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For almost three decades, Minnesotans kept their porch lights burning, hoping Jacob Wetterling might find his way home.

Those hopes were crushed Saturday when they learned that a longtime suspect in the 1989 disappearance had led authorities to the remains of the 11-year-old, whose abduction from St. Joseph stunned Minnesotans and changed the way parents watch over their children.

“Our hearts are broken,” Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, texted to the Star Tribune on Saturday morning. “We have no words.”

Jacob was snatched off his bike, half a mile from his home, by a masked man with a gun on a dark October night. Danny Heinrich, a suspect first questioned shortly after Jacob’s disappearance and now in federal custody on child pornography charges, provided investigators with the information that led to the boy’s grave, hidden on a Paynesville farm.

At the time of Wetterling’s abduction, Heinrich lived in Paynesville, about 30 miles southwest of St. Joseph, with his father.

The Stearns County Sheriff’s Office said Saturday that dental records confirmed that the remains were Jacob’s. Additional DNA testing will be conducted by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

A source with direct knowledge of the investigation told the Star Tribune that Heinrich, 53, led authorities to the remains in recent days.

Federal and state investigators working the case said little more Saturday about the break in the case, or what prompted Heinrich, who has been in federal custody since last October, to finally disclose what happened to Jacob.

The Sheriff’s Office said authorities are “reviewing and evaluating new evidence” and expect to provide more details later this week.

Heinrich’s attorney could not be reached Saturday for comment.

Jacob’s abduction shattered the entire state’s sense of safety. He became the face of thousands of other missing and exploited children, and his disappearance became the driving force behind the creation of national databases for registered sex offenders.

The search for him spanned not only decades, but also continents, as investigators chased some 50,000 leads. In the end, the search ended in the same county where it began.

The Wetterlings, who never gave up hope that Jacob might somehow return to them, struggled Saturday to find words for the mystery that had officially become a tragedy.

“Our family is drawing strength from all your love & support,” Patty Wetterling said on Twitter. “We’re struggling with words at this time. Thank you for your hope.”

As they grieved, their hometown grieved with them, with mourners leaving yellow bouquets at the entrance to the driveway of the family’s home and decorating downtown shops with white ribbons.

Ellie Quarry, of rural Little Falls, who lived in St. Joseph at the time of the abduction, said of Patty Wetterling, “She held out hope right to the very end. God, I prayed for that.”

A masked man

Jacob Wetterling was a boy with a big smile, sandy hair and blue eyes who loved his family, played the trombone and was the goalie on his school hockey team. His dream, he once said, was to be a football player when he grew up.

On the evening of Oct. 22, 1989, he was riding his bike with his brother, Trevor, 10, and best friend, Aaron Larson, 11, on a remote dirt road near the family’s home in rural St. Joseph. It was just after 9 p.m. and they were a half-mile from home with a video they’d rented from the Tom Thumb store when a masked man with a gun appeared.

He told the boys to lie face down in a nearby ditch and asked each one his age. Then he ordered Trevor and Aaron to run to the woods and not look back.

The boys did. And then Jacob and the masked man were gone.

At the time of Jacob’s disappearance, Paynesville had suffered a string of attacks on young boys — a husky white man, his face obscured, would approach and sometimes grope groups of kids on bikes. His voice was raspy, the boys told authorities, and he often made threats. The kids dubbed the menace “Chester the Molester.”

A chilling similarity

Nine months before Jacob’s disappearance, Jared Scheierl, a 12-year-old from nearby Cold Spring, was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a man who then released him with the warning “not to look back or he would be shot.”

Heinrich was questioned by investigators soon after Jacob was abducted and several times in 1990. At the time, he denied any involvement.

Police began building a child pornography case against him last summer, when authorities searched his home looking for evidence in both Jacob’s abduction and the abduction and assault of Scheierl.

Authorities tested the sweatshirt that Scheierl, now 39, had been wearing that day. They found Heinrich’s DNA.

Last October, authorities announced they were unable to prosecute Heinrich in Scheierl’s case because the statute of limitations had run out. But the search of Heinrich’s home turned up enough child pornography to land him behind bars.

Searchers found 19 three-ring binders full of pornographic images of children, including some under the age of 12 and photos of known child victims. Authorities said there was even more child pornography on Heinrich’s computer hard drive.

When authorities arrived at Heinrich’s house with a search warrant, he described himself as “a dirty old man” but denied creating pornography or sharing it with anyone, according to a federal agent who testified in court.

The search turned up nothing to connect Heinrich to Jacob. But the similarities between the two cases — both in the description of the suspect and how he approached his victims — gave authorities reason to suspect that the same person might be responsible for both.

Heinrich has been held on charges of receiving and possessing child pornography. He was indicted in December on a total of 25 child pornography charges — five from October, plus an additional 20 related to possessing and receiving child pornography both in print and digital images.

Jacob’s abduction sparked an extensive search that never truly ended. It was the kind of senseless, cruel crime that made parents across the state hug their kids a little tighter, and over time, it turned the Wetterling family into tireless advocates for missing and exploited children.

In 1994, the federal government enacted the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Act, which required states to create registries to track sex offenders and those who commit crimes against children.

Held on to hope

As the years passed, the Wetterlings never gave up hope. Every year, they marked Jacob’s birthday. Every Oct. 22, they grieved his loss and studied the age-progressed pictures of the child they still hoped to find. There were pictures of Jacob as a teenager, and Jacob as a 35-year-old man.

Jacob would have turned 38 this past February. His parents are grandparents now and founders of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, dedicated to helping other missing and hurting children.

On the center’s website Saturday morning was the following message:

“We are in deep grief. We didn’t want Jacob’s story to end this way. In this moment of pain and shock, we go back to the beginning. The Wetterlings had a choice to walk into bitterness and anger or to walk into a light of what could be, a light of hope. Their choice changed the world.”

Over the years, a porch light, left on in the hope it would someday lead Jacob home, became the symbol of the search for Jacob.

Every autumn, on the anniversary of his disappearance, thousands of Minnesotans flipped on porch lights in his memory.

“This light has been burning for close to 27 years,” the resource center’s message continued. “Today, we gather around the same flame. …

“Our hearts are heavy, but we are being held up by all of the people who have been a part of making Jacob’s Hope a light that will never be extinguished. It shines on in a different way.

“We are, and we will continue to be, Jacob’s Hope. Jacob, you are loved.”

Staff writers Jennifer Bjorhus and Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report. jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008 david.chanen@startribune.com • 612-673-4465 jenna.ross@startribune.com • 612-673-7168