MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - Authorities have officially identified a person of interest in the 26-year-old disappearance of Jacob Wetterling in St. Joseph, Minn.
Danny James Heinrich, 52, was arrested at his home in Annandale, Minn. Wednesday night for possession of child pornography during a search for evidence related to a separate kidnapping and sexual assault of a young boy in Cold Spring, Minn. in 1989, that occurred just months before Wetterling's disappearance.
The FBI said Heinrich was questioned 26 years ago in connection with the Wetterling case, but deserved "closer scrutiny." New advances in technology are leading to DNA evidence that link past sexual assault cases.
Suspect denies involvement with Wetterling
Heinrich has denied any involvement in Wetterling’s disappearance and is not currently charged with any crime related to the Wetterling case, but anyone with knowledge of Danny Heinrich's activities in the late 1990s is asked to call the Stearns County Sheriff or FBI.
According to the complaint, the person of interest acknowledged that he had child porn in his home, stating that some of the things law enforcement would find are "pretty damning..."
Heinrich faces significant prison time if convicted on the child pornography charges. He made an appearance in federal court in St. Paul on Thursday and will have a detention hearing in the near future.
New technology, new scrutiny
New advances in technology are leading to DNA evidence that links past sexual assault cases. That means investigators now have technology that wasn't available in 1989 to see if there are links between Danny Heinrich, Jacob Wetterling and other abduction cases.
"As the result of the development of forensic technology which did not exist at the time evidence was collected, Danny Heinrich was determined to be the contributor of DNA on the clothing of the victim of the Cold Spring sexual assault," FBI agent Rick Thornton said.
Shoe print may be a match
Law enforcement discovered shoe prints and tire tracks in a gravel driveway next to the Wetterling abduction site and took cast impressions that may be a match to Heinrich (see photo).
Wetterling news recordings found
According to the criminal complaint, recordings of news reports concerning the abduction of Jacob Wetterling and other missing children were found in Heinrich's home.
Child pornography, boys' sized clothing found
Investigators recovered 19 different 3-ring binders "filled with images of children including naked pubescent boys" at Heinrich's home in Annandale. Photos included known children of sexual exploitation based on a national database -- Wetterling was not among the images found in the photo collection recovered from the home.
Hours of video of young boys engaged in routine activities like playing on the playground, riding bikes, and participating in sports were also found in the residence. U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said the videos appear to have been filmed by Heinrich, and some appear to have been shot by a hidden camera.
In addition to photos and videos, several bins of boys' sized clothing were also found in the home.
Hidden camera footage retrieved
Investigators found videos of neighborhood newspaper delivery boys shot from a hidden camera pointed toward a set of stairs in an apartment building. On numerous occasions, Heinrich can be seen "stepping in front of the camera and dropping what appears to be a coin on one of the stairs and then exiting the video of the camera," the complaint stated.
After a period of time, newspaper delivery boys would enter the building, stop on the stairway, and bend over to retrieve the coin. The camera was set up in a manner "to capture the image of the boys bending over with their buttocks oriented toward the camera," according to the complaint.
Connection to Cold Spring kidnapping, sexual assault
DNA allegedly connects Heinrich to a previously unsolved abduction and sexual assault case in Cold Spring, Minn. on Jan. 13, 1989. The victim reported being approached by a vehicle with an adult white male while he was walking home from the Side Cafe around 10 p.m.
According to the victim, the driver got out of the car and forced him into the back seat then drove to a gravel road 15 minutes away where he sexually assaulted the boy. The driver told the victim he was "lucky to be alive" and "if the police got a lead on the driver he would get him after school and shoot him."
The driver then drove the child back near Cold Spring and released him, telling him not to look back or he would be shot. The victim described the automobile as a dark blue, four-door automatic transmission with a blue cloth interior and front bucket seats -- this general description matched Heinrich's vehicle at the time.
8 molestation incidents in Paynesville
Heinrich may be responsible for 8 different molestation incidents in Paynesville, Minn. in the 1980s.
According to the complaint, there were "multiple incidents during which juvenile males were physically and/or sexually assaulted in various locations in the town of Paynesville" between 1986 and 1988. The perpetrator of these assaults was described by the various victims as a white male in his 30's, with more details matching Heinrich.
Each of the Paynesville assaults took place at the Plaza Hotel, less than a mile from Heinrich's residence. The attacks typically involved the suspect approaching boys approximately 12 years old in a public place then attacking and groping them. Charges say the masked suspect sometimes threatened to kill the child as part of the assault.
Background: Jacob Wetterling's disappearance
Jacob Wetterling was abducted at gunpoint near his St. Joseph, Minnesota home on Oct. 22, 1989. The 11-year-old was riding his bike with his brother and a friend. Jacob's mother, Patty Wetterling, is still hopeful her son will be found, and now works to help other families of missing children.
"We will not rest until we bring Jacob home,” Minnesota BCA Superintendent Drew Evans said at Thursday's news conference.
Wetterling family statement
The Wetterling family would like to thank all involved in the investigation of Danny Heinrich and his crimes against children. The search for Jacob is an ongoing investigation and we will watch and learn with everyone else. Right now we know what is being reported. We know what you all know.
For 26 long years, we have said that somebody knew something. If you know anything about this man, his ties to St. Joseph in 1989 and his victimization of children or since, please call the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department at 320-259-3700 or 320-656-6625.
We also need to point out the obvious. Child pornography is devastating, harmful criminal activity. If you know of anyone who is engaged in looking at, producing or sharing child pornography, please call the police or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (1-800-THE-LOST) so that these people do not harm another child.
We are so grateful the prayers, the support and the hope shared in our search for Jacob and the search for answers. Who took Jacob? Where is he? What happened?
Today we ask for a little time. We will be available for comment next week but ask for some space at this point in time. We have no further comment.
Patty and Jerry Wetterling