Nearly 27 years ago, Jacob Wetterling was abducted at gunpoint while out for a bike ride with friends in St. Joseph, Minn. The masked assailant let his friends go unharmed, provided they flee; the 11-year-old Wetterling, however, the assailant held onto.
To this day, Wetterling's 1989 abduction remains unsolved despite decades of national attention. But on Saturday, Minnesota officials offered some measure of closure nevertheless, announcing that the boy's remains had been identified.
In a statement released to the media, the Stearns County Sheriff's Office confirmed the news, noting that it plans additional DNA testing. The office added that authorities are "currently in the process of reviewing and evaluating new evidence in the Jacob Wetterling investigation."
As Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter Jenna Ross tells NPR's Audie Cornish, the abduction captured headlines in Central Minnesota — and continues to reverberate well beyond the state's borders.
"It's a story that is seared into the memory of most Minnesotans and beyond," Ross says. "People were shocked that such a thing could happen in such a small, seemingly safe town."
That national attention helped boost his mother Patty's fight for legislation that bore Jacob Wetterling's name, which required states to track sex offenders and helped lead to a national sex offender registry. The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act was passed in 1994.
Shortly after the abduction, law enforcement launched a highly publicized investigation, which drew more than 50,000 leads and an initial reward of more than $100,000, according to Minnesota Public Radio — all to no avail.
But that long-running investigation found a break recently, when a "person of interest in Jacob's abduction took authorities to a field in central Minnesota," according to The Associated Press. The news service, citing an anonymous law enforcement official, reports that the remains were discovered buried in the field. It was Daniel Heinrich, 53, who told the FBI where Wetterling's remains were located, "as part of an ongoing plea agreement," CBS News reports.
"Authorities expect to be in a position to provide more detailed information early next week," the Stearns County Sheriff's Office says.
For now, Jacob Wetterling's mother, Patty, tweeted that the Wetterling family is "drawing strength from all your love & support."
"We are in deep grief. We didn't want Jacob's story to end this way," the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center announced in a statement. "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."