Wetterlings don't favor death penalty for son's killer, want him to suffer alive
MINNEAPOLIS — When Patty Wetterling has the chance to talk face to face with the man who abducted and killed her son, she wants to know one thing: Why?
"It makes no sense," Patty Wetterling said during an interview Tuesday afternoon. "I wrestle with the 'Why?' of all this. We know what happened and when and where, but we don't know why. As a rational person, you try to figure it out, but this one you can't, because it makes no sense."
Wetterling will have a chance to address Danny Heinrich, 53, of Annandale, when he is sentenced in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis on Nov. 21. Heinrich last month confessed to abducting, sexually assaulting and fatally shooting 11-year-old Jacob on Oct. 22, 1989, in central Minnesota. He led authorities to the boy's remains in a pasture outside Paynesville and will spend 20 years in prison on a child-pornography charge.
As part of the sentencing hearing, a victim-impact statement from the Wetterling family will be read in court. Patty Wetterling said she doesn't know whether she will read it or have someone read it on her behalf.
"Jerry thinks I'll probably talk, but I may need some coaching," Wetterling said. "It is the ending of a chapter."
Jerry Wetterling said Patty is struggling with whether to talk in court because she doesn't want to give Heinrich "more power."
"Well, if I really say the impact that he had, it makes him sound like some big guy, and he's not worth it," she said.
"He's not a big guy, but he impacted a lot of people. That's just a fact," Jerry Wetterling said.
"It's kind of like giving Jack the Ripper credit for being one of the worst. I don't want to do that," Patty Wetterling said. "I don't know. I don't know how to do it."
During an interview at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis, the Wetterlings covered a variety of topics, including the death penalty, their relationship and the sex-offender registry list.
Heinrich, who had been charged with 25 counts of child pornography, pleaded guilty last month to one count of receiving child pornography. He faces a federal prison sentence of 20 years and a possible civil commitment after that.
In return for leading authorities last month to Jacob's body in rural Paynesville and admitting to abducting, sexually assaulting and killing Jacob, Heinrich is not being charged with murder. He agreed to the federal charge, Patty Wetterling said, because "he didn't want to do any time in Minnesota prisons."
The couple does not believe in the death penalty. "I believe that life is hard. Make him live," Patty Wetterling said.
But a local man who police wrongly suspected of taking Jacob approached the Wetterlings after Jacob's memorial service at the College of St. Benedict on Sept. 25 and said he was "angry with the plea bargain because he wanted this guy locked up forever or hung," Patty Wetterling said.
"But then he said he had to let that go because he finally recognized, we caught the bogeyman," she said. "Everybody was looking at everybody else: 'Was it you? Was it you?' For him, it meant a lot, because nobody was ever going to look at him as a suspect again. There were people who got looked at pretty hard, so it was important for them to be liberated."
Patty Wetterling said Heinrich "sentenced himself to a lifetime of isolation" when he took and killed Jacob 27 years ago.
"He had no friends. He had no meaningful work. He had no co-workers," she said. "He lived in absolute silence after he took Jacob — and that's a lot. And now he's looking at 20 years stacked on top of that. Federal prison can't be a happy place to be, but it's well deserved."
Heinrich, who took Jacob less than a mile from his home in St. Joseph, was questioned in 1989 and 1990 about the boy's disappearance, but he denied any involvement. The Wetterlings said Tuesday that police did all they could at the time.
"He was investigated really strongly back in January of 1990, and we were aware of that investigation," Jerry Wetterling said. "But they didn't have anything evidentiary to arrest him."
"Had he not told us where Jacob was, I don't know that we ever would have found him," Patty Wetterling said. "It wasn't a matter of not being aggressive enough. You can feel somebody might be guilty, but how much can you legally do? They followed him. They did all kinds of work trying to catch him, or get him to talk, circling the wagons around him, but they had nothing until the search warrant when they got him on pornography."
A year ago, the Wetterlings stood at the end of their driveway on Kiwi Court in St. Joseph and pleaded with people who might have information about Heinrich to come forward.
"But the reality is, he never told anybody," Jerry Wetterling said. "That's the thing we were trying to figure out. If it was him, where did he like to hang out? Where might he have taken Jacob if he did? Nothing came from that."
"He never talked," Patty Wetterling added. "He never talked."
Feeling frustrated that police didn't go after Heinrich harder "doesn't help," Patty Wetterling said. "We didn't have the same information. We believe what this guy said — that Jacob was killed within an hour, so even if they had done different things, I don't think they could have saved Jacob. I really don't."
Nine years after Jacob's abduction, Patty Wetterling wrote an open letter to his abductor. "To the man who took Jacob," began the letter, which was printed in the Pioneer Press and other newspapers. She reminded the abductor that he, like Jacob, had once been an 11-year-old boy, and that something very wrong must have happened to him.
"I sometimes wonder if (Heinrich) ever read that," she said Tuesday. "I might send it to him again, just in case he forgot that I sent that."
Jacob was the second of Patty and Jerry Wetterling's four children; their other children, Amy, Trevor and Carmen are doing well, they said. The couple has six grandchildren, ranging in age from 2 to 12.
Jerry Wetterling, 68, continues to work as a chiropractor in St. Joseph. He plans to work full time until he's 70.
Patty Wetterling, 66, who ran for Congress in 2004 and 2006, serves on the board of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She said she is still deciding what to do next.
"There are all these questions: Where can I be most effective? Do I do more of the same? Do I change it up? What do I want? It's all still sort of sorting itself out," she said. "I'm not done. I feel like Jacob wasn't done. He had things that he still wanted to do. I'm not done yet, but I've changed. There's a sadness that I didn't have. It's hard for me to put into words because I'm not clear, but my commitment to building a better, safer world is still here. There are still a lot of pieces to figure out."
One area that might get her attention: the sex-offender registry for Minnesota and the U.S., which Wetterling helped create.
"I don't like that juveniles are on a registry for life — that's not what we designed it to be," she said. "It was never designed for youth. Let's get youth the right help, not register them. It's like they can never change, but kids change all the time, every day. You can't pass a law and then never see if it is working or not. We need to revisit some of that. Are we doing what we set out to do? I'm not sure, but I think it's worthy of a look. Parts of it are good, but I think parts of it may need to be fixed."
But she said she doesn't plan to tackle any major projects anytime soon. She's answering mail, writing thank-you notes and taking long walks.
"The days go by, and I just look at (the pile of mail), and it's a little overwhelming, but I want to respond," she said. "I feel like we owe the whole world a thank you, but it's going to take a while. I may need some help."
Through it all, the couple said they are proud their marriage has stayed strong.
"You know, it's a commitment," Jerry Wetterling said. "No one said all this stuff was going to be peaches and pumpkins all the time — and it's not. We obviously were served a pretty good dose, but I admire her and I love her. Everything else is secondary, I guess. It's never easy."
Patty Wetterling said divorce wasn't an option.
"We wanted Jacob to have a family to come home to," she said. "We weren't going to let that guy take anything more. He couldn't have our marriage. We worked hard. This has never been easy. There were times when we didn't know ourselves how things were going to go, but it was a promise, and we did it, and I'm really quite proud of that."