Twenty-seven years after his disappearance led to the creation of "Jacob's Law" child protection statutes across the country, the remains of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling have finally been found, Minnesota authorities said Saturday.
Details of where and when Jacob's remains were found weren't disclosed, but the Stearns County Sheriff's Office said the identification was confirmed by a medical examiner and a review by a forensic expert specializing in teeth.
Jacob's mother, Patty Wetterling, told NBC station KARE of Minneapolis that "our hearts are broken."
The family posted a separate statement on the website of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, an organization started in Jacob's honor to prevent the exploitation of children.
"We are in deep grief. We didn't want Jacob's story to end this way," the family said. "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."
"Jacob, you are loved," it said.
Jacob, along with his brother and a friend, were riding their bikes around town near St. Joseph, Minn., about 25 miles west of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, when a masked gunman kidnapped him and let the others go.
Patty Wetterling, who always kept hope that her son would be found alive, became a national advocate for children. In 1994, Congress passed a law named after Jacob Wetterling requiring states to establish sex offender registries.
Minnesota police aggressively pursued all available leads over the years, but no solid leads emerged until last year, when authorities arrested Danny Heinrich, 53, and declared him a "person of interest."
They recovered books of child pornography, as well as a DNA sample allegedly tying Heinrich to the kidnapping and sexual assault of another Stearns County boy from the same time period. No charges can be filed in that case, however, as the statute of limitations has passed.
Heinrich's brother, David Heinrich, his voice breaking with emotion, said Saturday that his prayers were with the Wetterling family.
"I want the Wetterlings to know I had no idea," David Heinrich told KARE. "I am happy for them that they know — not that he's passed, but at least they have closure."
Jacob's disappearance helped focus national attention on the sexual predation of children. In 1994, Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, requiring states to implement registries of sex offenders and those who commit other crimes against children.
The law was amended in 1996 by what's known as Megan's Law, which requires law enforcement agencies to make such information public. Numerous states passed similar laws, some of them named specifically for Jacob.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith both issued statements wishing the Wetterlings solace and closure.
"For nearly 27 years, Minnesotans have held the Wetterling family in their thoughts and prayers, as they never gave up hope and never stopped searching for their beloved Jacob. Today, we continue to offer our love and support, as the Wetterling family finally brings their son home to rest," Dayton said.
"That pain won’t end today. But as the Wetterling family finally brings Jacob home, I hope they will find love and support in the thousands of families, including mine, in Minnesota, who have hurt, hoped, and prayed alongside them," Smith added in her own statement.