Silver Linings-True Crimes That Inspired Change, Part 1

I am a die-hard fan of true crime.  I can’t get enough of it. And nowadays with the endless number of shows and podcasts about true crime, (shoutout to My Favorite Murder!) our society is currently saturated with it.  But it is something that I have been intrigued by for as long as I can remember.  I was an OG murderino!

There are many different things about these stories that interest me.  The psychology of it all is a big one.  What makes a person kill?  What is it inside a person that turns them into a monster?  That is one thing I’ve always wished there was more research and findings about.  The other thing I always want to know more about is what can be done to prevent these crimes from happening again?  From every tragedy, I hope for some kind of silver lining.  At the end of the day, these are real people and real families whose lives were changed forever because someone decided to take a life.  That should never be forgotten in the midst of all the drama and intrigue of the stories.

So I decided to chronicle some of my favorite crimes that prompted actual change in laws and law enforcement.  While these stories are tragic, the families of these victims are also heroes.  They stood up for their loved ones and lobbied for change so that other families won’t experience the same loss and heartache.

First on my list:  The murder of Jacob Wetterling.

On October 22nd, 1989, in St .Joseph Minnesota, 11 year old Jacob Wetterling, his brother Trevor, and their friend Aaron rode their bikes to the local Tom Thumb to rent a video.

As they were riding home, a masked man, later identified as Danny Heinrich, came out of a driveway and approached the boys with a loaded revolver. Heinrich was driving in his car when he saw the boys headed towards the store.  He then turned his car around and parked to wait for the boys to return.

He ordered them to throw their bikes in a ditch and lie face down on the ground.  He then asked each boy how old they were.  Trevor was told to run towards the woods and not to look back, otherwise he would be shot.  He then ordered Jacob and Aaron to stand and face him.  Aaron was told to run away, and given the same threats as Trevor.

Heinrich forced Jacob into his car and handcuffed him.   He drove to a remote location approximately 30 miles away, where he sexually assaulted Jacob before shooting him twice, killing him.  He then buried Jacob’s body, but returned a year later and moved the body after seeing Jacob’s red jacket was showing through the dirt.

27 years later…

Although Heinrich was questioned in December of 1989, there was no real evidence to link him to the crime.  The investigation would go on to be considered seriously botched. Jacob’s disappearance remained unsolved until the fall of 2016 when Heinrich confessed to killing Jacob, after becoming a person of interest when he was arrested in 2015 on child pornography charges.  He also confessed to the kidnapping and sexual assault of 12 year old Jared Scheierl, 9 months before he murdered Jacob.  Authorities had believed the two cases were connected because of many similarities in the crimes.  Police were able to physically connect him to that case in 2015 with DNA found on Scheierl’s sweatshirt he was wearing at the time of the attack, but they were not able to prosecute him because the statue of limitations had passed.

Heinrich’s confession was part of a plea deal in which he plead guilty to one of the 25 child pornography charges brought against him.  In exchange for this plea, he agreed to lead investigators to Jacob’s body and testify to the details of Jacob’s death.  In addition, prosecutors agreed, with the agreement of the Wetterlings, not to charge him with Jacob’s murder.  Heinrich was sentenced to the maximum of 20 years in prison on the child pornography charge.

The fallout of tragedy:

The failure on the part of authorities to solve the case changed the lives of parents and children all across the nation.  Parents stopped letting their children go out alone.  “Stranger Danger” became almost a hysteria.  Kids saw PSA’s and after school specials about not talking to strangers or accepting rides from people in white vans.  Kids faces started showing up on milk cartons and parents began fingerprinting their kids in case they disappeared.  As a child that grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, I remember “stranger danger” being an almost palpable fear.  This was also back in a time when even children weren’t considered “missing persons” until they were gone at least 24 hours. Most of the time they were just considered to be “playing” or were thought to be runaways.  We now know that the first 48 hours after a child goes missing are the most crucial in finding them.  The laws that follow helped bring that fact to light and change how law enforcement handled cases of missing children.

Light out of darkness:

In 1994, The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act (The Wetterling Act) was enacted.  The law requires all states to keep a registry for law enforcement that keeps track of all offenders who have committed sexual or sexually violent acts against children, and to form more rigorous registration requirements for sex offenders.  It also required states to verify the address of sex offenders every year for 10 years, and those classified as violent sexual offenders must be verified quarterly for the rest of their lives.  Under the law, states had the discretion to release or not release the information to the public.

That changed in 1996 when the Wetterling Act was amended with Megan’s Law, named for Megan Kanka, a 7 year old who was raped and murdered by her neighbor.  Jesse Timmendequas, who had two previous convictions for sexually assaulting young girls, lured Megan into his home by offering to show her a puppy.  He then raped her and strangled her to death with a belt.  Although he was registered as a sex offender, the Kankas had no knowledge of this and therefore did not see him as a danger to their family. The Kankas lobbied for change, stating that had community notification of registered sex offenders existed, Megan would still be alive.

Megan’s law was passed on the federal and state level. At the federal level, the law requires persons convicted of sex crimes against children to notify local law enforcement of any address change or employment after release from custody.  The notification may be for a fixed time, or permanently. At the state level, the law requires authorities to make sex offender registry information available to the public and imposed community notification.  The details of what is provided and how community notification is handled vary from state to state.

The law was last amended with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.  Adam Walsh was a 6 year old boy who was kidnapped from a Sears in Hollywood, Florida in 1981.   Adam’s severed head was found 2 weeks later almost 130 miles away from where he was taken. The rest of his remains were never found. His murderer was believed to be a local drifter named Ottis Toole, who confessed but then later recanted his confession to Adam’s murder.

Adam’s law, along with the Wetterling Act and Megan’s Law, organizes sex offenders into 3 tiers based on the crimes committed, with Tier 3 being the most serious.  The law mandates that Tier 3 offenders update their whereabouts every 3 months with lifetime registration requirements.  Tier 2 offenders must update their whereabouts every 6 months, with 25 year registration requirements.  Tier 1 offenders must update their whereabouts every year, with a 15 year registration requirement.  Failure to register and update information is a felony under the law.

Adam’s parents also lobbied for the Missing Children’s Act of 1982, which created a national database for missing children, and also helped found the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, established by Congress in 1984.  Adam’s father John also went on to launch and host the show America’s Most Wanted.

The deaths of these children are terrifying and heartbreaking.  Growing up, I can remember being so scared that someone would just snatch me and I would disappear forever.  Thanks to the work of these amazing families, laws were changed and safeguards were put in place to help prevent these tragedies from happening again, as much as the possibly could. Some might say some of these laws have gone too far, and to some extent I agree.  For instance, I’m not sure that someone who urinates in public should be registered as a sexual offender.  That being said,  if these laws prevent even one child from being assaulted and/or murdered, I consider that a win.

Stay tuned for Part 2….


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