Wetterling killer sentenced to 20 years in prison

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MINNEAPOLIS — Saying that Danny Heinrich, the man convicted of kidnapping and killing Jacob Wetterling, had committed "one of the most truly horrible crimes that I have ever seen," Judge John Tunheim sentenced him to 20 years in federal prison on Monday morning, Nov. 21.

Danny Heinrich, the man who abducted and killed 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling 27 years ago, was sentenced Monday to 20 years in federal prison to one federal count of receiving child pornography.

Heinrich was sentenced on one count of receiving child pornography, but Tunheim said the case was not about child pornography.

"This is about taking a childhood away from Jared Scheierl and about taking a lifetime away from Jacob Wetterling," Tunheim said. "It's about changing the lives of so many parents and children, knowing that someone like you would come out of the woods. Every child knows the story of Jacob Wetterling. You stole the innocence of small children (everywhere)."

The sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis lasted about one hour and 15 minutes. At the end, Heinrich, wearing a tan sweater and dark slacks, was led from the courtroom by officers with the U.S. Marshals Service.

Heinrich, 53, of Annandale confessed in court in September to abducting, sexually assaulting and fatally shooting Jacob on Oct. 22, 1989.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling and their surviving three children, Trevor, Amy and Carmen, each submitted victim-impact statements to be read at Heinrich's sentencing. All five spoke in court.

"You did not need to kill him," Patty Wetterling said. "He did nothing wrong. He just wanted to go home. You planned to hurt him. You brought bullets. Why would you use bullets if you didn't plan to use them?'

Heinrich addressed the Wetterlings in a short statement.

"I am truly sorry for my evil acts — for the victims and their families — and the shame that I brought on to myself and my family," he said.

Authorities, searching for ties to Jacob's disappearance, found hundreds of photos and videos of young boys during a search of Heinrich's home in July 2015. The images spanned decades, but photos of Jacob were not among them, investigators said.

Heinrich was arrested in October 2015 and later charged with 25 federal counts of possessing and receiving child pornography.

Under a plea agreement agreed to by the Wetterlings, Heinrich had to confess to Jacob's kidnapping, sexual assault and killing and to lead authorities to the boy's body. In return, Heinrich would not be prosecuted for murder, which has no statute of limitations, and would be charged with only one count of pornography.

Heinrich also had to confess in court to kidnapping and sexually assaulting 12-year-old Jared Scheierl in Cold Spring, Minn., on Jan. 13, 1989, nine months before he abducted and killed Jacob. The statute of limitations has expired in that case, meaning Heinrich can't be charged in it.

Retested DNA evidence last year linked Heinrich to Scheierl's kidnapping and sexual assault. Authorities said they had long suspected a link between the two cases, leading them to circle back to Heinrich.

Heinrich had been questioned by police in 1989 and 1990 about Jacob's disappearance but denied any involvement.

Heinrich will spend at least 17 years in prison at a location that won't be made public until after he arrives there; all federal prisoners must spend a minimum of 85 percent of their sentences behind bars before being eligible for release. There is no parole in the federal system.

After he serves his criminal sentence, Heinrich is expected to be civilly committed as a sex offender, perhaps indefinitely.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a news partner with Forum News Service