The awful truth

Danny Heinrich, the man who led authorities to the body of his victim, Jacob Wetterling, pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of possession of child pornography. But at the same hearing, as part of a plea agreement, he confessed to the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of the 11-year-old St. Joseph boy nearly 27 years ago. His chilling, matter-of-fact, gut-wrenching description of his actions provided once and for all the answers to what had happened to Jacob that October night.

Heinrich will not be charged with murder in the case. Prosecutors simply did not have a murder case against him without the body of Jacob, and could not find the body without Heinrich’s cooperation. Their only option was to forge an agreement that guaranteed Heinrich would go to prison for a long time, that would bring Jacob home to his family and finally answer the question of what had happened to him.

Heinrich will be sentenced to the maximum term, 20 years in prison – not long enough for the crime he committed; not as long by seven years as the period of agony and uncertainty he put the Wetterlings through. But it is the best the prosecutors could do. The prison term and the inevitable commitment to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program that will follow, guarantees that Heinrich will spend the rest of his life in custody.

Now the Wetterlings must heal from the awful truth they had resisted for so many years. Through it all they have been examples of courage and compassion, and Patti Wetterlings statements following the courtroom confession were more of the same. She spoke of her sorrow, about what Jacob has taught us, and about how his legacy will continue to seek help and answers for other families of missing children.

Twenty years from now, our hope is that the name of Jacob Wetterling will continue to mean something to people across the country in the battle against child abduction and abuse, while the name of Danny Heinrich is just name on a file in the state’s corrections system.