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'Off the rails': Sheriff details massive failure of Wetterling probe

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Stearns County Sheriff Donald Gudmundson
Stearns County Sheriff Donald Gudmundson speaking at the press conference for the release of the Jacob Wetterling investigation files.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated 1:45 p.m. | Posted 12:23 p.m.

Stearns Country Sheriff Don Gudmundson delivered a brutal assessment Thursday of the cascading errors and internal friction among law enforcement that let Jacob Wetterling's killer stay free for decades even as the clues pointed overwhelmingly to Danny Heinrich.

In sometimes heartbreaking detail, Gudmundson described multiple points early in the Wetterling investigation where it was clear Heinrich should have been the prime suspect, but that basic errors in policing allowed him to elude justice as key evidence and tips went unnoticed or unattended.

Former FBI agent Al Garber stands with Jerry Wetterling
Former FBI agent Al Garber, who headed the Wetterling task force, stands with Jerry Wetterling just after the Stearns County Sheriff press conference releasing documents of the Jacob Wetterling investigation.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Perhaps the most startling revelation: Heinrich was arrested at a bar in Roscoe, Minn., in February 1990, a few months after Jacob went missing in October 1989, as some investigators began pulling together the threads of the Wetterling abduction and similar earlier abductions of boys nearby in Paynesville and Cold Spring.

Despite the policework, however, Gudmundson said that inexperienced FBI profilers, including one "fresh out of the academy," concluded after an interrogation that Heinrich did not abduct Wetterling.

Gudmundson called the interrogation the "most fatal flaw" of an investigation that had many. Heinrich was released and largely disappeared from the investigative files for 20 years. Gudmundson suggested that the roles of seasoned investigators from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was minimized as the FBI took control of the case.

Overall, it was an investigation that went "off the rails," the sheriff, who was not part of the original probe, told reporters as he released the entire file filled with thousands of pages of state investigative documents. It "wasn't just on the wrong path, but on the wrong freeway."

He also cautioned that the Thursday document release did not include federal documents in the file, which were returned to the FBI, adding, "You will not have a good or complete understanding of the case since by court order we are prohibited from releasing the FBI files. The practical result is that citizens will not know about ... some consequential events in the Wetterling case."

At least one investigator from that time disputed Gudmundson's characterization of a failed probe. Former Wetterling task force head and FBI agent Al Garber called the analysis  unfair.

"Don wasn't there. He didn't see the day-to-day operations,'' Garber told reporters Thursday after the press conference. "... He doesn't know."

Garber said that when they had to release Heinrich in 1990 because of a lack of evidence, he remained convinced that Heinrich was the suspect.

'Should have set off alarm bells'

The 1989 abduction of 11-year-old Jacob from a rural road near his St. Joseph, Minn., home shocked the nation and gripped Minnesota for more than two decades as his whereabouts remained a mystery and follow-up investigations appeared to go nowhere.

The case generated more than 50,000 leads. Despite extensive publicity, repeated aerial and ground surveys and an initial reward of more than $100,000 after the kidnapping, state, local and federal authorities expressed frustration at the lack of evidence. 

His disappearance and killing remained unsolved until September 2016 when Heinrich confessed to abducting, sexually abusing and then killing Jacob. 

The confession ended a nearly 30-year mystery, but not the agony.

Gudmundson said his review of the case file convinced him that Heinrich should have been the prime suspect from the start. 

He cited evidence from the files, including that Heinrich bore a strong resemblance to the man who attacked boys in Paynesville and sexually assaulted a Cold Spring boy just months before the Wetterling abduction. 

Heinrich also registered "deceptive" during a polygraph test when he was asked questions related to the Cold Spring and Wetterling abductions, and he evaded early police surveillance, shutting off his car lights while being followed, an action that "should have set off alarm bells," Gudmundson said.

In addition, Gudmundson said another known child predator from Stearns County later told investigators that in October 1989, the same month Jacob was abducted, Heinrich had asked him out to "get rid of a body" and that Heinrich had showed him a gun.

Much of the early legwork was squandered, Gudmundson said, as the Stearns County Sheriff's Office lost control of the investigation as it deferred to the FBI. Among the consequences of that, he said, it created an investigative vacuum where "witchcraft," "voodoo," "hypnosis," and other unconventional tactics were taken seriously. 

He cited "a lot of contact with psychics" who were "right about precisely nothing" and most of the investigative horsepower present at the start of the probe "was squandered."

The result was that Heinrich stayed largely out of investigators view and lived undisturbed as authorities pursued other leads to find Jacob's abductor.

Gudmundson said he's asked retired detectives on the case, "'Did you ever think of going back and taking a run at this guy? Why wouldn't you take a run at this guy?'" He said they don't explain it.

Garber took exception to Gudmundson's characterization that the arrest of a drunken Heinrich in 1990 was not orchestrated by law enforcement. 

He said BCA agents, FBI agents and profilers as well as sheriff's department investigators were all involved in the decision of how and when to take him into custody.

"We are not dopes, we're not stupid," Garber said.

Former FBI agent Al Garber rebuffed criticism of investigation
Former FBI agent Al Garber rebuffed criticism of the Jacob Wetterling investigation outside the Stearns Co. Sheriff's office on Sept. 20, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Media sued to get documents

Thursday's document release came after a Stearns County judge in April ruled that while she had "great personal empathy" for the Wetterlings, the law required state investigative documents in the case to be released.

The Wetterlings had fought the release, suing Stearns County, which held the file, arguing that some of the documents included personal information about their marriage and family.

The ruling applied to some documents Patty and Jerry Wetterling, had sought to keep confidential because they contain personal information. 

Media organizations including MPR News had sought release of the documents  under the state Data Practices Act, which specifies that once a criminal investigation is closed, it becomes public data.

The ruling only applied to non-federal documents in the case. The court in March ruled that portions of the file must be returned to the FBI and released under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The FBI said Thursday it's reviewing its Wetterling file under the FOIA.

The Wetterlings said their lawsuit was never about preventing the media from seeing the case file but about protecting "victims and their families from further harm."

Stearns County had planned to release the entire investigative file after Heinrich confessed to kidnapping and killing Jacob

Heinrich is serving a 20-year prison sentence for a child porn charge as part of a plea agreement.

When they initially charged him in 2015, authorities said that they'd discovered DNA evidence tying Heinrich to the Cold Spring case and considered him a "person of interest" in Jacob's abduction.

As part of a plea agreement, Heinrich agreed to the child pornography plea in exchange for confessing to Jacob's kidnapping and murder and leading authorities to his remains. 

Gudmundson was appointed as an interim replacement for John Sanner, who retired in April 2017 after 14 years as Stearns County sheriff. His term expires at the end of this year, and Gudmundson is not running in the November election.

Read and hear more about the Wetterling investigation and its aftermath from the investigative reporters at APM reports.