The man who abducted, molested and then killed 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in 1989 was sentenced Monday to 20 years in prison, PEOPLE confirms — and he could spend the rest of his life in state custody.
Daniel Heinrich was sentenced on one count of receipt of child pornography in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, nearly three months after his confession in Jacob’s disappearance resolved a decades-old cold case, court officials tell PEOPLE.
At the hearing, Heinrich was confronted by Jacob’s family and friends, according to multiple reports. They shared decades of grief over Jacob’s loss.
“He hurt my heart, my soul, every fiber of my being when he murdered my son Jacob,” Jacob’s mom, Patty Wetterling, said at the sentencing, according to the Star Tribune.
“I miss Jacob so very much,” said Jacob’s dad, Jerry Wetterling, according to the paper. “It wasn’t just Jacob’s physical body missing these last 27 years. More importantly, I miss the things I never got to experience.”
Jacob’s brother, Trevor, said, “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,” Trevor said.
Jacob’s sister Carmen said, “I am taken back to this nightmare every time the leaves start to change. The time I have spent hoping, praying, searching for my brother cannot be measured.”
And Jacob’s sister Amy said, “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.”
Heinrich read a brief statement himself, apologizing for his crimes, according to the Associated Press and Star Tribune. “Mr. and Mrs. Wetterling, the heinous acts of selfishness are unforgivable … I’m so sorry,” Heinrich said.
“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, according to the Pioneer Press.
While Heinrich may reportedly be eligible for release after 17 years, he could be civilly committed as a sex offender in Minnesota and remain in state custody. If he is released, he will be required to register as a sex offender and be under a lifetime of court-ordered supervision, according to the Star Tribune.
(Neither federal prosecutors nor Heinrich’s defense team immediately responded to PEOPLE’s request for comment on the sentencing. The Wetterlings have not responded to inquiries since Heinrich’s confession.)
Speaking from the bench on Monday, Judge John Tunheim, who sentenced Heinrich, said, “The long nightmare is not over, there is no closure to the ‘why?’ No one is ever going to forget Oct. 22 of 1989. But we will move forward.”
“We are in a better place as a society because of the commitment the Wetterling family has made to Jacob and to other children,” Tunheim said, according to the Star Tribune.
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Indeed, as Jacob’s loved ones remembered the pain of his death, they also spoke of his inspiring life and spirit.
“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,” Jacob’s best friend, Aaron Larson, said at the hearing, according to a transcript obtained by PEOPLE.
“Life is hard, but Jacob showed us how great this hard life can be,” Larson added.
Jared Scheierl, who Heinrich sexually assaulted months before Jacob vanished, when Scheierl was 12, also read a statement in court, according the Star Tribune. “He should know that the words that he had spoke to me on that evening haunted me for years, and I don’t chose to hear anything he wishes to say at this time,” he said.
In a statement following the sentencing, the Wetterling family said, in part, “We are so grateful for the collaborative effort that it took to find answers.”
“We are getting stronger every day and we will deal with the finality of the search for answers, but like many other realities of life, healing has its ebbs and flows,” the Wetterlings said. “We are feeling good one moment and may be in tears from hearing a song that touches our hearts the next moment.”
In an unorthodox bargain with prosecutors that was approved by the Wetterlings, Heinrich admitted to Jacob’s abduction, assault and slaying, as well as Scheierl’s sexual assault — and he at last led investigators to Jacob’s remains.
In exchange, he was only sentenced on one count of child pornography, following his 2015 arrest.
Heinrich was named as a person of interest in Jacob’s disappearance in October 2015, when authorities say they also recovered 19 binders and several hard drives containing images of minors in sexual situations from Heinrich’s home. But the lack of other evidence pointing toward him, including a body, hindered the investigation and any possible prosecution.
As a federal prosecution source previously explained to PEOPLE, “ is not getting away with murder. It wasn’t a choice we really had. It was a bittersweet moment, but we got there.”
“The choice wasn’t to try him for murder or not,” the source said. “It was to bring Jacob home or not.”
And so in September, Heinrich confessed in full, in court, to having abducted Jacob at gunpoint near his home, molesting him and then fatally shooting him in the head on Oct. 22, 1989.
Speaking at Monday’s sentencing, Jacob’s father thanked Heinrich for finally revealing what had happened to their son and leading police to his body, according to the Star Tribune.
Patty also addressed Heinrich directly.
“You didn’t need to kill him,” she said. “He did nothing wrong. He just wanted to go home.”
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