One of Minnesota’s most memorable missing person cases touched my life, if only very peripherally. Eleven-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted in 1989 from St. Joseph, Minnesota, only forty miles from my hometown of Annandale, Minnesota. I was eighteen at the time, and I remember the news roiled with coverage. Bizarre theories developed, including one that pointed the finger back at Jacob’s father as the culprit.
Everyone wanted to know: Where is Jacob Wetterling?
At the time, I worked as campus security officer while attending Saint Cloud State University, which was only ten miles from where Jacob was taken. We adjusted our patrols to include state-owned quarries and the dark, far reaches of campus, to locate Jacob. We knew two things even then: it was highly unlikely we would find Jacob, and—even if we did—it was highly unlikely we would find him alive.
Fast forward to October 18, 2015. My dad and I drove from St. Paul to Annandale for a pancake breakfast fundraiser at Pioneer Park on Highway 55. We strolled around town, checking out the old house and main street. As we stood at the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Spruce Drive, just two blocks from where I attended high school, there were two things my dad and I didn’t know: 1). My dad’s life soon would be upended by dementia, and 2). We were standing in front of the house where Jacob Wetterling’s killer lived.
Danny Heinrich was arrested at his home at 55 Myrtle Avenue in Annandale, Minnesota just ten days later on October 28, 2015. DNA evidence had tied him to the 1989 abduction and assault of a boy from Cold Spring, Minnesota.
Although Heinrich later admitted to abducting, raping, and murdering Jacob Wetterling—he led investigators Jacob’s grave in Paynesville—he was not charged for that crime, nor will he ever be tried for it, thanks to a generous plea deal. He also can’t be tried for the abduction and sexual assault of the other boy, because the statute of limitations have expired.
The only crime for which Daniel Heinrich was convicted resulted from the discovery of child pornography in his Annandale home.
As of this writing in 2021, Heinrich is in a medium-security federal medical center in Ayer, Massachusetts (FMC-Devens) with about 800 hundred other prisoners with medical and/or mental health issues. The male inmates range from white-collar criminals to mobsters to sex offenders, like Heinrich. FMC-Devens has hosted the likes of the Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, mobster John Gambino, Bernie Madoff’s brother, and dick-picster Anthony Weiner.
What’s life like now for Danny Heinrich?
He’s allowed six visits a month, and (during non-pandemic conditions, at least) he’s allowed physical contact with visitors: a hug, a handshake, a pat on the back. He can receive mail. He can receive money. He receives counseling and treatment for his sex-offender “problem”. He can attend religious services. He can take adult continuing-education classes and has access to an electronic library where they can read up on case law and sentencing guidelines.
He can breathe, eat, watch television, and hang out with other pedophiles. He can play floor hockey, basketball, and soccer. He can make his own greeting cards in the hobby craft room. He can practice an instrument in the music-practice room.
Last year (2020), the ACLU petitioned the Federal Bureau of Prisons to release vulnerable inmates who pose little public risk, because of concerns over COVID-19 rates among the incarcerated. U.S. Representative Lori Trahan echoed this sentiment in January 2021.
Danny Heinrich must be salivating at the thought of potentially being released early, a tantalus of viral infection and do-gooder political showboating waving another free pass under his nose. Too bad, Danny: so close, yet so far.
Meanwhile, he still is serving his 20-year sentence. His scheduled release date is November 9, 2032. He will be seventy years old when he gets out of FMC-Devens when Jacob Wetterling would have been fifty-four years-old.
In 2032, Jacob may have been a father, maybe even a grandfather. He would have had a career. He would have had Christmases, Thanksgivings, ball games, first dates, a first love, first kiss, first car.
But a stranger, Danny Heinrich, Register Number: 18854-041, took life away from a scared boy in the woods next to a gravel pit in central Minnesota.
Heinrich damn sure doesn’t want to get sent back to Minnesota, because he likely would be committed to the state’s sex offender treatment program, which is essentially a life sentence.
We call it closure to know where Jacob’s body was hidden and to learn the gruesome details of his final moments of life.
But we can’t call it justice.