In hearing on Wetterling crime, a new level of detail

If you’re reading news tweets from the hearing for the killer of Jacob Wetterling this afternoon, you might get the sense that we’ve turned another corner in journalism with the removal of another filter.

Twitter doesn’t come with editors so the horrifying particulars of the last moments of young Jacob’s life at the hands of Danny Heinrich, who got away with murder, are not “broadcast” with trigger warnings. Graphic doesn’t even begin to describe the details. They are disgusting to an unimaginable degree. We can never unsee, nor unhear them.

It’s a necessary process in the justice system. Confessions must be on the record. In a crime like this, the devil really is in the details.

“How does the world continue to spin as we listen to this?” one media member, not in the court, tweeted.

The image of the Wetterlings having to sit in the courtroom and listen brings a new, deeper heartbreak to the story.

It will be interesting to see how many of these details broadcast on Twitter make it into the final stories on the more traditional news platforms.

Perhaps there’ll be debates in local newsrooms about the level of detail that must now accompany a story such as this and the extent to which the public must hear them. Would we be as shocked about the crime if the telling of it didn’t use such specificity? If not, why not? If so, then what is to be accomplished by providing them?

It’s a debate for us in the audience, too.

  • Greg W

    The accompanying tweet from Brandt Williams in the main story on the MPR News site stung me more than any of the graphic details from the confession.

    • That’s exactly right and it’s a perfect example of story telling. The horror of the crime isn’t the step-by-step of the assault. It’s the boy asking “what did I do wrong?” and then when it was all over, asking, “Will you take me home now?”

      • Sara

        Bob, I have been relying on you during this story to tell it in the way I need to hear it….you do not disappoint. Thank you for your perspective and your humanity. I really appreciate this space you create for us to mourn and discuss together. My heart is so heavy.

      • crystals

        Yes. This, exactly.

  • Sam M

    I’ve read and heard the details. I now regret it. I am no better off now that I know those details. Sick to my stomach.

    • Jeff C.


      And, as a parent, even more (irrationally) scared to let my children out of my sight.

  • Minneso-Kate

    I think the discussion around “reporting” live via social media is a really important one to have. Live tweeting funerals, live tweeting graphic details of court proceedings. It is undeniably the right of a free press, but it is the right thing to do?

    I don’t know.

    • “I don’t know.”

      Yeah. That’s where I am. On so many things surrounding this case.

    • DavidG

      I lean towards “probably.” It’s probably good for those details to be available.

      But personally, I’m doing my best to avoid those details.

  • chlost

    I am no softy. I have heard numerous confessions to hundreds of things, some horrible, some serious, some not. Never have I cried, not a tear. But reading this report, I sobbed.

  • Geoff Forscher

    I read it online, and had to step away from work I was so overwhelmed with emotion. For all these years those parents have had a nugget of hope. Now, not only is that gone but they have to live with the knowledge that their beloved child died alone, hurt and afraid. Go home and hug your children……

  • Mike Worcester

    I wonder if most of us knew the details were going to be gut-wrenching. Details that were going to have to come out and be public owing to the nature of how we dispense justice in our system.

    So what’s next? I’m not entirely sure either, and I’m just not going to push any thoughts beyond hoping that the Wetterling family can find some measure of solace in finally knowing the truth.

  • jane

    Time to get rid of the statute of limitations? Technology to solve crimes
    has changed so much and will continue to change.

  • Caroline

    I think an important part of the conversation about the public knowing graphic details in sexual assault cases, because this is a sexual assault case, in additional to a child kidnapping and murder case, is confronting our nation’s rape culture and denial of sexual predatory behaviors. This story is more than a case about a child abductor and murderer, it is about a sexual predator, who was identified as a sexual predator very soon after Jacob Wetterling went missing. Similar to the sexual assualt, kidnapping and murder of Alayna Ertle just a few weeks ago, I think it would be important for the public to know, what Zachary Anderson’s other sexual predatory offenses are. And there are ways to present it to the public that does not provide shame to the victims, by focusing on the actions of the predator. Additionally, the more that the public is aware of how children are sexually victimized, the more we are able to teach children how to know if that happens to them, and how to tell a safe adult as soon as possible. If we are shielded from the details of what sexual predators do to victimize children we can never really learn how to identify the initial grooming behaviors that occur let alone get to a point of prevention of sexual assault of children.

  • Gordon near Two Harbors

    I was a young man when Jacob disappeared. Now, I am well into middle-age. I can tell you that the memory of the Jacob Wetterling kidnapping has been barely dimmed by time for many thousands of Minnesotans. The anger, frustration and rage that many of us felt early on has been rekindled with the latest revelations. There is no limit to the empathy, love, and support we extend to the Wetterling family.

    As for the details of the crime, as horrific as they were, it is vital that the public be aware of them in order to fully understand the pain and suffering they cause, so that the perverts who commit them are brought to justice with the severest penalties possible.

    • Steve Bingner

      I think in addition. Knowledge about the story of this man is important, because he was not always a man and he was not always a “pervert”. Baby’s are not born “perverts”, they are made. There are many things we can do to protect children, and one of them is to prevent the future “perverts” from becoming “perverts”. This process does not happen quickly or magically. We can learn and we can prevent. Knowledge is power.

  • Matt

    After it was confirmed on Saturday that Jacob Wetterling had been found I feared what we would learn of the details of his last day(?), hour(s?), minute(s?). I feared a perverse sexual assault, something so immoral and shameful that my mind was without words to comprehend what it could be. The only thing that was known was that it would be painful, shockingly painful.

    I left work early today after the tweet storm was mostly done because I couldn’t sit in the office, sob, and do anything but stare at Twitter.

    And looking back, I did see some self-editing on the twitters – I was following Lou Raguse (@LouRaguse) of Kare11 and Pal Louwage (@pamlouwagie) of the STrib – and each was more edited down on the most graphic details than Ted Haller’s feed above (which I didn’t follow in the moment, but read later. I offer the assault of Jared Sheirel as the prime example of those edits. (specifically Haller’s tweet of 1:39 PM).

    I can make a loose, yet poor, analogy to posts on this blog about objecting to the naming of persons who commit acts of domestic terrorism – generally mass shooters. Journalism is the who, what, where, when, why, how, and that’s how Bob came down forcefully in favor of naming the alleged perp. That is where I see this case – the public has a right to know, and the journalists must report – graphic warnings where necessary – the facts of the case as they come out, however painful or awful they are. They should not be glorified or the main focus of the story – the story here was the murder and the location of the body, not necessarily the assault.

    We don’t often hear the full details of cases involving sexual assaults because the criminal proceedings are closed to the public and victims don’t come forward. I agree with the featured comment that the public must hear the atrocities that victims of sexual assault suffer, if only to mobilize action to prevent further such conduct. I’m still in shock at what Jacob and Jared suffered.

  • KTFoley

    I haven’t looked at it, can’t look at it, and wish I’d never read Bob Collin’s reply to Greg W from earlier today.

    My heart goes out to those whose heart and diligence kept Jacob in our sights for all the years it took to find him.

    This is a case where I think live-tweeting might be a huge disservice because of the lack of an editorial perspective. I’m also thinking that perhaps some tweeters might not have determined beforehand how much is too much to share, and found themselves generating a transcript before realizing how bad it was going to be.

  • Rob

    I’m of the opinion that learning the details of Heinrichs’ depraved acts does nothing to illuminate the story, advance listener/viewer/reader understanding, or make it any less likely that those who prey on children – whether it be family friends, coaches, teachers, priests or complete strangers – will be deterred from their depredations. Loved Brandt Williams’ live recap and writing.

  • FlyersRights

    I was the victim of a violent sexual assault/attempted murder in June of 2006. My perpetrator was never caught. My attacker was wearing a black ski mask which made it hard to identify him.

    I also thought the Wetterling admission by Heinrich was graphic and detailed, but for me although hard to hear it’s like the echo of my endless sleepless nights which ensued…forever. Every detail mattered to me and I wanted anyone and everyone who saw something, heard something, to SAY SOMETHING.

    But no one did.

    Recently, we moved out of the state of California to a safer area; Bend, Oregon. Just a couple of months ago there was a murder of a young beautiful woman at a campus here. The security guard who allegedly committed the crime is in jail but not caught until he had murdered her and disposed of her body, kidnapped another woman, went on a two state crime spree of carjacking, shooting a 70+ year old man and creating terror until he was caught. The local media edited and deleted any relevant comments about the murder etc. They didn’t want to “inflame” the public.

    That’s where the pavement meets the road for me. Public comment and more important public awareness of the details are so important to both the solving of a crime and healing of/PREVENTING OF a crime.

    Case in point: During my assault I recalled a kidnapping which was featured on Oprah in graphic detail. The one thing the girl did to get free from her attacker was say something about her son who would be devastated if he lost his mother. I stated emphatically to my attacker that if he killed me my son would kill himself. By recalling that vital detail of a graphic story I was able to save my own life. My attacker became confused and couldn’t go through with the rape and murder of me.

    So consider that before we decide if the graphic details are important!

    I get that knowing every detail of this childs crime 27 years ago is challenging for the public especially those who haven’t experienced something like this. But if parents and children are aware of the perils of dangerous sexual predators, the graphic details may save a child!

  • Rob

    As your story, and Jacob’s horrible and deadly ordeal attests, we kid ourselves when we think that rural, or less populated communities are safer than “the big city.” Awful, unspeakable things can and do happen, anywhere.

  • johnnyg08

    He didn’t get away with murder. It’s ludicrous to make that suggestion. He admitted it in open court. That’s not getting away with anything. What that admission did was take away the last remaining piece of power he had over us. He is dead to us. We don’t need to care about him anymore. He will never walk on free soil ever again. He lived a lonely life, he will die a lonely man. He didn’t get away with anything.

    • He is not being punished by the criminal justice system for murder. He is being punished for child pornography unrelated to the Wetterling case.

      Ludicrous? No. A fact.

      The fact that he recounted is assault and murder in such a matter of fact way and voice in court betrays what you — and many of us, frankly — wish were the reality. That his conscience was his ongoing punishment. Sadly, there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that.

      I wish that were not the case. But it’s the case that he’s not being held accountable for what he did to young Jacob.

      He didn’t even apologize.

      • johnnyg08

        I’m well aware of the case. I grew up less than 10 miles from where all of this occurred. I was 12, Jacob was 11. The federal charges were the best way to get the killer into prison. Al Capone went to prison for tax evasion. It certainly wasn’t Capone’s worst crime, but it got him in prison. The fact is that the killer is in prison and will likely be committed for the rest of his life. He will never harm another child. He admitted in open court that he abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered Jacob Wetterling. Without the plea deal that admission never happens. If the murder label is that important to you Jacob would have never gone home to his family if it wasn’t for this plea deal because the killer was the only person who knew where Jacob was. He would have never been found. The county had tire tracks and a shoe print…they had nothing on the killer to get a conviction, he would have taken it to his grave. He most certainly did not get away with murder. What is important in this case is that the killer will never harm another child again. The Wetterlings heard the killer tell what happened that night, the killer also admits to the sexual assault on another victim, etc. In the literal sense of getting away with murder…I suppose, but that’s an overly simple way to look at this. The outcome of this case is by far, the best way it could have played out once the facts were on the table. Certainly Jacob coming home alive would be the best case scenario, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case here. My heart goes out to the Wetterlings and as a parent now, I thank Patty Wetterling for fighting to keep kids safer with tougher laws in place for child predators and I thank science for continuing to discover new ways to gather DNA evidence to track these creeps down so our children can be safe. Thank you for writing the article. Furthermore, the information from court is graphic but it is part of the deal. I’m not sure what people were expecting to read. Should it be read in a middle school current events class…I think we all agree that the answer is no, but should the details be reported. Absolutely.

        Mr. Collins, I know you’re not from here, nor were you here when Jacob was abducted. I don’t expect you to have the same feelings toward this case as the rest of us. Jacob and I are the same age. I still live less than 10 miles from where all of this occurred. I was growing up the entire time the killer was on the loose. This case haunted us and local law enforcement for the last 26 years. Jacob was part of all of our families. The Wetterlings were family to all of us because they let us in. If this deal is good enough for Patty and Jerry Wetterling, it should be good enough for the rest of us. He most certainly did not get away with murder. Thank you for the dialogue.

        • You’re absolutely right, of course, that he MIGHT spend the rest of his life in prison but the reality is that the guy held full power over everybody right up through cutting the deal.

          They had to cut the deal; no question about it. They just had to. But he had the power right up to the end and that fact is one additional horrifying crime. He exerted his power over the victims right to the end. Just horrible.

          • johnnyg08

            After I hit “post”, I knew you’d bring up the “feelings” piece. I would have done the same thing. You’re right, feelings aren’t facts, but in this case, feelings are a part of it. The Wetterlings felt the need to bring their son home. The facts were that there wasn’t enough evidence for a murder conviction so the best and probably only route to bring Jacob home was the child porn route. The killer did have all of the leverage b/c he was the only person who could take us to Jacob. In court, it’s facts that matter, in life, I think it can be a combination of both. In this case the Wetterlings and J.S. had input on the decision to offer a plea in this manner. They likely arrived at that decision due to some facts and some feeling…the feeling that this could bring their son home. Thank you for the discussion Mr. Collins.

  • BoruBrian

    Hearing the details as a parent triggered a primal response or horror. I grabbed my kids and hugged them.

    But this was the “the people against the bad guy” and we are the people.There is some hand wringing here from journalists that does not fit.

    If we are broadcasting live from war zones while filming a documentary of doctors DURING surgery of the front lines; while imbedded journalists win awards for covering and transmitting equally horrific stories pictures and details of children dead in the streets, I am not following the thread.

    As a community, we have all been brought into this event, whether volunteering in searches, providing support to the family or even in voting on new legislation, this story, which is as personal as it can be, also is a public one. Hug your kids tonight, and keep your porch light on for all those kids whose parents are waiting on them to come home, but MPR should not worry if they should be deciding what news we can handle