Stearns County to release Wetterling file Sept. 20

Memorial service for Jacob Wetterling
Those attending Jacob Wetterling's memorial service listen during a slideshow of photos of Jacob and his family in the Clemens Fieldhouse at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn. on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News

It's been almost three decades since 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted along a rural road in St. Joseph, Minn., and more than two years since Danny Heinrich led authorities to the place where he buried Wetterling on a Paynesville farm.

Now, finally, a significant portion of the documents and information covering the entire 27-year investigation into the Wetterling case will be opened to the public.

The Stearns County Sheriff's Office has announced that now that a legal dispute over the release of the file has been settled, the state and county documents in the file will be released Thursday morning, Sept. 20.

Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson updating the media
Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson updating the media on the Sauk Centre incident this Thursday afternoon in front of the Stearns County Law Enforcement Center in St. Cloud, Sept. 13, 2018.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Sheriff Don Gudmundson plans to hold a press conference, where he will give a presentation on the key elements of the case and take questions.

Jacob Wetterling was riding his bike home with his brother and a friend on Oct. 22, 1989, when they were confronted by a masked man. The man let the other two boys go and disappeared with Jacob.

The abduction shocked the country and set off a massive search effort and investigation that eventually became international.

It wasn't until Heinrich confessed in September 2016 to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing Wetterling that the case was finally solved. Heinrich is serving a 20-year prison sentence on a child pornography charge as part of a plea agreement.

Why has it taken so long for authorities to release the file?

Stearns County had planned to release the file after Heinrich's confession. Under Minnesota's Data Practices Act, a criminal investigation becomes public once the case is closed.

However, Jacob's parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, sued the county to stop the file from being released, saying certain documents contain personal information about their marriage and family.

Several media organizations, including MPR News, joined the lawsuit, arguing that the documents should be made public.

The lengthy legal dispute was finally resolved in April, when now-retired Judge Ann Carrott ruled that the file must be released. The window for the Wetterlings to file an appeal closed in July.

But even now, the entire file won't be released. The U.S. Department of Justice joined the Wetterlings' lawsuit against the county, arguing all federal documents in the case file should be returned to FBI. Judge Carrott agreed.

Stearns County officials went through the file, separated the federal documents and returned them to the FBI. The remaining documents are now being released.

What can we expect in the file?

Even without the FBI material, the file is expected to contain tens of thousands of pages of documents, such as investigators' reports, tips and transcripts of interviews.

Many people have waited a long time to see this evidence, hoping it will shed light on why it took so long to solve this case, and why investigators didn't close in on Heinrich sooner.

Investigators interviewed Heinrich in 1989 and 1990, but said they didn't have enough evidence to arrest him. The documents could provide insight into mistakes made by law enforcement early in the investigation that allowed Heinrich to get away with this crime for so long.

There also could be some uncomfortable disclosures. This case generated thousands of leads from all over the world. People were encouraged to report anything suspicious, and police followed up on leads that turned out to be dead ends.

While some personal details, such as names of sexual assault victims, will be redacted, most other information won't be.

How will the files be released?

The press conference is scheduled for 10:06 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, at the Stearns County Law Enforcement Center in downtown St. Cloud.

The released files will be available on a thumb drive at the end of the presentation.

MPR reporters will be combing through the file in the days and weeks following the release, and will report on what they learn.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.