PAYNESVILLE, Minn. (KMSP) - Danny Heinrich's face has been plastered in the headlines for weeks now after he was publicly named as a person of interest in Jacob Wetterling's abduction.
The arrest of Danny Heinrich, and his potential connection to the Jacob Wetterling abduction, has many people focusing their attention on the small Central Minnesota town of Paynesville.
Currently, Heinrich is sitting behind bars -- accused of having child porn. Additionally, he's denied any involvement in the Wetterling case. Fox 9 looked into the past of the 52-year-old man and discovered some troubling early years. As well as new information about the car Heinrich owned at the time of the Wetterling abduction.
Chris Larsen, a Paynesville resident, remembers crossing paths with Heinrich a couple times in the mid-to-late 1980s. Usually it was while hanging out with a group of guys fishing on Lake Koronis.
"A lot is coming back to memory. The guy did drink a lot. There was a couple times in the car. We went to get beer. The guy was drinking. Actually, I think one time, the cops pulled us over and confiscated all the beer,” Larsen said of Heinrich.
Heinrich, the middle of three boys, attended the local schools growing up, but dropped out in high school. State records show some minor brushes with the criminal justice system -- including an arrest for burglary in 1984. The court transcripts describe a lonely, bored young man, broken up over his parent’s divorce. Documents also how he was in need of money after losing some cash gambling.
"I just remember generally he was a strange type person. But there are a lot of strange type people around,” Said Al Garber who supervised the FBI’s initial investigation. "We watched that guy for weeks. 24/7. Really good surveillance team and techniques in hopes of seeing him do something that would make us believe we could get evidence and he never did."
Recent court documents in Heinrich's child porn case revealed that by early 1990 the FBI had foot print and tire tracks from Heinrich that appeared to match those found at the Wetterling crime scene. Investigators had taken the two rear tires from Heinrich's 1982 blue Ford EXP to make the comparison.
But it still wasn’t enough for an arrest.
"They have to, as you heard in the news conference, they have to have a unique feature that differentiates them from all the other makes like Michelin, BF Goodrich of that size and wear. There's millions. It has to be something unique,” Garber said.
As for that car and its whereabouts in Paynesville, Fox 9 tracked down the family that claims they eventually bought it from Heinrich having no idea of its possible connection to the Wetterling abduction.
Roger Larsen remembers his wife paying Heinrich $1,000 for the vehicle, buying it right out of the driveway of Heinrich's dad just down the road from their house. The Larsens drove it for several years before they say one of their sons crashed it.
Chris Larsen said the car sat on the family property through about 2007 when the Larsens cleaned out the yard and sent it to a local scrap yard.
" It was kinda weird seeing it on the news. As soon as I did, the next day, I went down to the guys we thought we gave it to for scrap. See if they still had it. Because with today's technology, with the FBI and other investigators, if Jacob was kidnapped in that car, there should still be evidence in there,” Larsen said.
Larsen was frustrated to learn the car was likely fully scrapped and destroyed, but he and others are still left wondering if there are other clues in Paynesville that might connect Heinrich to the Wetterling abduction, as well as a painful era for the small community of 2,500 dating back to the mid-to-late 1980s.
The federal search warrant confirms that Heinrich was a suspect in a rash of still unsolved attacks on young boys at night. All of the incidents too place within blocks of Heinrich's then downtown apartment.
"I was petrified. Terrified. I left my bike where it happened and ran home because I thought I could get home faster running than riding my bike,” Troy Cole recalled thinking the night he was attacked.
"He just said, 'shut up or I'll kill you if you make a noise.’ He had a hand over my mouth,” Cole continued “I pretty much thought I was going to die that night."
Garber believes the cases probably are all connected.
"Common sense tells you they are. Proximity, ages, but that doesn't mean a lot in the end because it's not evidence. It's interesting."
Another intriguing lead from the child pornography search warrant is an apparent arson and burglary in Paynesville just weeks after Wetterling’s abduction. The house at the time was deemed a total loss. Since then the home has been demolished and rebuilt.
The family who lived there at the time was away that weekend on a deer hunting trip. They told authorities in February of 1990 they were familiar with Danny Heinrich. That he'd often come by the property with his brother to hang out with some of their kids and nephews.
Fox 9 spoke to the family they remember sifting through charred personal belongings, noting that some of their photographs had been stolen.
Garber explained that all of the little nuggets contained within the search warrant, the dots that investigators are trying to connect, are interesting, but stresses they are not evidence.
All these years later, with all of the suspects they have run through, he still waits for the evidence that will answer the question: what happened to Wetterling?