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The Wetterling case: What we know about Heinrich's 1990 arrest

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Stearns County Sheriff Donald Gudmundson
Stearns County Sheriff Donald Gudmundson during his presentation accompanying the release of documents from the 27 year long Jacob Wetterling investigation.
Evan Frost | MPR News

More than 25 years before Danny Heinrich finally confessed to kidnapping and killing Jacob Wetterling, he was arrested and interviewed by investigators from the FBI and Stearns County.

Danny Heinrich
Danny Heinrich
Sherburne County Sheriff's Office

Then, they let him go. 

In Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson's devastating analysis of what went wrong in the Jacob Wetterling investigation, he cited that arrest and interrogation on Feb. 9, 1990, as "perhaps the most fatal flaw."

During a news conference in St. Cloud on Thursday, the day the investigative file was released, Gudmundson was critical of how the arrest was handled. And he took issue with FBI profilers' apparent conclusions that Heinrich wasn't the one who'd taken Jacob Wetterling in October 1989, or kidnapped and sexually assaulted Jared Scheierl in Cold Spring in January 1989.

Heinrich had been in investigators' crosshairs weeks before his arrest. He'd failed a polygraph test. His car had been searched, his tires examined, and he'd been under surveillance, when he tried to evade officers.

In late January of 1990, investigators searched Heinrich's father's home in Paynesville, where they took boots, a camouflage shirt and pants, two police scanners and a zippered vest, as well as photos of children.

They'd taken carpet and fiber samples from his car. And he appeared in a police lineup, but Scheierl didn't pick him out as his attacker.

Danny Heinrich lineup
Danny Heinrich appeared in a photo lineup Jan. 26, 1990.
Stearns County Sheriff's Office

Then, on Feb. 9, Stearns County detectives arrested Heinrich at a bar in the small town of Roscoe. He was taken to the Stearns County Sheriff's Office for questioning.

Gudmundson said a retired detective told him Heinrich had been drinking and was intoxicated when he was arrested.

"Planning of the time, place of an arrest sometimes is the most important part of investigation," Gudmundson said. "One would never willingly arrest someone drunk late at night. That was a serious mistake."

Heinrich demanded to know if he was under arrest, Gudmundson said. He was told he was being arrested for the Cold Spring kidnapping and assault. Heinrich maintained he was innocent and said he was being framed, Gudmundson said.

Almost 15 years later, on July 28, 2015, as Heinrich's home was being searched, he told a Stearns County investigator about his previous arrest. 

Heinrich said two men met him at the Roscoe bar, took him to St. Cloud and interrogated him "for hours," "quite a long time."

Heinrich said they had a "big shot from the FBI there," someone he recognized from TV. They also had clothes lying on a table and 20 or 30 books with his name on them, Heinrich said.

Heinrich told the investigator he was booked into jail, fingerprinted and photographed. After that, he was escorted to a cell, where he spent the night. 

The next morning, they told him he was free to go home, he said.

At Thursday's news conference, Sheriff Gudmundson said Heinrich was interrogated by FBI agents while crime profilers from the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, looked on. 

Gudmundson said there's no indication in the investigative file that the profilers wrote a report. But the sheriff said a retired Stearns County detective told him the profilers told officers that they didn't believe Heinrich had done the crimes.

Gudmundson said one of the FBI agents who interviewed Heinrich was "fresh out of the academy and perhaps had never interviewed a crime suspect in his life." A second agent may not ever have interviewed a homicide suspect, the sheriff said.

"The flaw was they didn't plan the arrest out. They didn't have experienced homicide people doing the interrogation," Gudmundson said. "The profilers, according to my detectives, said he didn't do it. And that's why it seems to me that they go right off that." 

A jail booking card from Feb. 9, 1990 shows Heinrich was arrested for first-degree criminal sexual conduct and kidnapping, Gudmundson said. A notation reads, "Released per county attorney — Pat Strom." Strom was assistant Stearns County attorney at the time.

Gudmundson said there's no further mention of Heinrich in the file until March and April 1990, when investigators conducted background checks on Heinrich. Heinrich's name is missing from the file for about 20 years, until DNA finally cracked the case in 2015.

Following Thursday's news conference, former FBI agent Al Garber disputed Gudmundson's description of the 1990 arrest.

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

"I don't understand what he's talking about, about arresting him in a bar when he was drunk. That's not what happened," Garber said. 

Garber said they had little physical evidence on Heinrich, so investigators from all the agencies jointly decided to bring him in and try to "lean on him," hoping he would confess or incriminate himself.

Garber said they consulted with three psychological profilers before conducting the interview at the sheriff's office.

"A lot of people had input in how to do it," he said. "And it was so staged. It was staged to put the furniture here, say these keywords. To say this was an uninformed interview done by incompetent people just hurts. It really hurts, and it's not true."

At the end of the interview, Heinrich said he wanted an attorney, Garber said.

"You know the law, right?" Garber said. "Once he says, 'I want an attorney,' that's it."

So Garber said investigators decided to take a chance and told Heinrich he was under arrest for Scheierl's kidnapping and assault.

"It didn't work. We had no evidence," Garber said. "The next day, county attorney said — and rightly so — you have no evidence, you've gotta let this guy go."