MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The person of interest in Jacob Wetterling’s kidnapping – Danny Heinrich — pleaded not guilty to child pornography charges earlier this week, and has also always denied having anything to do with the abduction.
Now, we’re hearing from people who pointed the finger at him just days after Wetterling’s disappearance.
In his time working with inmates, Bruce Petersen got to know quite a few by name.
“I did almost 27 years with the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department working at the jail,” Petersen said.
In the 1980s, a young man with dark glasses became one of them. It was Heinrich.
“I remember a young, skinny, kind of shy guy. A loner type,” Petersen recalled.
In four years, Heinrich was arrested twice for drinking and driving, and once for burglary. Petersen remembers he didn’t want to follow authority.
“He seemed to be a bit passive aggressive,” he said.
Three years after Heinrich’s last arrest, Wetterling went missing.
“It had an impact on a lot of people,” Petersen said.
Along with dozens of other officers, Petersen worked overtime for weeks at the Wetterling property, checking the family’s mail and answering tip calls.
“It was very tough, somber moods, lots of hugging going on,” he remembered.
But it’s what Petersen and his colleagues did just days after Wetterling was kidnapped he’s thought most about these last four months. Back then, investigators asked Stearns County correctional officers to review the jail roster and to flag anyone they should focus on. Petersen recalls they made a list of at least 10 people.
“One of them was Danny Heinrich,” he said.
Court documents indicate investigators talked to Heinrich two months after Wetterling’s abduction.
Author Rob Ebben has spent the last five years researching what happened that night.
“Everything I’ve seen indicates Heinrich is the guy,” Ebben said.
Pouring over old newspaper stories and police reports and posing questions on different crowdsourced sleuthing websites.
Ebben published a book about the case last spring. He writes under the name Robert Dudley.
After Heinrich’s arrest last fall, he’s out with a second edition “Answers in the Sand.” In this book, he goes back and poses new questions now that a person of interest has been named.
One part of the investigation seems to trouble Ebben most: the tire tracks left in Dan Rassier’s driveway, the area where Wetterling disappeared.
In 2003, a man named Kevin came forward to investigators to say he drove in the driveway the night. He said he was curious to see what happened after hearing the kidnapping call on a police scanner.
After Kevin’s admission, Stearns County shifted their focus to finding a kidnapper on foot but Ebben believes the evidence shows there were two sets of tire tracks left in the driveway that night.
He checked tire measurements on Kevin’s Grand Prix with Heinrich’s Ford EXP and found the tracks didn’t match and one car was wider. So, why rule out both sets of tires?
“It doesn’t make any sense that his presence explains anything actually,” Ebben said, talking about Kevin’s presence.
“That’s why I don’t understand how do you eliminate a Ford EXP knowing that’s the spacing. How do you eliminate that car with a bigger car?” He asks.
Ebben believes zeroing in on an abduction on foot cost the case 10 years and is the real reason the spotlight was put on the neighbor to the abduction site, Rassier. Ebben still passes on his tips to investigators, convinced answers are close.
It’s the same thing a former jailer in Waite Park still waits for.
“To this day, we’re all still hoping,” Petersen said.
The Stearns County Sheriff’s Office did not return our calls for a comment on this story.
Ebben will host a talk about his latest book next month at the Paynseville Public Library. It’s scheduled for Monday, March 28 at 6:30 p.m.