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Sheriff: 5 critical errors in the Wetterling investigation

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Stearns County Sheriff showing photos of tire tracks and footprints
Stearns County Sheriff showing photos of tire tracks and footprints at the site of the Wetterling abduction during the presentation following the release of the files from the Jacob Wetterling investigation.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In the months after Jacob Wetterling was abducted in October 1989, his killer seemed to be right under the nose of investigators who took 27 years to solve the case.

Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson pointed out flaw after flaw in the investigation before releasing of a trove of new case files Thursday. In a press conference, he pointed to several key missteps and misjudgments that botched an arrest of Danny Heinrich, who admitted to kidnapping and killing Wetterling more than two decades later. 

Gudmundson also articulated how agents misinterpreted key evidence and end up on a long, winding path of thousands of leads that went nowhere.

Gudmundson targeted the FBI, largely blaming them for taking the investigation "off the rails."

The FBI special agent in charge of the investigation at the time, Al Garber, defended the investigation and his agency's work calling Gudmundson's comments ridiculous and outrageous. Garber attended Gudmundson's press conference.

The FBI's files remain sealed. For now, the best picture of the Wetterling investigation comes from the thousands of pages of county and state records into the case.  

Here are five of the most crucial errors made by law enforcement in the Wetterling investigation, as presented by Gudmundson.

A botched arrest, interrogation Heinrich interrogation

Heinrich was arrested while drunk at a bar in Roscoe, Minn., on Feb. 9, 1990, on charges he kidnapped and molested a boy in Cold Spring, Minn, in January 1989 — a full nine months before Jacob was grabbed and killed.

No officer would choose to arrest a drunk man, Gudmundson said.  

FBI officials interrogated Heinrich, who maintained his innocence and said he was being framed. Gudmundson called this interview the "most fatal flaw" in the Wetterling investigation. Without enough evidence to keep him locked up, Heinrich spent just a night in jail.

Garber maintained Thursday his agents handled the situation properly. Garber said Gudmundson wasn't involved in the investigation and that his investigators did not have the evidence necessary to hold Heinrich any longer or charge him:

But Garber said he remained convinced that Heinrich was the suspect.

"Absolutely. Absolutely,'' he said. "We (were) trying for evidence. We may think this guy did it, which we did. ... But we can't say we are going to give up and walk away'' and not follow up on other tips or leads.

Photographs of boys, evasion of cops

In January 1990, investigators obtained a search warrant for Heinrich's father's home in Paynesville, Minn. Some boys who were victims of assaults in the area described their assailant as wearing camouflage, dark clothes, boots and that he had a police scanner. During the search, police found army boots, camouflage clothing, two police scanners, and a vest. 

They also noted a few photos contained in a locked trunk at the home. The pictures were of a boy wearing a towel coming out of the shower, a boy in underwear, and three more children, fully clothed. 

Heinrich told investigators the photos "just don't look right," and the police didn't confiscate them. 

That same month, a report said Heinrich — under surveillance at the time — appeared to make evasive driving maneuvers, doubling back, making exaggerated turns, driving through back roads and turning his lights off, losing his tail. That was important, Gudmundson said because such behavior should have set off alarm bells for investigators.

Shoes imprints and tire treads

Heinrich's car tires and shoes matched imprints found near the scene of Jacob's abduction.

Two days after the kidnapping, tire tracks at the scene were identified as those from Sears Superguard Radials. While interviewing Heinrich on Dec. 12, 1989, an investigator noticed that Heinrich's vehicle had the same type of tires. 

Gudmundson noted other possible suspects were dropped from the list because they didn't have the Sears tires. 

On Jan. 12, 1990, Heinrich's shoes were sent to the FBI lab. Analysis found one of his shoes matched an imprint found at the same scene. 

These pieces of evidence appeared to fall off the radar as the investigation turned away from Heinrich, the sheriff said.

These pieces of evidence, according to Gudmundson, should've had investigators treating Heinrich as a primary suspect.

Late, insufficient links of Wetterling case to Cold Spring and Paynesville incidents

In the late 1980s, eight young boys were attacked near Paynesville, there was an abduction of a boy in Cold Spring, and then came Jacob's abduction in rural St. Joseph. All incidents were nearby each other and within a 5-year span. 

All victims and witnesses described their attacker as a husky, white man, who wore dark clothing and who had a deep, raspy voice. He asked most of the boys their name and age. He sometimes wore camouflage and usually covered his face. 

Many of the boys were told to keep still and quiet or they'd be killed. Some were told to run away and not look back, or they'd be killed. 

When Heinrich was part of a suspect line-up in 1990, only two boys who were earlier attacked attended. Gudmundson said all the Paynesville victims and the boys present during Jacob's abduction should've been there too. Investigators also did not ask those men in the lineup to speak or use key phrases (like those used in the earlier attacks). 

 Duane Hart interview

In March 1991, Garber interviewed Duane Hart — a convicted sex offender — who told the FBI agent about a visit he made to Heinrich's apartment. Hart and Heinrich were friends. 

While there, Heinrich showed Hart a dark pistol, consistent with the gun Jacob's friend and brother remember from the night he was taken. He had two police scanners, one similar to what the Cold Spring victim said he saw. 

Heinrich had a black "ninja" suit next to his bed, like the outfit a Paynesville victim described. 

Heinrich also asked Hart about the best way to get rid of a body. 

Gudmundson said of the investigation: "The right hand literally did not know what the left hand was doing."

While not the sheriff at the time of the investigation, Gudmundson said "we all failed."