MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Three decades after Jacob Wetterling’s abduction and murder, the Stearns County Sheriff admits the Jacob Wetterling case was badly botched.
It’s an allegation many have long suspected. However, never before has the department admitted the details of the mistakes.
“There are thousands of pages of unnecessary, redundant, detailed and ultimately meaningless reports,” Stearns County Sheriff Donald Gudmundson said. “The right hand literally did not know what the left hand was doing.”
Wetterling was kidnapped and murdered in 1989. Two years ago, Danny Heinrich confessed to the crimes and led authorities to the location of Wetterling’s remains.
On Thursday, Stearns County released more than 40,000 pages of documents; 4,000 pages are being left out, because a judge ordered them returned to the FBI.
Under the law, a criminal case is public once it’s closed. Two years ago, when the documents were first set for release, the family sued the county to stop it. Some media outlets joined the lawsuit, fighting for their release. WCCO-TV was not among the stations joining that lawsuit.
Gudmundson says the investigation into Jacob Wetterling’s abduction really begins in January 1989 when a boy in Cold Spring was abducted and assaulted. However, investigators did not connect earlier abduction and assault attempts to Wetterling until weeks after his disappearance. Gudmundson said the investigation went “off the rails” early on, and Heinrich should have been considered the main suspect from the beginning.
Gudmondson said investigators wasted hours on fruitless leads instead of focusing on Heinrich.
“We can’t change what happened, but we can learn from it,” Gudmundson said.
Gudmundson said investigators dismissed Heinrich as a suspect to the previous assaults due to small discrepancies in the suspect’s description.
According to Gudmundson, the Cold Spring boy told investigators that Heinrich’s car felt “similar” to the one in which he was abducted. Gudmundson said Heinrich’s car should have been tested with a black light, but it was not.
In a lineup to which Heinrich consented, he was not picked out by the Cold Spring boy. The men were not subjected to a voice lineup, Gudmundson said.
Gudmundson said the 1990 FBI interrogation of Heinrich after his arrest was “one of the fatal flaws” in the Wetterling investigation, as the investigators were “inexperienced” in murder investigations. Gudmundson said he is not “pointing the finger” at the FBI for the handling of the investigation.
“I will accept the responsibility and accountability for this, for all law enforcement – that all of us failed,” Gudmundson said during a Thursday press conference.
One new revelation is that the head of the FBI task force at the time, Al Garber, did not pass on information Heinrich shared with his friend Duane Hart. Hart said that Heinrich possessed a black ninja suit, had a handgun, and in the month Jacob was abducted Heinrich had a question for him about how to get rid of a body.
Gudmondson says the files indicate none of this information from Hart, who was himself a suspect in the Wetterling case, was ever investigated.
In 1990, the FBI even arrested Heinrich for the Cold Spring case. Gudmondson blasted the FBI for arresting Henrich when he was drunk; in the subsequent interrogation, Henrich refused to speak about either the Cold Spring case or Wetterling. Heinrich was released and, for decades, the investigation focused on other possible suspects.
“There is no mention of Heinrich in the file for 20 years,” Gudmundson said. “We regard the interrogation as perhaps the fatal flaw in the investigation.”
At the conclusion of the press conference, Garber called Gudmundson’s analysis of the investigation “unfair.”
Another new detail: Within 48 hours of the abduction, one of the Paynesville molestation victims went to law enforcement to say the same person was responsible for the Paynesville cases and Wetterling’s case. Investigators did not follow up on that lead for two months.
WCCO’s Esme Murphy talked to that Paynesville survivor, whose name is Kris Bertelsen, and who said “It’s hard to hear that 30 years later. Better late than never, but still hard.”
Jared Scheierl, the Cold Spring survivor, said he would comment at a later date. Patty Wetterling is currently attending a conference in Washington D.C. for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.