February 21, 2017 09:16 AM
For decades, the Jacob Wetterling case was one of the biggest mysteries in Minnesota.
The 11-year-old boy from St. Joseph was abducted not far from his home in 1989.
Ultimately, 53-year-old Danny Heinrich admitted he kidnapped, assaulted and murdered him. But coercing that information out of him was a challenge.
The negotiations to convince Heinrich, a volatile suspect, to confess were led by a team of federal attorneys – the Special Prosecution Team – including Steve Schleicher and Julie Allyn.
The team was formed three years ago to handle the most complex crimes for the U.S. Attorney's Office, including terrorism, sex trafficking, money laundering, fraud, tax evasion, public corruption and crimes on Indian Nation. Instead of one attorney per case, a group of attorneys with expertise in different fields investigate together.
They partner with city, county and state agencies, and present those facts to grand juries made up of everyday citizens.
The team determines what, if any, criminal charges are brought and has the power to negotiate plea deals. Of the 15 prosecutions so far, all have resulted in convictions except one, which had a split verdict.
Heinrich was already in custody on a child pornography charge and was in no hurry to give up a secret he'd kept to himself for 27 years. It took coaxing and leveraging the law, a tactic on which Chief Federal Judge John Tunheim signed off.
“This one was different, different in the sense that it solves a heinous crime that was on the minds of so many Minnesotans for so many years and affected so many children and their parents," Tunheim said.
Tunheim went on to sentence Heinrich for a crime he admitted to, but was never charged with. It was a controversial compromise.
"This was really an attempt to find out what happened to Jacob more than it was an attempt to find someone who possessed child pornography in his house,” Tunheim said.
It was in his federal courtroom in Minneapolis where Heinrich was publicly punished last October. Tunheim put him away for two decades on one child pornography charge.
But everyone else sitting in the room, absorbing that punishment, understood that Heinrich was a much bigger criminal than that.
Most importantly, it affected Patty and Jerry Wetterling, Jacob’s parents.
"We didn't know this man, part of it still made no sense to us,” Patty Wetterling said.
Heinrich was a stranger. His chilling confession confirmed he was capable and culpable of worse, according to federal prosecutor Julie Allyn.
“We did believe at the time this was going to be the man who abducted Jacob Wetterling,” Allyn said.
In 2015, the unit took a fresh look at the decades-old abduction.
“They were convinced this man was willing to talk and they wanted to know if we would negotiate some terms," Patty Wetterling said.
Tunheim oversaw the process and was sensitive to criticism that this might be a deal with the devil.
"I think people have to realize there is likely no way he would've divulged anything about Jacob without this agreement," Tunheim said.
Knowing that, the Wetterlings supported the plan to leverage the law.
To solve Minnesota's highest-profile case, attorneys had to develop a rapport with the volatile suspect and his attorneys. There were face-to-face meetings in jail, recorded phone calls, and information came in bits.
Heinrich was in custody and in no hurry to give up a secret he'd kept to himself for 27 years, until September 2016, when the moment of truth came out.
“The first thing we were given was a location where the remains might be found,” Patty Wetterling said.
Schleicher says Heinrich hinted Jacob's remains were hidden in a rural field, about half an hour from where he was abducted and close to the Wetterlings' home in St. Joseph.
Investigators had been in those woods before and came up empty, but according to Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, investigators were not taking any changes this time.
“He was able to take them to the exact spot and to some extent show them where to start digging, and that led to the result,” Luger said.
Buried just below the surface were a red hockey jacket and bone fragments.
"We were all … just kind of took a quiet moment and let it happen, realizing what we'd found," Schleicher said.
A second dig confirmed the attorney's suspicions and the Wetterlings' fears.
“For us, Jacob was alive until we found him," Patty said at her son’s funeral Sept. 9.
With what little faith the Wetterlings had left of finding their son alive gone, attorneys, including Allyn, realized the next step meant everything.
"I was certainly worried that the confession might not happen," Allyn said.
Luger recalled how stressful that period was, with attorneys working around the clock.
"I categorize this by what happened each day sometimes by the hour,” Luger said.
Prosecutors tested the crime scene debris and human remains with DNA technology which didn't exist when Jacob was kidnapped in 1989.
With science on their side, attorneys convinced Heinrich to reveal he kidnapped, sexually assaulted and shot Jacob to death. He also had to admit he attacked Jared Scheierl months earlier. In exchange, Heinrich wouldn't be tried for murder.
While it wasn’t a conviction, it was a confession.
"It was a very emotional experience, from being there where the remains were located to sitting across from him in court, to asking him those questions and interviewing him in jail," Schleicher said.
The intense negotiations led to finding the Wetterlings' son and to finding justice.
“There was a sense of accomplishment,” Jerry Wetterling said. “’Ok, we got answers,’ but it was overridden with huge sadness. This was real. Jacob is not coming home.”
After being moved around the prison system, Heinrich is now at a federal prison in Boston. He was sentenced to 20 years. He’ll spend at least 17 years in prison.
All federal inmates must serve 85 percent of their sentences. Heinrich will be 70 years old when he's eligible for release. Then he faces civil commitment as a sexual predator.
Updated: February 21, 2017 09:16 AM
Created: February 20, 2017 06:13 PM
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