SentencingYesterday, my husband Ross and I attended Danny Heinrich’s sentencing at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Minneapolis. I wasn’t sure if I could do it again… not after attending Heinrich’s hearing on September 6th when he described in horrifying detail what he had done to Jacob. That day was truly a nightmare, and even after all these weeks, I still struggle to push those awful images from my head.
But yesterday… yesterday was different. This time, the victims were in the driver’s seat, and each one had a chance to speak their own truth. Jared, Aaron, Trevor, Carmen, Amy, Jerry, and Patty each delivered victim impact statements that were soul crushing, raw, and real. But it wasn’t all sad. The statements were also powerful, awe-inspiring, and strong. Many times, when I wasn’t choking back tears, I had to check myself so I wouldn’t jump up and clap.
Ross and I met the rest of the group in the café off the lobby at 9am. We waited as a U.S. Marshal checked our names off a list that the Wetterlings had provided for them. After passing through a metal detector and having our bags and belts checked, we took the elevator to the 15th floor and waited with about 60 other people. Patty and Jerry’s siblings were there, along with nieces, nephews, cousins, and close family friends. Aaron’s parents, Vic and Fran, were both there, along with Alison and Jane from the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. I said hi to Jacob’s friend, Tim, from the Wilderness Trek, as well as Rochelle, the babysitter, who was watching Carmen the night the boys went to rent their video from the Tom Thumb.
Jared’s siblings were also there in full force… Belinda, Corey, Colby, and his identical twin brother, Jed. Beside them, six of the Paynesville victims/survivors had also come to show their support. They stood in quiet solidarity, waiting for their opportunity to not only catch a glimpse of Danny Heinrich, but also to begin their own journey toward healing.
About quarter to nine, a U.S. Marshal escorted us into the courtroom. Ross and I filed into the third bench on the left, surrounded by Jared’s siblings to the right of us and the ladies from JWRC on the left. Behind us, the Paynesville survivors and their significant others filled the entire row.
Once we were seated, members of the media were invited in and took their seats in the two benches directly in front of us. Law enforcement officers and other members of the media filled in the remaining benches along the back wall of the courtroom.
Just minutes before 9am, a door behind the judge’s bench opened and a U.S. Marshal led the Wetterling family, Jared, Aaron, and their significant others to the first bench on the right. Immediately after that, Danny Heinrich was escorted in from a door on the left and took his seat at a table in front of us, next to his attorneys.
Judge Tunheim entered and took his seat at the bench. He pounded his gavel, bringing the court in session.
He greeted the attorneys, then spoke directly to Danny Heinrich.
THE COURT: Mr. Heinrich, how are you today?
THE DEFENDANT: Fine.
Judge Tunheim then went through the sentencing guidelines for the child pornography charge and briefly addressed the details of the plea agreement.
Finally, the judge asked if there were victims who wished to speak.
MS. ALLYN: Yes, Your Honor.
Jared went first. With attorney Doug Kelley at his side, Jared stood cool as a cucumber, no notes, and spoke to the court.
JARED SCHEIERL: I came here today to give a statement, something I have been waiting for for a long time. At times I thought that this day may never come, but it’s here. We’re here today to hear the level of pain and trauma that Danny Heinrich has inflicted on a number of people through the course of 27 years or longer.
I have submitted a written statement as well that expresses a lot of details pertaining to the night that Danny Heinrich abducted me.
THE COURT: And I read your statement. I appreciated receiving it.
JARED SCHEIERL: And that being said, a victim of physical, verbal and sexual assault, I was left that night to deal with a lot of emotions, a lot of questions and trying to seek clarity in my own life along the way. That being said, a few years ago somebody came to me curious about trying to understand this complex case, and I agreed to share my thoughts, my feelings, my emotions, everything that is involved with all of this.
And through that process, I realized that there are a heck of a lot of people that generally care about the humanity or — humanity in our society and all that, but I’ve met a lot of amazing people along the way as well, and I’m grateful for those people that have come into my life and have given me the support and the reassurance and strength that I need to maintain a normal life. I recognize my blessings in life, and I choose to go through life having few regrets on the decisions that I make.
The idea that, after today, after hearing the testimonies and statements from the Wetterling family and also recognizing the other victims associated in all of this that aren’t being heard today, I can say that this is just one more step in gaining closure to an incident in my life that has defined me in many ways.
And to make it short, I understand that Danny Heinrich has an opportunity to speak to the Court today. I’ll have him know that I personally will be walking out at that time for the fact that he should know that the words that he had spoke to me on that evening haunted me for years, and I don’t choose to hear anything he wishes to say at this time. I would like him, on a final note, I would just simply like to say to him, there is nothing uncommon about common sense. I just wish you had more common sense, and that being said, I’ll step down.
Jared took his seat as Judge Tunheim invited Aaron Larson to speak next.
AARON LARSON: Good morning, Your Honor. Thank you. I first wanted to thank everyone who has been involved in helping us find Jacob, to the lawyers, to the law enforcement, to the media, to our friends and family, and especially to the Wetterlings. Because of you, the type of people that you all are, the type of son and brother that Jacob was, that all shows in how nobody ever stopped looking for Jacob. That is because of all of you. October 22nd, 1989, like any other night in life was a night of choices. The choices that Jacob, Trevor and I made to start that night were ones that every child should be able to make, to have fun, to enjoy your friends, to enjoy life. The choices that were made by Daniel Heinrich that night changed so many lives, so many wrong choices by him that caused heartache and sorrow for so many.
October 22nd, 1989, I consider that the end of my childhood. A 20-year sentence for Daniel Heinrich is a significant number for me. For 20 years I lived with a huge amount of guilt from the choices that were made from that night. I lived every day thinking I was the monster that night, I was the coward that left my friend, I was the coward that ran away. Every day I lived with believing that me running away was a choice. During all these years, every decision I made in life revolved around Jacob and the guilt I felt because I was still here. I was the last person who cared about Jacob to see him, to be right next to him, and I just left him.
I hated it. I hated how I left him. I was Jacob’s best friend, who became the kid who was with Jacob. To hear the kid who was with Jacob meant in my mind the kid who left Jacob. I heard this everywhere I went every day. It caused me to push people away, to be scared, to cry. I just wanted Jacob to come home so we could be best friends again, so his family could be happy, to stop the pain. On every October 22nd since 1989, I couldn’t handle the guilt. I felt miserable going to the Wetterlings because Jacob should be there with them, always holding back an apology because I didn’t know how to say I’m sorry that I’m still here that, that the wrong choice was made that night.
I left the state. I left the country. I just wanted to be gone. I just wanted to be Jacob’s best friend again. I couldn’t take being the kid who left Jacob. The choices that Daniel Heinrich made that night caused all of that. He took a beautiful, innocent life and attempted to ruin so many more. Because of this, I believe he should spend the rest of his life in prison. He is correct. He is just a man, an evil man that should be gone forever. I say, “Attempted to ruin so many more lives,” because he did not win. Evil does not win. He took Jacob from us that night but can never take away his spirit, his soul, his kindness that lives and carries on in so many people here today. In eleven years, I think Jacob taught us all so much about life, how to make a difference, how to be happy, how to make others happy. I still believe in this.
My kids will believe in this. There is evil out there every day, but the Jacob that is in all of us here today is stronger than that, is deeper than that and can overcome that. We have all shown this by never giving up looking for Jacob, never quitting. Life is hard, but Jacob showed us how great this hard life can be. Jacob and his spirit wins every day, not evil.
I read Daniel Heinrich’s statement, and I could write a response to every statement he put to paper. Many people have asked me what I would say to him, and I have a hard time coming up with that, with what I would say to him, because I don’t think about him. I think about Jacob and what I would say to him.
I choose to concentrate on the good things in life, and that is Jacob. Every single person has had bad things happen to them in life. It’s how we choose to deal with these obstacles that determine the type of people that we will become.
Daniel Heinrich had obstacles in life. We all have. We all get to make choices on how to deal with those obstacles. He made the wrong choices. Because of this, I hope he does actually have feelings. I hope he sheds tears every day, feels the pain he caused to so many, waits for sympathy that will never come.
He is right. He is just a man. He is not a monster. A monster can continue to scare kids at night, continue to try and bring evil into the world. He is just a man that is going away forever.
In the beginning, I said 20 years was a significant number because this is how long it took me to come to terms with my guilt. This is how long it took me to realize that I didn’t have a choice that night, to realize that it wasn’t me that should be — should have been taken instead of Jacob. It was none of us. We were just kids who had no control over an evil man with a gun. After 20 years, I re-found the Jacob that I had in me before he was taken. I found the joy in life, the happiness that he always had in him. I realized that it was okay for me to be happy. Jacob would want me to be happy and to enjoy life. I realized it was okay for me to just be me, the Jacob — to be the Jacob — the me that Jacob loved, to not be the kid who left Jacob, but to be Jacob’s best friend.
I found a way to find him again. I chose this path. This choice led to life. Jacob lived life to the fullest every day. I intend to make the most of that. This choice led to me hearing I love you every day and me really believing it because it’s okay for me to be loved. It led to hearing the pitter-patter of little feet and the laughter of my children. I will fight every day to make sure that laughter never leaves.
When I am old, I want to be able to stand and feel that I made a difference, that I did my best to live life how Jacob taught me to live. He was an amazing teacher in those short eleven years. I hope we can all live to make a difference like he did.
On that dark night in 1989, evil came out, but the good in life prevails. The Jacob in all of us comes out every day. You can see it everywhere. You can see his happiness everywhere. This is what I see in life. I see him. I find him every day, and I always will. That night I thought I made a choice to run into the darkness. Now, I make that choice freely. If there is darkness and evil out there, I chose to bring light. I run towards the darkness because I know I have the strength in me to overcome the evil out there.
We all have this strength. We can all make a difference because we all have Jacob in us, because we are Jacob’s hope.
Aaron brought down the house. Even the judge had to wipe a tear from his eye and struggled to retain his composure after Aaron finished.
Next, each of Jacob’s siblings had a chance to address the court with their victim’s impact statements. Trevor went first.
TREVOR: Good morning, Your Honor. I’m just going to go ahead and read my statement that I submitted.
October 22nd, 1989, changed my life forever. I was a ten-year-old boy with an older sister Amy and an older brother Jacob and a younger sister Carmen, and from the moment Jacob was taken, molested and murdered, my life was never the same.
The entire dynamic of having a brother was taken away. Losing Jacob was hard enough, but for this man to hold this secret for almost 27 years and continue to be free is, as Jacob would say, entirely not fair. I live close to Paynesville, and as much as my parents, family and friends tried to take away my fear, I still had the nightmare of not only having a gun pulled on me, but also having a huge weight of guilt because that night I was the one that pushed for us to bike to the store.
No matter how much you tell yourself it wasn’t your fault, it is always in the back of your mind. It is not normal for a ten-year-old to sleep on the floor of their parents’ room. It is not normal to miss so much school in the fourth grade to have to hire a tutor to catch you up to speed and have your parents lobby to the teacher not to hold you back.
It is not normal to avoid sleep-overs at friends’ houses because it so happened to be on the 22nd of August, and that in your little boy mind had — that the monster that took your brother is going to do it again to you. It is not normal for your entire identity to be stolen away and to be transformed into Jacob’s brother. It is not normal to have nightmares and night terrors about that night, but this time in your dreams, you are given the choice that it could be you or one of the other friends you were with, and you wake up screaming, scared and ashamed because you chose not to be taken.
It is not normal for a ten-year-old boy to request police officers to come back to their house and answer the phones because that made you feel safe. It is not normal to bike home from your friend’s house at night with your parents or your friend’s parents following you home with their lights on because you weren’t quite ready to do it alone.
On the night of October 22nd, 1989, the life that I knew was stolen and changed forever. This terrible horrible creature who thought it was okay to just steal another human being and then murder him out of his own fear of being caught is and will always be a threat to society. Any person that does not value another person’s life and at any time they feel that their back is against the wall and is willing to kill a child for no reason except to save themselves from being caught does not deserve to be free.
This monster was able to live free with his secret for almost 27 years, 9,815 days free without paying for what he did to my brother. He wasted hours upon hours of police, detectives and FBI agents’ time and money searching for a boy when he knew what he had done.
I will not feel safe if he is ever released from prison, and our society will not be safe, and it is my recommendation that since my brother’s life was ended at the age of eleven that his freedom be ended and that he is incarcerated for the remainder of his life.
Jacob’s younger sister, Carmen, took the podium next.
CARMEN: Good morning. When I was eight years old, my life changed forever. My big brother, Jacob was stolen away from us and was no where to be seen. I wish I would’ve begged those boys to stay home that night to make a home video rather than going out to rent one.
There are months that I can barely remember. It was a whirlwind of people everywhere, police and FBI in uniform answering our telephone, and news cameras with big lights in our driveway.
I sent my imaginary friends Abi and Aba out to look for him.
I missed a lot of school. When I did try to go to school, kids didn’t know what to say to me. When they did talk to me about Jacob, it wasn’t always kind. I remember one time having to leave Girl Scout camp early because another camper told me that Jacob was dead and our family should just stop looking.
I’m afraid of helicopters. Even to this day, when I hear the noise and I want to curl up in a blanket to snuggle with my family.
I can’t be alone. Trevor and I slept on our L-shaped couch every night together all through middle school and high school. When he went to college, I had a friend sleep over almost every night of the year. The same pattern continued until I was married.
It’s been hard to meet new people. “So, Where you from? How many brothers and sisters do you have?” That question was almost too hard to bear that it was often easier to stick with the friends who knew me when I was little.
I’m taken back to this nightmare every time the leaves start to change.
The time I spent hoping, praying, searching for my brother cannot be measured.
I love you Jacob. This was not your fault and you didn’t do anything wrong.
Jacob’s older sister, Amy, was the last of his siblings to speak.
AMY: Good morning, Your Honor. Thank you.
Recently our family learned what happened to my brother Jacob. On October 22nd, 1989, Danny Heinrich shot and killed him after he kidnapped and sexually molested him, my little brother who was kind and gentle to everyone he met.
After he had been molested, Jacob was cold and just wanted to go home to his family where he knew it was warm and safe. He thought he did something wrong. Hearing those details was a horrific experience that I have not yet recovered from, and I don’t know that I ever will.
After having some time to process the events of the past weeks, I struggle with the fact that hearing those grewsome details, while absolutely devastating, is not the worst part about this. Not even close.
The worst part is that for nearly 27 years he let us believe that we would some day be able to see Jacob again. For nearly 27 years, he let me hold onto the image I had in my mind and in my dreams of Jacob running up the driveway back into our home to a huge group hug, with all of the people who loved him so much.
All the times our parents went on TV begging and pleading for answers, and he just watched. He watched us suffer through anniversary after anniversary. 27 years is a long time. He watched the community pull together for prayer services, balloon releases and candlelight vigils.
Now when I close my eyes at night, the image I see is that innocent, young boy cold and afraid in those last moments of his life. At the age of 13, my life was forever changed. My childhood ended because of what Danny Heinrich did. I felt I had to step up and help out around the house with my other brother and sister, while our parents did everything they could to find Jacob.
Dad worked to support our family, and mom traveled around the state and country working first to get Jacob’s story out, and later to help law enforcement in other communities learn how to work with victim families.
At a very young age, I helped out with driving Trevor and Carmen to school and their activities. I felt guilty dropping Carmen off at dance because I thought someone should stay with her and watch. I hated taking Trevor to school because I could tell how hard it was for him to go without his brother. This is a burden a teenager shouldn’t have to carry.
Now that I am married and have children of my own, I know that what Danny Heinrich to Jacob and my family has directly impacted my marriage and the way I parent my children. I have an adult life and responsibilities. Yet in so many ways, I am still that 13-year-old girl.
While I have no idea what my life would be like if Jacob had never been taken, I do know that it would have been without 27 years of pain directly caused by Danny Heinrich.
Amy struggled to fight back tears throughout her statement, pausing to take a moment here and there, then forging ahead. There wasn’t a dry eye in the courtroom as she returned to her seat.
MS. ALLYN: Your Honor, at this time the government would have Jerry Wetterling approach the podium.
THE COURT: Very well. Good morning, Mr. Wetterling.
JERRY WETTERLING: Thank you, Your Honor. Before I read my statement, I just, I want to express gratitude to literally everyone involved who has gotten us to this date, including Mr. Heinrich, for whatever reason coming forth and showing us where Jacob was.
Jacob’s abduction and murder by Danny Heinrich on October 22nd, 1989, has affected me way more than I could ever imagine. First of all, my chiropractic office business suffered greatly. My office has never approached the productivity numbers after the abduction as before. I stepped away from my practice totally for five weeks, after which I returned to the office one day per week for five weeks, after which I returned to work full time.
The first thing my staff in my Albany, Minnesota, office asked me upon my return was, Is it true that members of the Baha’i faith, which is my religion, sacrifice their firstborn males? That was a rumor which had been circulating around rural Stearns County.
In addition, many other people were pointing the finger at me as responsible for Jacob’s kidnapping because I didn’t show enough emotion during many media interviews. So not only was I in high emotional distress missing Jacob, I was looked at by many as being responsible.
It was extremely difficult to fully concentrate on my practice and my patients’ needs during the first years following Jacob’s abduction. I was frequently interrupted in my office with calls from law enforcement, people associated with Jacob Wetterling Foundation and phychics to mention a few. We spent thousands of dollars on phychics and private investigators, as well as lost potential income to today’s loss due to various search-related commitments and opportunities.
The sadness and stress caused by Jacob’s abduction was a strain on Patty’s and my relationship. We were both hurting so deeply that we couldn’t be there for each other as we normally would. Thus, we looked to other people for support, which didn’t help our relationship with each other. We survived that, but not without faith, great heartache and financial and time expenditures for counseling.
I lament for our other children because I wasn’t always there for them, due to something I was doing to further the search for Jacob. I miss Jacob so very much. He and my dad had birthdays five days apart in February. Jacob’s middle name, Irwin, was my dad’s first name. We often celebrated their birthdays together.
They both loved fishing and were both very good fishermen. My dad was never the same after Jacob’s abduction, and I believe it literally broke his heart.
It wasn’t just Jacob’s physical body that was missing these last 27 years. More importantly, I miss all the things I didn’t get to experience, laugh filled fishing outings, pride filled school events, such as music concerts, plays, sporting events, graduation, April Fool’s pranks, watching games together on TV and hearing Jacob make a comment and then have the TV commentator say the same thing seconds later, times hanging out with his friends, possibly going off to college.
I could keep going with multitudes of other commonly occurring life events. Since October 22nd, 1989, my common, overriding emotion could be summed up as sadness. Selfishly, this statement is only talking about Danny Heinrich’s actions affected me. Unfortunately, the ripple effect is exponentially greater because those actions have affected thousands of people.
Therefore, in the best interests of society, I strongly recommend that Mr. Heinrich be kept in civil commitment upon completion of his prison term. Thank you.
Again, Judge Tunheim had to wipe his eyes as Jerry finished his statement. Behind me, I could hear all of Paynesville falling apart.
Next, it was Patty’s turn. I braced myself for what I knew would be the hardest statement of the day.
THE COURT: Good morning, Ms. Wetterling.
PATTY WETTERLING: Good morning, Your Honor. Thank you so much for this opportunity.
It’s really difficult to describe impact when it has been so much a part of your life for so long. Words can’t express the magnitude of pain that Danny Heinrich has inflicted on me and my family every day of our lives since he hurt my heart, my soul, and every fiber of my being when he murdered our son Jacob, a child that I carried for nine months and nurtured for eleven years, eight months and five days.
Jacob was a boy with many gifts that the world will never realize because of this cruel and unnecessary murder. The pain that Heinrich inflicted on our family has interrupted my ability to parent our other children without fear, my ability to sleep without the nightmares of wondering what happened to Jacob, my ability to live the life that my family and I had worked so hard to build.
Jerry and I were minding our own lives, raising four wonderful children, teaching them to be fair and honest and kind when Danny Heinrich stole Jacob. My heart hurts. I miss Jacob’s touch, his smell, his freely given hugs. I miss his smile, his laughter, his jokes, his questions, his zest for life.
I miss him playing with our dog and dressing him up in football jerseys. I miss him playing football with the neighbors. I miss him coming home from school and complaining when something happened that wasn’t fair. He hated things that weren’t fair.
I miss him being a good sport when Amy and her friends were playing restaurant, and Jacob, Trevor and Carmen had to be customers and sit at fancy tables for tea parties. I miss his competitiveness with his brother when they would play, argue and then fall asleep, each with one arm wrapped around the other.
I miss him nurturing his little sister’s imaginary friends and using her foot for a microphone when we had long car rides. I miss him teasing and his pranks that he would pull. We hurt every day for all that we have missed.
My heart hurts for Jacob’s brother Trevor, for the fear he instilled in him that horrible night and for Aaron, who spent the next 26 years in fear, both of them dealing with so many questions, anxiety and anger trying to figure out what truly happened, wanting in part to wake up from this horrible nightmare, only to find out that it really did happen and Jacob was gone.
My heart hurts for our other children and that sadness and fear they had to navigate, missing their brother and figuring out how to grow up in a truly strange and difficult environment, taking on far too many responsibilities too early in life, just to keep things going, but continually wanting our warm and friendly world back.
Watching our children hurt was and continues to be unbearable. I can’t take it away, and I can’t explain how anyone could cause so much pain.
My heart hurts for our parents who spent their final years wondering, and they died, all of them not knowing.
For my sisters and brother and Jerry’s sisters who hurt so deeply over the loss of Jacob and for all of our children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces and the many tears they have shed for Jacob. Family reunions were difficult because of his absence. As we watched everyone grow up, we had to rely on a computer-generated age enhancement to predict what Jacob might have looked like.
My hurt hurts for Rochelle, who baby-sat and was a dear friend of all of ours, for Jacob’s classmates, friends and neighbors who all needed to rebuild their lives with a new set of rules.
My heart hurts for the many other victims of this man who will never experience justice.
My heart hurts for the entire St. Joseph community who had never experienced such darkness, who helped us to see the light of goodness and the millions of truly kind people who were praying and hoping right along for Jacob’s safe return.
My heart hurts for the people who searched for law enforcement, who investigated, parents who talked to their children and held them tighter and for an entire state and nation that strives for equality and justice and yet has had to face the most unfair and unjust act of all because of Heinrich’s actions on October 22nd, 1989.
Danny Heinrich took away a wonderful human being who cared deeply for family and friends and sports and music and theater and jokes, hugs and kisses, football and piggyback rides, a young boy, a kind and fun loving brother, who wanted to grow up to be a football player, but mostly who just wanted to grow up and live and contribute to making the world a better place.
My heart hurts for Jacob and all that he went through that last night. It keeps me awake at night.
I would like to say some comments directly to Danny Heinrich. You didn’t need to kill him. He did nothing wrong. He just wanted to go home.
Your attorney wrote that you play that night over and over in your head, but you knew. No, you planned to hurt someone that night. You didn’t just bring a gun to scare the boys. You brought bullets. Why would you bring bullets if not to use them?
I’m happy to hear that Jacob stopped you from ever victimizing another child. If I had one wish for you, it would be for you to see who Jacob was and to know the young boy you took from us and to feel, even for a second, what you did. You hurt a lot of people.
You continued to hurt us throughout the years, but in spite of the pain, you were wrong. Jacob didn’t die that night. He wasn’t ready to die. You know that. He refused to die, and his spirit has moved people all over the world, just as his jacket kept surfacing, at both the burial sites.
Jacob wasn’t going away, and we never gave up. He believed in goodness and fairness. All that he was and all that he stood for is so much stronger than your cowardice and fear.
We hold Jacob in our hearts, and we feel him every time something good happens, a smile, a hug, a helping hand, a rainbow. Jacob’s hope does live in all of us, and you can never take that away, ever. Not in 1989 when you did this and not in 2016 when you took him away all over again.
I will not wonder about you or waste a moment of my time concerning myself from this day forward. It’s my hope that when we all walk out of this courtroom, we’re leaving the negativity, the fear, the anger, the hopelessness, the confusion as best we can, and we’re taking Jacob with us, his hopes, his dreams, his smile, his laughter, his sense of fairness and all that is good that he stands for.
We truly stand together with the good people in this world who believe in Jacob’s hope and who never gave up.
There is nothing more I can add, except that I have come to love this family so incredibly much. I am so sorry for their pain, but also so grateful that Jacob is back with them once again, where he belongs.
Love. Peace. Respect.
#ThinkingJacob… today and always.