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Feds: Man charged with child porn is 'person of interest' in Wetterling case

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Wetterling press conference
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced Thursday that Daniel J. Heinrich, of Annandale, Minn., was arrested on child pornography charges and is a 'person of interest' in the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling.
Jim Mone | AP

Updated 5:05 p.m. | Posted 1:13 p.m.

Federal authorities on Thursday named an Annandale, Minn., man as a "person of interest" in the case of Jacob Wetterling, the boy abducted 26 years ago near his home in St. Joseph, Minn.

Officials said they charged Daniel James Heinrich with possessing child pornography after gathering evidence during a July search they said was related to the Wetterling case.

Daniel Heinrich
Daniel Heinrich was arrested on child pornography charges. Authorities said Heinrich is considered a 'person of interest' in the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling.
Courtesy Sherburne County Sheriff's Office

Though now considered a person of interest, Heinrich has not been charged with any crime directly connected to Jacob.

The FBI, however, said shoe patterns at the Wetterling abduction site are consistent with shoes of Heinrich, and that his car's tires were consistent with tread marks on the scene.

Authorities also said DNA evidence links Heinrich to another central Minnesota child abduction case in the Cold Spring area that occurred less than one year before Wetterling's abduction.

Despite that DNA match, Heinrich is not being charged in the Cold Spring case because it's beyond the statute of limitations, U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andy Luger said. 

Heinrich has denied any involvement in Wetterling's disappearance, Luger added.

Jacob was 11 years old when he was abducted by a masked gunman near his St. Joseph home in October 1989. He has not been seen since, and the case remains open.

The Wetterling abduction horrified parents across the country, and led Congress to enact legislation in 1994 that required states to create sex offender registries.

It was one of several child abduction cases that changed how Americans raised their children.

Remembering Jacob
Jerry Wetterling said in 2010 that he maintained a connection with his son by pinning a button with Jacob's picture on his shirt every day.
Ambar Espinoza | MPR News file 2010

The Wetterling abduction and several other cases that attracted national attention made parents less likely to allow their children to play by themselves or after dark. It fueled concerns about "stranger danger."

In a statement Thursday, Jacob's parents Patty and Jerry Wetterling thanked authorities for their investigation of Heinrich. "The search for Jacob is an ongoing investigation and we will watch and learn with everyone else," they said.

Authorities said investigators executing the July 28 search at Heinrich's home found "numerous images of suspected child pornography...maintained in multiple three-ring binders and on the hard drive of a desktop computer."

St. Joseph and Annandale, Minn.
St. Joseph and Annandale, Minn.
MPR News graphic | William Lager

Investigators also recovered "hours of videos, apparently surreptitiously recorded by Heinrich, of neighborhood children delivering newspapers, riding bicycles, playing in public playgrounds and participating in sporting activities," the federal attorney's office said. 

Documents released Thursday also show that in January 1990, a few months after Jacob's abduction, Heinrich gave investigators his shoes and let them remove tires from his car and that the shoes and tires were found to be consistent with shoe and tire marks at the abduction site.

"I can tell you that Mr. Heinrich was looked at very closely back in 1989 and 1990, so this isn't somebody new to us," Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner told reporters. 

Sanner helped lead the search of a farm near the abduction site in 2010, but no charges or arrests resulted from that.

Typically, MPR News does not name suspects unless they've been charged but decided to report Heinrich being named a "person of interest" in the Wetterling abduction given the case's importance to Minnesota.

Minneapolis criminal defense attorney Joe Tamburino said a possession of child pornography charge carries up to 10 years in prison. But he said nearly all federal cases end up with distribution charges as well and often end in plea deals.

Patty Wetterling, Jerry Wetterling
Jerry Wetterling and wife Patty, right, show a photo of their son Jacob. At the time, Jerry Wetterling kept a scrapbook of news clippings about abducted children being reunited with their families years later. It became a source of hope for him.
Associated Press | File 2009

To charge Heinrich with kidnapping or murder, authorities would need a direct link to Wetterling at the time of his disappearance, Tamburino said.  

"Say there was DNA on one of the bicycles of one of the boys who were there," he said. "I would imagine information as to what links him to Jacob Wetterling is being closely held. You wouldn't want to divulge that information until you're actually ready to do a criminal charge."

Alison Feigh, program manager for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, said she hopes today's news leads to even more tips. Jacob's case has resulted in 50,000 leads since his disappearance. 

"We just wait with bated breath, we know just as much as everybody else does," she said. "Today is a day of shock and today is a day of trying to make sense of what is pretty senseless."

Timeline: The search for Jacob Wetterling

Jerry and Patty Wetterling
Patty Wetterling rests on her husband Jerry's shoulder on Oct. 26, 1989, five days after their 11-year-old son Jacob was abducted by a masked man with a gun near their St. Joseph, Minn., home.
Associated Press | File 1989

1989: Abduction

Jacob Wetterling was 11 when he was abducted by an armed man in a mask on Oct. 22, 1989, in St. Joseph, Minn. 

Hundreds of Minnesota National Guard members, law enforcement officials and volunteers searched for Wetterling in the days after his disappearance. 

1990: The Jacob Wetterling Foundation

Supporters formed the Jacob Wetterling Foundation to protect children from sexual exploitation or abduction. It later changed its name to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center.

1994: Federal legislation to register sex offenders

Congress passed a crime bill that includes the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sex Offender Registration Act, which required states to register and track sex offenders. 

2009: Two decades missing

Digging near Wetterling site
Investigators use a tractor-mounted backhoe to dig on a piece of land in St. Joseph on July 1, 2010. Crews dug up a portion of the yard at a rural St. Joseph farm near the site where Jacob Wetterling was abducted in 1989.
Associated Press | File 2010

The 20th anniversary of Wetterling's disappearance attracts renewed attention to his case. Investigators have looked into tens of thousands of tips since 1989, but made little progress. 

2010: No new evidence after Stearns Co. farm search

Authorities converge on a Stearns County farm over the summer but come back with no new evidence

2014: More potential links

Wetterling billboard
Billboards to help find Jacob Wetterling went up throughout the search.
Courtesy of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension

Stearns County investigators look at whether several assaults against teenage boys in another town in the years before Wetterling's disappearance are connected to the case.

2015: Person of interest charged

Federal investigators arrest Daniel J. Heinrich on child pornography charges, and name him a "person of interest" in the Wetterling case, declining to offer many details.

2016: Patty says remains found

Jacob's mother Patty said the remains of her son have been found.

"Our hearts are broken. I am not responding to any media yet as I have no words," Patty Wetterling told KARE 11.

MPR News reporters Jon Collins and Riham Feshir contributed to this report.