Heinrich admitted in court Tuesday that he abducted, sexually assaulted and killed the boy.
Now 53, Heinrich made the admission as he pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges, the Associated Press reported.
He told the court that he sexually assaulted the boy in a rural area of Paynesville, near where the assailant lived with his father.
During the assault, Heinrich told the court that Jacob said he was cold and wanted to go home, according to CBS affiliate WCCO. Later, Heinrich heard sirens and thought police were headed to his location, WCCO reported, adding:
Heinrich panicked and took out his revolver as [Jacob] had his back to him. He then pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t go off. He pulled the trigger again, shooting [Jacob] in the back of the head. He shot a third time, and [Jacob] collapsed.
He buried the boy about 100 yards away and camouflaged the area with leaves and twigs, the AP reported.
A year later, when he drove by the site, he noticed Jacob’s red jacket sticking out of the grave, WCCO reported. He returned later and transferred the remains to a nearby farm.
Heinrich also said he sexually assaulted another Minnesota boy, 12-year-old Jared Scheierl, nine months before Jacob disappeared, according to the AP. Jared survived.
Heinrich was never charged in Jacob’s death, although he was one of the first people interviewed by investigators. He maintained his innocence for years, and prosecutors never had enough evidence to charge him.
But Tuesday, according to the AP, Heinrich was asked in court whether he had abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered Jacob.
“Yes I did,” he said, with Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, in the courtroom.
The AP reported that some of Jacob’s relatives wept as Heinrich described the crime.
“It’s incredibly painful to know his last days, last hours, last minutes,” Patty Wetterling said after the guilty plea, according to the AP. “To us, Jacob was alive, until we found him.”
Tuesday’s admission was part of a plea deal with federal prosecutors on the child pornography charges. The deal could land Heinrich at a facility where he wouldn’t be in as much danger as a convicted sex offender, WCCO reported.
As part of the deal, Heinrich will not be charged with Jacob’s murder or Jared’s assault, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Heinrich is scheduled to be sentenced in November. His maximum sentence is 20 years.
“Danny Heinrich is no longer a person of interest,” U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said in a statement. “He is the confessed murderer of Jacob Wetterling and nearly 27 years after he committed this heinous crime, he has been brought to justice. And Jacob is finally home.”
Heinrich’s testimony capped a week of dramatic developments in Jacob’s case, which began last week when Heinrich led investigators to the boy’s body in a field in Paynesville.
On Oct. 22, 1989, Jacob was abducted by a man wearing a mask and holding a gun. The 11-year-old had been riding bikes with two other boys. The armed man told the trio to lie face down in a ditch and tell him their ages.
Then he grabbed Jacob and told the other boys to run and not look back.
In the years that followed, police pursued more than 50,000 leads in the case.
Each Oct. 22, on the anniversary of Jacob’s disappearance, Minnesotans leave their porch lights on. They did the same over Labor Day weekend, as news of the break in the case traveled around the world.
Patty Wetterling used her son’s disappearance to lobby for better laws tracking sex offenders and marshaling resources to quickly find missing children.
In 1994, the federal Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act led to the creation of a national sex-offender registry. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune called the Wetterlings and the foundation they established “the driving force” behind the registry.
The 1989 abduction “ended an age of innocence for Central Minnesota and beyond and had a dramatic impact on how parents raised their children,” Sterns County Sheriff John Sanner said in a statement Tuesday.
The investigation took years, and led to countless dead ends. But, Sanner said, “the hope of resolving the case and bringing Jacob home never once faltered. A combination of steadfast determination, science and a unique collaborative effort involving local, state and federal agencies highlighted the value and importance of these relationships.”
He added, “Even though the ending is not what we had hoped and prayed for, Jacob is finally home.”
In the days after Heinrich led authorities to Jacob Wetterling’s buried remains, the boy’s family was silent, deep in their own grief.
But on Monday, Patty Wetterling spoke out.
A day before Heinrich’s trial, she wrote a brief message on the Jacob Wetterling Resource Page, the organization set up to help prevent child exploitation.
“Everyone wants to know what they can do to help us,” she wrote.
“Say a prayer.
“Light a candle.
“Be with friends.
“Play with your children.
“Eat ice cream.
“Help your neighbor.”
She added: “That is what will bring me comfort today.”
This post has been updated.