The release Thursday of thousands of pages of files in the 1989 abduction and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling turned into a verbal scuffle between local and federal investigators over allegations that the investigation “went off the rails” shortly after the Minnesota boy’s disappearance.
Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson pointed out at a news conference that investigators had Jacob’s killer, Danny James Heinrich, on their radar as early as January 1990. It wasn’t until September 2016, however, that Heinrich, who was embroiled in a federal child pornography investigation, admitted he abducted and murdered Jacob, who vanished Oct. 22, 1989, as he rode his bike near his St. Joseph home with his brother and a friend.
Heinrich led investigators to Jacob’s remains, which were buried on a farm about 30 miles from where he kidnapped the boy. As part of a plea deal, Heinrich, now 55, is serving 20 years in federal prison on a child porn charge.
Gudmundson said Thursday that investigators wished the case had turned out differently.
“Stress and anxiety put us into tunnel vision,” the sheriff said. “All of us failed.”
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Gudmundson told reporters Thursday that he believed they would find the most important information in the early part of the files, “where the investigation went off the rails.” He pointed out multiple instances in which Heinrich’s name surfaced early in the investigation, including with a shoe print and tire tracks at the Wetterling abduction scene that he said matched Heinrich and his vehicle.
The sheriff said he could not explain why investigators in 1989 missed or dismissed the clues.
“Because the case was so big, it was like a whisper in the crowd,” Gudmundson said. “But it should have been a persistent whisper in the crowd.”
Gudmundson also said that the public would not have a complete understanding of the case from the files being released because of the absence of crucial FBI files that a judge ordered the county to return to the federal government prior to releasing their own files. Of the more than 53,000 pages in the initial file, the FBI pulled about 12,500 of them, the St. Cloud Times reported.
After Gudmundson left the podium, former FBI agent Al Garber stepped up and challenged the sheriff’s account of the investigation. Garber led the federal investigation into Wetterling’s disappearance back in 1989.
“He has his beliefs, he has his understanding and he was going to make it fit the facts in this case,” Garber said. “I was there. I saw it every day.”
Gudmundson returned to the podium and told Garber to “take it outside.” He also urged the FBI to release its own files on the case, which was perhaps the most notorious unsolved disappearance in Minnesota history prior to Heinrich’s confession.
Some of the details Gudmundson said should have led investigators to Heinrich early in the search for Jacob included:
Similarities between Jacob’s abduction and the abduction in January of that year of a boy in Cold Springs. The victim in that case, Jared Scheierl, described the vehicle in which he was abducted as being a close match to the car Heinrich owned.
Gudmundson said it took investigators more than a month after the Wetterling abduction to suspect a possible connection between the two cases, and circumstantial evidence in the Cold Spring attack pointed to Heinrich as early as February 1990. DNA evidence later proved Heinrich’s involvement in Scheierl’s abduction.
Watch Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson’s entire news conference below.
There were several similar assaults in Paynesville -- where Jacob was later found buried -- in which a heavyset man wearing face paint or a mask threatened victims with a gun. When Jacob was abducted, his brother and friend described a masked man with a gun accosting them.
The suspect descriptions in many of the cases, including at least one drawing by a police sketch artist, greatly resembled Heinrich, the sheriff said.
The Wetterling task force also focused their attention on an alternate suspect, despite Heinrich failing a polygraph test and the shoe and tire tracks near the scene pointing to him as a suspect. That man’s name is being withheld because he was later cleared of the crime.
The Paynesville police chief in early 1990 said Heinrich should be considered a suspect in the case and, in a later interview, Heinrich was deceptive about the Wetterling and Scheierl kidnappings, Gudmundson said.
At some point in the beginning of 1990, Heinrich was placed under surveillance. Gudmundson said that Heinrich became aware of the tail and lost the officers following him.
“His actions certainly should have set off alarm bells,” Gudmundson said.
Investigators searching Heinrich’s property in 1990 found a trunk full of photos of children, which Gudmundson said “inexplicably…were not confiscated.” Heinrich later burned the photos.
He also asked a friend the month Jacob disappeared about getting rid of a body, Gudmundson said.
In February 1990, an intoxicated Heinrich was arrested and interrogated by the FBI, a move Gudmundson said was “perhaps the most fatal flaw in the Wetterling investigation.” The sheriff said not enough planning went into the arrest and the questioning following Heinrich’s arrest was left up to inexperienced detectives.
Ultimately, without enough to hold him, investigators had to release Heinrich.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Garber described as “ridiculous” Gudmundson’s assertion that the FBI disregarded Heinrich as a suspect. He said Heinrich asked for an attorney during questioning, which halted the interview.
“I want the picture to be clear,” Garber told reporters. “We’re not dopes. We’re not stupid. We didn’t do everything right, but we didn’t do this.”
Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, issued a statement Wednesday expressing concern for anyone who might be hurt by the release of the documents, including people investigated who were later cleared in their son’s disappearance and death. The couple sued Stearns County last year to prevent some of the files from being made public, but lost the case.
“Our hearts hurt for anyone who is pained or hurt from the release of this file,” the Wetterlings said in the statement.
Patty Wetterling told the Star Tribune that over the years, victims of other crimes came forward asking investigators to look at those who’d hurt them as possible suspects in Jacob’s disappearance. Wetterling said a neighbor once told her he’d turned in his grandfather and his uncle as potential suspects.
“All I could say is, ‘Sorry, I’m so sorry,’” Wetterling told the newspaper.
Patty Wetterling was absent from Thursday’s news conference, as she was en route to an event at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, D.C. Jerry Wetterling attended the news conference on behalf of the family.