MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The FBI played a critical role in getting Jacob Wetterling’s killer to confess.
Danny Heinrich led agents to the location in Paynesville where Wetterling’s remains were found nearly 27 years after his kidnapping.
Richard Thornton, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis division, says they needed leverage to get Heinrich to talk. That leverage was the federal child pornography case against him.
Thornton says the tide turned after a judge threw out a motion to suppress evidence in that case.
He calls the week leading up to Heinrich’s courtroom confession extraordinarily challenging and intense.
“It was literally a 24/7 thing for all of us that were involved in that,” Thornton said. “You could make a television drama or movie drama out of it.”
Thornton felt strongly that Heinrich kidnapped Wetterling in 1989. A carefully-crafted deal, as well as Heinrich’s need to control the situation, resulted in him leading agents to Wetterling’s remains in a Paynesville pasture.
“He was walking in as if he was sort of a man on a mission,” Thornton said. “He knew exactly where he was going until he got there, and I think it struck him that it didn’t look the same way it did 25-plus years ago, and almost stopped in his tracks, and he was sort of trying, reassessing. What he was seeing didn’t match up with what he expected to see.”
Investigators needed to help Heinrich retrace his steps. The next day, the 53-year-old told them for the first time what happened the night he kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed Wetterling. It is an admission he would recount days later under oath.
“I substantially believe his story,” Thornton said. “I think there are always things, everybody spins things to be slightly more favorable to themselves. Only he knows whether he went to commit that crime with the intention of ending that way or whether it truly was that he was panicked based on seeing the police car roll by.”
And while Heinrich’s confession was chilling, what may be equally so is how Thornton describes him.
“Horrible human being. A narcissist who is only concerned about what he wants, when he wants it, without any regard for how it impacts anyone else or anything else,” Thornton said.
A man who, Thornton says, we now know showed his true colors time and time again.
“This was not an aberration. This was not somebody who simply made a mistake,” Thornton said. “This is somebody who’s calculated, who was very comfortable with abusing other people for his own pleasure.”
Thornton became the special agent in charge two years ago, so he was not around in the early years of the investigation. He was candid in saying once the emotion of this case settles, the FBI will look at what could have been done differently, if there were missed opportunities, as well as what the pitfalls of the case were.
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