The abduction of Jacob Wetterling, which made parents more vigilant and led to the first national requirement that states track sex offenders via registries, took place before moonrise on a warm October night in 1989. Around 9:20, three boys — including 11-year-old Jacob, who loved steak, football and the color blue — rode home along a dead-end road on their bikes and scooter from the Tom Thumb store in St. Joseph, Minn., where they had rented The Naked Gun.
September 7, 2016
On a deserted stretch, they were stopped by a man with a gun, dressed in black with his face covered, perhaps by pantyhose. The boys were told to lie in a nearby ditch and each was asked his age. Two were told to run for the woods without looking back, but Jacob was taken. For nearly 27 years, the case went unsolved, no body, no abductor. Until now.
In late August 2016 a man named Danny Heinrich pointed authorities to Jacob's remains, and then he admitted in court that he had abducted, assaulted, killed and buried Jacob in Paynesville, some 30 miles away.
For the people of Stearns County, the abduction drew a hard line between life before the crime and after. The long search destroyed lives, confounded investigators and forced Jacob's parents, Patty and Jerry, to consider the theories presented by every person with good or bad reasons to call their home.
In the beginning, the case seemed to have a lot going for it: The abduction took place on a dead-end road with limited escape routes, there were two witnesses who reported it right away, the Stearns County Sheriff's Office responded almost immediately. Yet as the circle of geographic possibilities widened by the hour, the police made decisions that would hobble the investigation for decades to come. Heinrich, questioned as early as 1990 about the abduction, lived under the noses of police. Why did it take so long?
Timeline of events
The 911 call
At 9:32 p.m., Merlyn Jerzak, a neighbor of Patty and Jerry Wetterling, called 911 from the Wetterling house. His daughter, who had been babysitting at the Wetterling house, called him to come when she learned of Jacob's abduction.
STEARNS COUNTY SHERIFF
That first night, law enforcement didn't cover all the basics. → Episode 2: The Circle
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