factors essential to preventing recidivism. She also states that some people on the registry are not dangerous predators, but kids who sent naked pictures of themselves to another kid or urinated in public. This was not her vision for the legislation.

Jacob Wetterling remained missing for twenty-seven years. Many have criticized law enforcement for failing to connect the dots, claiming they were not thorough in their searches and failed to follow up on leads. Others commend the tenacity of the Stearns County Police for never giving up on the case. In the end, Jacob’s family were able to find some closure and can now grieve their tremendous loss.




References

Collin, L. (2015) A look at Danny Heinrich’s criminal past; CBS Minnesota; Retrieved at: A Look At Danny Heinrich’s Criminal Past – WCCO | CBS Minnesota (cbslocal.com)

Chanen, D. (2021) Court rules against man once a person of interest in Wetterling case; Minneapolis Star Tribune; Retrieved at: Court rules against man once a person of interest in Wetterling case (msn.com)

Zero Abuse Project (2021) Jacob Wetterling Resource Center; Retrieved at: Zero Abuse Project - Help Us End Child Abuse and Protect the Children

Wikipedia (2021) Murder of Jacob Wetterling; Retrieved at: Murder of Jacob Wetterling - Wikipedia

In The Dark (2016) In The Dark Podcast; American Public Media; Season 1 Episodes 1-11;

Wikipedia (2021) Patty Wetterling; Retrieved at: Patty Wetterling - Wikipedia

FindAGrave (2021) Jacob Erwin Wetterling; Retrieved at: Jacob Erwin Wetterling (1978-1989) - Find A Grave Memorial

Jacob Wetterling Documentary (2019) Jacob Wetterling Documentary Trailer; Retrieved at: Jacob Wetterling Documentary - 2019 trailer - YouTube

Marohm, K. (2018) In jail cell, Heinrich said he ‘never touched anybody’ after Wetterling; MPRNews; Retrieved at: In jail calls, Heinrich said he 'never touched anybody' after Wetterling | MPR News

Associated Press (2017) Danny Heinrich serving sentence at Boston federal prison; CBS Minnesota; Retrieved at: Danny Heinrich Serving Sentence At Boston Federal Prison – WCCO | CBS Minnesota (cbslocal.com)

CBS News (2016) Jacob Wetterling’s killer: “I am truly sorry for my evil acts”; CBS News; Retrieved at: Jacob Wetterling's killer Danny Heinrich: "I am truly sorry for my evil acts" - CBS News

Haukebo, K. (1989) Police think gunman, boy no longer in St. Joseph; St. Cloud Times; 24 Oct 1989

Lowe, S. & Haukebo, K. (1989) Counselors help boy’s peers cope with fears, sadness; St. Cloud Times; 24 Oct 1989

Wilder, L. (1990) Students balance questions, hope; St. Cloud Times; 11 Jan 1990

Crime Museum (2021) Jacob Wetterling; Retrieved at: Jacob Wetterling - Crime Museum

Associated Press (2016) Minnesota man describes killing 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in chilling detail; The Guardian; Retrieved at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/06/jacob-wetterling-killing-minnesota-danny-heinrich-admits

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