'We Can't Change What's Happened, but We Can Learn From It': Sheriff Outlines Missteps in Wetterling Investigation

September 20, 2018 10:23 PM

The Stearns County Sheriff's Office released more than 41,700 pages of the investigative files linked to the Jacob Wetterling case during a press conference Thursday morning. 

Jacob was 11 years old when he was abducted and later killed while riding his bike with his brother and a friend in St. Joseph. In 2016, nearly 30 years after his abduction, Danny Heinrich confessed and led investigators to Jacob's remains. 


RELATED: The Wetterling Files

The case files were scheduled to be made public in 2017 after a conviction in the decades-old case. The release was delayed when the Wetterling family filed a lawsuit requesting the information concerning their family be kept private.

During the press conference in St. Cloud, Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson, as well as other experts, went through key elements in the case. 

Follow live updates here.

10:10 a.m.

Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson said he decided to go through the investigative files via PowerPoint presentation due to the sheer size of the investigation. He added that FBI files detailing the investigation will not be released due to a court order. 

Jerry Wetterling, Jacob's father, was seen in the crowd at the press conference. 

10:15 a.m.

Gudmundson started the presentation speaking about an assault that occurred in Cold Spring on Jan. 13, 1989. The child that was assaulted was able to give authorities a description of the car, as well as a description of the perpetrator.

Gudmundson said the perpetrator was seen wearing camo, a baseball hat, and possibly had a mustache. 

The following day, investigators followed up on the perpetrator description.  

The boy who was assaulted told authorities the perpetrator had a portable police scanner in the vehicle. The boy said when the perpetrator let him go, the perpetrator said,"You're lucky to be alive." 

On Jan 16., 1989, Danny Heinrich was identified as a possible suspect after the suspect vehicle was identified as his. Heinrich was also known to wear army fatigues. Officers did not interview Heinrich on Jan. 16. 

10:20 a.m.

On Oct. 22, 1989, Jacob Wetterling was abducted while riding his bike with his brother and a friend in St. Joseph. 

Authorities were able to find Jacob's footprints, as well as adult footprints. The perpetrator was seen wearing dark clothing and a nylon stocking over his face. According to Gudmundson, the perpetrator said, "I've got a gun, put the bikes in the ditch." 

Deputies then searched 22 homes in the neighborhood. 

10:25 a.m.

On Nov. 30, 1989, the Cold Spring kidnapping victim was interviewed. Heinrich was interviewed on Dec. 12.

Investigators also looked into eight incidents involving juvenile boys in Paynesville. 

A common phrase used by the perpetrator in the Paynesville incidents were, "Shut up, or I'll kill you." 

A victim of the Paynesville assault spoke with Stearns County authorities, saying he believed the Paynesville assaults and Wetterling abduction were connected. 

10:30 a.m.

On Jan. 5, 1990, the Paynesville police chief said Heinrich should be investigated. Authorities believed Heinrich had a "strong resemblance" to the perpetrators described in the Paynesville assaults. 

Heinrich was subject to a polygraph exam, which he failed. He told authorities he failed because he was nervous, according to Gudmundson. 

Heinrich's vehicle was then photographed, and his tire marks were noted to be similar to the ones found at the Wetterling abduction scene. Heinrich's shoe mark was also found at the scene. 

Heinrich was then placed under surveillance. Authorities noted Heinrich attempted to evade authorities while under surveillance. 

10:35 a.m.

On Jan. 16, 1990, Heinrich's vehicle was repossessed, Gudmundson said. The Cold Spring kidnapping victim said the vehicle felt similar to the one he was in. 

During an interview, Heinrich denied wearing military clothing and boots when he was not with the National Guard. 

Army boots, camo pants and a police scanner were confiscated from Heinrich's home.

10:40 a.m. 

According to Gudmundson, Heinrich turned down participating in a physical line up. He then changed his decision.

On Jan. 26, 1990, the Cold Spring kidnapping victim did not pick Heinrich out of the line up. 

Heinrich was later taken into custody and interrogated at the Stearns County Sheriff's Office in connection to the Cold Spring assault. During the investigation, Heinrich maintained his innocence. 

Gudmundson said a retired detective did not believe Heinrich was the one who committed the crimes. 

Gudmundson called the interrogation the "most fatal flaw" of the investigation. 

10:45 a.m. 

Gudmundson said on Feb. 9, 1990, a supplemental report was given. Subsequently, 10 different background investigations and been conducted on Heinrich. 

According to Gudmundson, Heinrich asked Duane Hart -- a convicted Paynesville sex offender and one-time suspect in the multiple assault investigations -- how to dispose of a body. Gudmundson said Hart suspected Heinrich of the Wetterling abduction.

Hart said he believed whoever kidnapped Wetterling was alone. Family, coworkers and Hart said Heinrich was often alone. 

Gudmundson said it did not appear there was any followup to the information given by Hart. 

10:50 a.m. 

More than 20 years later, Gudmundson said the evidence was revisited. In 2015, DNA results were returned from a baseball hat from one of the investigations. The DNA profile matched that of Heinrich, according to Gudmundson. 

Gudmundson said Heinrich should have been considered a suspect for multiple reasons. Gudmundson said Heinrich was in the National Guard, where he regularly wore camo and learned to disguise himself. He also said fibers found on the Cold Spring boy's snow pants were consistent with fibers found on Heinrich's pants. 

Gudmundson also noted the fact that Heinrich failed a polygraph test, that his shoe prints matched those found at the scene of the Wetterling abduction and that he said the same thing during the investigation of multiple assault cases. 

Gudmundson said the past evidence in the Paynesville assaults should have been revisited immediately following the Wetterling abduction. 

The sheriff added that the detective at the time, "lost control of his own investigation." 

Gudmundson added that detectives were not updating themselves on the case and that there were time gaps between interviews. 

Gudmundson said, "We can't change what's happened, but we can learn from it." 

11 a.m. 

Following the presentation, Gudmundson opened the floor to questions from reporters. 

When questions about Dan Rassier -- a one-time person of interest in the Jacob Wetterling abduction -- came up, Gudmundson declined to answer due to ongoing litigation. 

Gudmundson also issued condolences to the Wetterling family. 

Gudmundson said the flaws in the case included not having experienced homicide detectives, not considering Heinrich as a serious suspect and that background investigations were weak. 

"All of us failed," he said. 


Rebecca Omastiak and Ben Rodgers

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