WASHINGTON – A US man admitted on Tuesday to killing an 11-year-old boy in 1989 in a case that shocked Americans and prompted a law requiring states to establish sex-offender registries.
The missing Jacob Wetterling's smiling face on thousands of posters became a symbol of both innocence and unsolved "cold" cases, raising national awareness about sexual predators.
A masked gunman abducted Wetterling on October 22, 1989 while he was riding his bicycle near his Minnesota home with his brother and a friend.
His disappearance traumatised thousands of American families well beyond Minnesota's borders and pushed many states along with Congress to adopt laws in the 1990s to protect children and better co-ordinate efforts against sex offenders.
But despite intensive work and media attention, the investigation into Wetterling's abduction became bogged down until last year with the arrest of a man for owning child pornography.
Investigators were led to Danny Heinrich after his DNA was found to match a sample taken from the sweatshirt of a 12-year old boy, Jared Scheierl, whom he had sexually assaulted nine months before Wetterling's disappearance.
On Tuesday, Heinrich, 53, admitted in a Minnesota court to having abducted, sexually assaulted and killed Wetterling as part of a plea deal related to 25 child pornography charges.
All but one were dropped as part of the deal, which calls for him to serve a maximum of 20 years in prison.
The statute of limitations had expired for charges linked to the sexual assault of Scheierl.
Heinrich's confessions led investigators last week to recover Wetterling's remains from where the body was buried in a field, nearly 27 years after his death.
On Tuesday, Heinrich recounted the details of his victim's last hours in front of both his parents, who had always kept hope of finding their son alive, the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper reported.
After kidnapping the boy, Heinrich said, he handcuffed him and put him in the front seat of his car.
"What did I do wrong?" he recalled Wetterling asking.
Heinrich then dragged him near a gravel pit and stripped him before sexually assaulting him.
The crying boy said he was cold and begged his attacker to let him go home, Heinrich recalled.
But Heinrich said that he panicked. "I pulled the revolver out of my pocket," the newspaper reported him as saying.
"I loaded it with two rounds. I told Jacob to turn around.
"I raised the revolver to his head. I turned my head and it clicked once. I pulled the trigger again and it went off. Looked back, he was still standing," Heinrich added.
"I raised the revolver again and shot him again."
Heinrich later returned to bury Wetterling's body.
Investigators had long targeted Heinrich for the boy's kidnapping but were unable to find evidence.
"I want to say 'Jacob, I'm so sorry'," his mother Patty Wetterling said after the hearing. "It's incredibly painful to know his last days, last hours, last minutes."
She and her husband Jerry have become national advocates for missing children, founding the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, which helps prevent child exploitation.
In a news conference on Tuesday, police said the solving of Wetterling's murder proved no criminal case was unsolvable.
America's upper Midwest "lost its innocence" with Wetterling's kidnapping, said Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner. "It changed the way we raised our children."