By Esme Murphy

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A key investigator in the Jacob Wetterling investigation is offering a strong defense on how that case was handled.

Retired FBI agent Steve Gilkerson said he had to speak in response to the Stearns County Sheriff’s scathing attack on how the FBI handled the Wetterling case. That critique happened two weeks ago when Stearns County released more than 40,000 documents from the investigation.

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Gilkerson was the man who interviewed Danny Heinrich way back in February 1990, less than four months after Wetterling was kidnapped. He held a news conference Tuesday strongly rebutting the criticism of the current Sheriff Don Gudmundson about that interrogation.

“We had no eyewitnesses, we had no fingerprints, we had no DNA, we had no evidence whatever to show that he was the kidnapper,” Gilkerson said.

Gudmundson said the interrogation of Heinrich was “the fatal flaw” in the early months of the probe.

At that interrogation, Heinrich, who was a suspect in the Wetterling case as well as in at least eight molestations of boys in nearby Paynesville and a kidnapping and sexual assault of a boy in nearby Cold Spring, refused to answer all questions. As a result he was released and as Gudmundson said he would fall off investigators radar for 20 years.

“The right hand literally did not know what the left hand was doing,” Gudmundson said.

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Gilkerson took strong issue with Gudmundson’s criticism.

“Sheriff Gudmundson was not there. His hindsight conclusion regarding the interview of Danny Heinrich and the evidentiary value of the tire and shoe imprints, and Heinrich’s polygraph, create a false picture for the public that Danny Heinrich should have been thrown in jail,” Gilkerson said.

Gilkerson did admit he and the lead FBI supervisor were never told about the Paynesville assaults and that Heinrich was a suspect. In hindsight Gilkerson says the arrest and interrogation was a mistake — one that would lead the investigation to focus on other suspects for decades.

“It was a Hail Mary effort, a last effort to get Heinrich to confess,” he said. “There is no mention of Heinrich in the file for 20 years.”

Heinrich confessed in 2016 to Jacob’s abduction and murder as well as the Cold Spring kidnapping and sexual assault. He also led law enforcement to Jacobs’ body.

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On Tuesday, Gudmundson doubled down on his criticism, saying Gilkerson was trying to “defend the indefensible,” and that the investigation amounted to “acts of willful blindness.” You can read Gudmundson’s full recap here.

Esme Murphy