The 1989 disappearance of her 11-year-old son Jacob Wetterling spurred Patty Wetterling to become one of the nation’s most effective child protection advocates.
On September 3, Patty told Minnesota news media that her son’s remains had been found, ending a nearly 27-year long search for the missing child, who became a poster boy for exploited children after he was abducted in October 1989 while riding bicycle on a rural Minnesota road.
“All I can confirm is that Jacob has been found and our hearts are broken. I am not responding to any media yet as I have no words,” Patty told KARE 11.
On September 6, Patty was in the courtroom as Danny James Heinrich confessed to murdering Jacob in a horrific and detailed confession that was the result of a plea agreement in a child pornography case that will see him serve 20 years in prison. “I raised the revolver to his head, clicked once with no bullet in the chamber. Shot him twice after that,” Heinrich said in courtaccording to WCNC. He said the boy asked “what did I do wrong?,” details that caused Jacob’s sisters to break down in court, according to KARE 11.
An emotional and eloquent Patty spoke movingly and heartwrenchingly about her son:
The Stearn County Sheriff’s Department issued a statement saying the remains were confirmed as Jacob’s:
For almost 27 years, Patty and her husband, Jerry, have been well-known figures in the fight against child exploitation; rather than succumbing to their grief, they channeled it into advocacy for national laws to protect children.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Jacob Was Abducted While Riding His Bicycle & His Family Still Celebrates His Birthday
A masked gunman kidnapped Jacob while he was riding his bicycle with his brother, Trevor, and a friend, on a rural Minnesota roadway in 1989, says KARE 11.
The gunman, now known to be Heinrich, made the boys lie face down, and then told the other two boys to run into the woods, while he disappeared with Jacob, who was never found again.
“He’s taught us all how to live, how to love, how to be fair, how to be kind,” Patty said after Heinrich finally confessed. “He speaks to the world that he knew, that we all believe in. And it is a world worth fighting for. His legacy will go on. I want to say Jacob, I am so sorry. It’s incredibly painful to know his last days, his last hours, last minutes.”
In graphic detail, Heinrich described kidnapping and molesting the boy before shooting him in the head after he heard a police vehicle; he said Jacob said he was cold, cried, and asked to go home.
Over the years, over 50,000 tips came in on the case, and it sparked the largest manhunt in Minnesota history, said KTSP.
In 2014, Patty told Minnesota television station KARE, “It’s amazing to me, and it’s a statement to the character of the people in Minnesota that everyone still cares. People still want to find Jacob.”
Jacob’s family still celebrates Jacob’s birthday. In February 2016, after celebrating what would have been Jacob’s 38th birthday, Patty told ABC News, “We always have a family dinner and we fix his favorite food, steak. We laugh and hug our grandkids and we honor that. There were six us of in this family and we still carry Jacob in our hearts. It’s just what we do.”
Patty wrote a birthday letter to Jacob. According to The St. Paul Pioneer Press, it read, in part, “Birthdays are supposed to be about parties, hats and noisemakers, cake, ice cream, friends singing and making wishes, but not yet. Not this year, again…How I wish to wrap my arms around you and hug you tight! … My birthday wish is for you to come home. We need to find you.”
2. Jacob’s Disappearance Led to Federal Legislation & Patty Recalled How Her Son ‘Taught Us to Be Kind’
According to Minnesota Public Radio, “The disappearance of Jacob remains one of the highest-profile child abduction cases in U.S. history.”
After Heinrich confessed, Patty spoke out about her son.
“We love you Jacob,” she said. “We will continue to fight. Our hearts are hurting.,, I would love to talk to you all, I’m just not ready yet because for us Jacob was alive. Until…until we found him. We need to heal. We will speak with you. There’s a lot of lessons learned, and there’s a lot more work to do to protect all our world’s children.”
Minnesota Public Radio says that Jacob’s abduction helped lead Congress “to enact legislation in 1994 that required states to create sex offender registries.” The legislation carries Jacob’s name.
Danny Heinrich, who was named a person of interest in the case last year, allegedly led authorities to the remains, said KMSP. Authorities had investigated Heinrich in the case years ago; they had also long suspected him in the nearby abduction of another boy who lived, although he has been charged in neither.
New DNA testing allegedly linked Heinrich to the other boy’s case, but the statute of limitations had passed. Authorities charged Heinrich with possessing child pornography, as they renewed their investigation into him over Jacob’s disappearance because of similarities between the two cases.
3. Patty Is Married & a Former PTA President Who Has Three Other Children
Patty Wetterling and her husband, Jerry, have three other children: Trevor, Carmen, and Amy. Their three children wrote a book with other siblings of abducted children called, “What About Me? Coping With the Abduction of a Brother or Sister.”
“It doesn’t go away. I mean it’s always going to be there for us. Even when, and if, we do have resolution, it is always going to be a big part of our lives,” Amy said to WCCO in 2007.
At the time of the disappearance, says People Magazine, Jerry was a local chiropractor who once led the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce and was the current president of the NAACP in St. Cloud. Patty was a homemaker and PTA president, said People.
A People Magazine article from the time of Jacob’s disappearance calls the family “one of St Joseph’s best-liked families.”
St. Joseph is a town of just over 3,000 people in central Minnesota.
In her statement after Heinrich confessed, Patty said, “I couldn’t do this without my family. I’m proud, I’m so proud of the lives they’ve built and the happiness they’ve found and the children and grandchildren that we so enjoy. And that is what gets us up in the morning. That is the hope. That is Jacob’s hope. That is what we’re going to continue to do.”
4. Patty Became a National Advocate For Missing & Exploited Children
According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Patty Wetterling became “a nationally recognized educator on the issues of child abduction and sexual exploitation of children.”
Wetterling and her husband co-founded the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center (JWRC) “to educate communities about child safety issues in order to prevent child exploitation and abductions,” says the center’s press kit on her.
In addition, Patty Wetterling “co-founded and is past Director of Team H.O.P.E., a national support group for families of missing children. She is also a founding member and past President of the Board of Directors of the Association of Missing and Exploited Children’s Organizations (AMECO),” says the center.
Patty Wetterling is the author of the book, “When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide,” along with four other families. Wetterling is currently Director of Sexual Violence Prevention for the Minnesota Department of Health “and is working with leadership across Minnesota to create and implement a 5 year strategic plan to prevent sexual violence and exploitation. She is also the Chair of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children,” the center said.
Her LinkedIn page calls her a “change agent,” and lists many other activities and appearances. The Minneapolis Star Tribune selected Patty as one of the “100 Most Influential Minnesotans of the Century,” her LinkedIn page says.
5. Patty Informed the Media That Jacob Was Found by Text & the Wetterlings’ Foundation Issued a Statement of Grief
Patty told KARE11 she struggled to find words after Jacob’s remains were found, and she texted the Minnesota news media to let them know. She told The St. Cloud Times that her family was “heartsick.”
She did post a message on Twitter:
The Wetterling Foundation wrote a lengthy message on Facebook expressing grief and pain.
Patty Wetterling directed the news media to that statement.