Earlier this month, while millions raged over convicted rapist Brock Turner’s early release, another event unfolded more quietly than it should have been allowed to.
While social media blew up in righteous anger over Turner getting off early for good behaviour, investigators were uncovering the remains of an 11-year-old boy in Minnesota, who had disappeared almost 27 years ago.
Maybe you have heard of Jacob Wetterling, who had been kidnapped at gunpoint by a man in a stocking cap mask on Oct. 22, 1989, in Paynesville, Minn. He had been coming home from a convenience store with his brother and a friend when they were approached by the stranger, pointing his gun at them and ordered to lie down flat on the ground and toss their bikes in the ditch. He asked their age, told Jacob’s brother to run into the woods and not look back or else he’ll be shot and, after looking over the remaining two boys, took Jacob with him, repeating his earlier threat to the other boy.
It was the last time Jacob was seen alive.
The case went cold until 2014, when investigators started looking at a series of attempted and child abductions and molestations in the months leading up to Jacob’s disappearance, eventually determining that these were not random instances, and were connected to Jacob. In 2015, Daniel James Heinrich was named as a person of interest in the case, and was arrested on child pornography charges.
Heinrich’s DNA matched that of another boy’s abducted around that time. However, due to the statute of limitations, he could not be charged or arrested for that crime. A plea deal was reached, which would have him serve 20 years for child pornography, for which he was sentenced earlier this month.
As part of that deal, he confessed to the above mentioned boy’s abduction and sexual assault, and confessed to the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of Jacob, leading authorities to his remains.
Heinrich, as part of the deal, will not serve a day in prison for Jacob’s murder.
Why should this matter, or warrant as much attention enough as Turner? This tragedy didn’t happen here, and yes, missing children or missing anyone for that matter is a cause of concern, but it’s not like Canada doesn’t have its own disappearances, such as Michael Wayne Dunahee, Lyle and Marie McCann, Patricia Favel, Caroline Burns or any one of the many missing aboriginal women in Canada who haven’t been found yet. Yes, this is an immense tragedy, and our hearts go out to Jacob’s family, but short of Jacob’s mystery being solved, why does this matter?
Jacob’s disappearance led his parents Jerry and Patty to start the Jacob Wetterling Foundation in 1990 — renamed the Jacob Wetterling Resource Centre in 2008 — to advocate for children’s safety, and Patty wrote to the then Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, criticizing the weakening of sex offender registration laws, demanding that Congress and the Justice Department work to fix the system that their recklessness caused. In 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, the Wetterling Act for short, was passed into law. This law required states to form registries of offenders convicted of a sexual violent crime or of crimes against a minor.
While the law has been amended over the years, this is essentially the same law that requires Turner to register as a sex offender, which he did, four days after he was released from prison, three days after Jacob’s body was found.
Many have decried the current incarnation of the Wetterling Act — including Jacob’s mother Patty — as doing more harm than good, with many saying they would rather go to prison for life than be on the sex offender registry, which groups everyone from peeping toms to serial murderers/rapists together. But the act requires Turner to keep authorities informed of his current place of residence, and forbids him from living or going to places such as schools or other places where children frequent.
Turner will carry the title of rapist with him throughout his entire life. While he only served three months of his six-month sentence for “20 minutes of action”, as his father would say, Turner is not getting off free either.
Yes, a lot of people believe Turner should have served more time in prison, and, yes, he should have. Say what you will about the overcrowdness, inequity and conditions of the American prison system, but for his complete lack of remorse alone, he should have had a longer time in protective custody to think about what he did behind the safety of bars. We have a right to be outraged over that.
But there seems to be a certain lack of outrage over Heinrich not serving any time for Jacob’s murder.
With Turner’s case, it screamed of white, male privilege, rape culture, party culture, athlete special treatment and victim blaming. According to an anonymous source from the federal prosecutor’s office in several news articles, if they tried Heinrich for Jacob’s sexual assault and murder, they would have had to abide by 1989 sentencing rules, which meant that Heinrich would serve 17-18 years for the murder, less time then he would have served for the child pornography charge.
Adding the challenge of proving murder without a body, Jacob’s parents having signed off on the deal and how even when Heinrich, who is 52 years old, gets out of prison, under the state’s sex offender program, he could be committed to a high-security facility, and thus never be a free man again. His punishment for his crimes, while many and heinous, is not so a blatant slap in the face as Turner’s was.
A 27-year old mystery is at an end, yet while news feeds blew up with Turner news and protests, the boy whose disappearance led to sex offender registries has been found, but chances are you’ve likely only heard of Jacob’s case being closed from football players dedicating the game to his memory, or indignation over one columnist making the story about another reporter’s pants.
Unfortunately, there will be many more like Turner and Heinrich. So why should we not remember the Jacobs of the world?