Sheriff: Wetterling investigation 'went off the rails' early on

Authorities released the Jacob Wetterling case file to the public Thursday—more than 41,000 pages detailing the nearly 30-year investigation from Jacob’s abduction in 1989 to his killer Danny Heinrich’s confession in 2016. 

Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson detailed the investigation with a power point presentation to reporters Thursday, ahead of the case file release. He repeatedly emphasized the investigation “went off the rails” early on. 

Jacob was taken at gunpoint by a masked man on October 22, 1989 near his St. Joseph, Minnesota home. In 2016, Heinrich confessed to abducting, sexually assaulting and killing Jacob. Heinrich was an early suspect in the Wetterling case.  

Gudmundson, who became the Stearns County sheriff earlier this year, said the case file does not really begin on the night of Jacob’s abduction in October, but rather nine months earlier on January 13, 1989 when 12-year-old Jared Scheierl was kidnapped and sexually assaulted in Cold Spring. Heinrich was responsible for both attacks.

It was not until November 30, 1989 after Jacob disappeared that investigators brought up the connections to the Cold Spring attack. Authorities were basically "spinning their wheels" for six weeks at a critical point in the search for Jacob, Gudmundson said. 

Gudmundson said Heinrich should have been the main suspect from the start of the Wetterling investigation. 

Documents show within 48 hours of Jacob’s abduction, a Paynesville victim of molestation had already made the to Heinrich, but the sheriff says the task force sat on the tip. 

“Because it was quick, military proficient,” said Gudmundson. “The tip wasn’t followed up until Jan. 5 more than two months after it was received. The young man’s assessment absolutely spot on.”

The sheriff detailed all the strong evidence that immediately pointed to Heinrich, including his physical description, tire tread on his car, his shoes and being deceptive on the polygraph test--highlighting the investigative missteps that were already occurring early on in the investigation. 

The FBI’s arrival on the Wetterling case right away led investigators to focus their search too broadly, Gudmundson said, chasing tips in California, Vermont and Iowa. Local law enforcement “lost control,” when the suspect, Heinrich, was right in front of them. 

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

Gudmundson said the “fatal flaw” in the Wetterling investigation occurred when the FBI interviewed Heinrich in 1990, after he was arrested for the Cold Spring attack.

“One of the agents who interviewed Heinrich was fresh out of the academy,” said Gudmundson. “Perhaps had never interviewed a crime suspect in his life.”

Heinrich was eventually released. 

By June 1990, Gudmundson said Heinrich was essentially forgotten and his name was not mentioned again in the files for more than 20 years—until he was named a person of interest in the case in 2015. DNA evidence led investigators back to Heinrich, where a search of his home uncovered child pornography, handcuffs, duct tape, and a camouflage shirt. With a confession from Heinrich, investigators would later find Jacob's remains.

“There is no good explanation for why past detectives didn’t take a run at Heinrich these past few decades,” Gudmundson said. 

In the end, Gudmundson said, “all of us failed.”