The case file of Jacob Wetterling's 1989 abduction and murder has been released on Thursday, and reveals how authorities bungled the response to the 11-year-old's disappearance and failed to identify Danny Heinrich as his likely killer.
At a press conference on Thursday, Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson was highly critical of the response to the Wetterling abduction by both local and federal investigators.
This includes the FBI, who directed the investigation and who he says shut out Minnesota law enforcement, carrying out a national search despite some Minnesota investigators certain that the culprit was local.
Agents and officers from various federal, state and local law enforcement departments failed to communicate or follow up on significant leads.
They were also too slow to link the abduction of Wetterling to a sexual assault of a boy in Cold Spring several months earlier, as well as 8 reports of attempted abductions and sexual assaults on boys in the Paynesville area between 1986 and 1988.
They focused on Heinrich's friend, Duane Hart, a convicted sex offender known for grooming boys, despite him giving evidence that suggested Heinrich was responsible.
The documents released on Thursday relate to the investigation conducted by local and state police. The FBI has blocked the release of the files from the federal investigation.
The investigation timeline
Aug 1986–late 1988: There are 8 reported incidents of boys being assaulted in the Paynesville area (where Heinrich lived), including sexually. The descriptions from each victim differ slightly, but they all concerned a heavy set man with a deep voice, who sometimes wore masks and in some cases would keep "trophies" from the boys he assaulted. He would threaten the boys in each case in various ways.
Jan 13, 1989: A Cold Spring boy is sexually assaulted as he walked home by a man wearing camouflage clothing, a dark grey zipper vest, a dark baseball cap, with a fat nose and "rough dark skin." He had a deep voice and told him to get in the car, saying: "I have a gun, don't try anything."
He made statements that suggested he was a local man. He had a portable police scanner in the front seat of his light blue car. Following the assault in the back seat of the car, he made exaggerated turns to confuse where they were. He kept the victim's underwear as a "trophy."
Jan 16, 1989: Officer has information on a possible suspect, suggesting Danny Heinrich, who is a member of the National Guard and is regularly seen in military clothing. He's also a known associate of Duane Hart. Police dismiss Heinrich as a suspect based on a few discrepancies in the boy's description of his attacker's car.
Jan 18, 1989: Unsolicited, the boy comes forward saying he was mistaken about what he had earlier said about the car, removing some of the discrepancies about Heinrich's car.
Oct. 22, 1989: In St. Joseph, Minnesota, Jacob and Trevor Wetterling and Aaron Larson are approached by a man wearing dark clothes, a nylon stocking over his head, and armed with a handgun. He telling them he has a gun, abducts Jacob and tells the other boys to run to the woods. More than 20 homes are canvassed by local officers and deputies after the abduction is reported.
Oct 24, 1989: Less than 48 hours after the abduction, a victim in one of the Paynesville incidents speaks to a Benton County deputy, speculating that their assault is connected because of the way it was done, "quick, military and proficient." He said he saw 2 other ambushes by the Paynesville perpetrator and states he left behind a hat. He also gave the deputy the name of the officers in Paynesville he reported it to.
This lead wasn't checked out until Jan 5, 1990.
Nov 30, 1989: This is the first time the Cold Spring abduction is mentioned in relation to the Wetterling case. Gudmundson says it means the the response task force was "spinning its wheels" since Oct. 22.
Dec 12, 1989: Danny Heinrich is interviewed, he denies wearing camouflage clothing, though it emerges he has a police scanner radio.
Dec. 16, 1989. Police for the first time says that the Wetterling and Cold Spring abductions were carried out by the same perpetrator.
Jan 8, 1990: The Paynesville police chief says the city has experienced episodes of assaults on boys, and said he believed Danny Heinrich should be a suspect in the molestations.
Jan 10, 1990: Heinrich is interviewed about the Wetterling abduction, with police noting he bears a strong resemblance to the Cold Spring abduction, and that he's a member of the National Guard.
As a result of the interviews and based on an interview with the Paynesville victim (see Oct. 24, 1989), it appears police are focusing on Duane Hart, not Heinrich.
Jan 12, 1990: A polygraph test on Heinrich, in which he's asked about the Cold Spring and Wetterling cases, registers as "deceptive." He says it's because he's nervous.
"Everyone is nervous when taking a polygraph," Gudmundson said.
The same day, Heinrich's blue Mercury car is photographed by a sheriff's investigator, and found to have tires consistent with those found at the Wetterling abduction scene. They also found the soles of his shoes were consistent with the footprint pattern found at the scene.
These were sent to an FBI lab, with Heinrich then placed under surveillance, carrying out evasive maneuvers as he's followed by police.
Jan 14, 1990: Heinrich continues to try and shake his tail. Gudmundson says: "His actions certainly should have set off alarm bells since an innocent man is unlikely to take maneuvers to escape surveillance."
Jan 16, 1990: A detective gets a copy of Heinrich's DWI arrest in Paynesville in 1986, which notes they confiscated a battery operated police scanner.
The same day, police confiscate his Mercury and the Cold Spring boy checks it out. He says he's 8 or 9 out of 10 that it's similar to the vehicle he was abducted in, saying the feel of the vehicle was the same. He notes that his attacker was keen that he pulls his pants up without touching the back seats after he was sexually assaulted.
"At this time, the vehicle should have been blacklighted for seminal fluid stains in the car," Gudmundson said.
A resident where Heinrich lives says he does wear camouflage clothing, making his previous denial a lie. At the same time, police continue to run background reports into Duane Hart.
Jan. 23, 1990: A search warrant is executed on Heinrich's father's home, confiscating camouflage gear, 2 police radios and a zipped vest.
The vest was never shown to Cold Spring boy, despite him saying his attacker wore one during the assault. All are released back to Heinrich on Feb 8, 1991 by the county attorney's office.
During the search, police find photographs of male children, including one coming out a shower. Heinrich objects to the confiscation of the photos.
Gudmundson says that "inexplicably," they were not confiscated.
Jan 24, 1990: Heinrich said he would not submit to a court lineup unless ordered to but only after he spoke with an attorney.
Jan 25, 1990: Heinrich interviewed by FBI and a sheriff's detective, saying he burned photos of children because they looked bad for him.
Heinrich says he had chewed tobacco for several years and it affected his teeth, which had holes. The Cold Spring boy said his attacker had "cheese teeth," ie. like Swiss cheese.
The 'fatal flaw' in the investigation
Jan 26, 1990: Heinrich consents to a lineup. Two young men view him, after telling police that a week prior to Wetterling kidnapping, they had seen a suspicious person and car.
The Cold Spring boy also does the lineup but does not pick out Heinrich. An officer asks if the victim had a clear mental picture of his attacker and the boy said he did not, and as time has gone by, it has got less and less clear.
Asked about Heinrich, the Cold Spring boy gives Heinrich a 4 on scale of 1-10.
Gudmundson says ALL the Paynesville victims, as well as Aaron Larson and Trevor Wetterling, should have been involved in the lineup. There should also have been a voice lineup, where those taking part were asked to repeat the threats said to the victims.
Feb. 7, 1990: Heinrich appears at a sheriff's office demanding property back, he was upset with officers asking people he knew if he was a homosexual. He threatens to sue the sheriff's office and the FBI.
Feb 9, 1990: Heinrich is arrested at a bar in Roscoe, while Heinrich was drunk, on charges of kidnapping and molesting.
Gudmundson says "how and when you arrest someone is important" saying they should not have arrested someone in this case late at night and while they were drunk.
"That was a serious mistake."
He's then interrogated by two FBI agents, with Gudmundson saying the interrogation was a "fatal flaw" in the investigation.
"One of agents interviewed him fresh out of academy," he said. "The second may or may not have ever interviewed a homicide suspect."
He said Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents, who were trained homicide agents, were "kept at more than arm's length away from the investigation, running meaningless leads."
"No one in the sheriff's office had extensive homicide experience, and the FBI are not trained homicide investigators."
Feb 9, 1990: FBI lab makes positive match between Heinrich's former vehicle and fiber found on the Cold Spring boy's snowsuit. The writer of the FBI note is instructed not to inform the Stearns County Sheriff's Office about the match.
The note also states that Heinrich was released by County Attorney Pete Strom. The first mention of the BCA having anything to do with Heinrich was Apr. 23, 1990.
March 1991: Duane Hart is investigated at a correctional facility after being convicted of grooming young boys. Hart is also a friend of Heinrich's brother David.
Gudmundson says that from the start and all the way through to 2014, investigators misunderstood the difference between someone who grooms children and someone who, like in Heinrich's case, "ambushes" them.
Hart says that in October 1989, he saw a black "ninja like" suit in Heinrich's apartment as well as a dark black pistol. He also saw 2 police scanners. Heinrich was upset at losing his job in St. Joseph, where Wetterling lived, with his last day of work being Oct. 8, 1989.
Heinrich also asked Hart how to get rid of a body.
Oct: 1991: Hart is interviewed again, saying he thinks the person who did the Wetterling abduction was a "loner," something Heinrich had been described several times as. He also said he believed a blue car was used in sexual assaults of children in Paynesville.
"Based on the reading of the file it appears there wasn't any follow up on this information," Gudmundson says.
July 18, 2012: DNA profile obtained from Cold Spring boy's snow suit.
Mar 5, 2015: DNA matches 3 individuals.
Mar 12, 2015: Heinrich hairs are sent for testing.
July 12, 2015: Lab report says it's an 85% match for Danny Heinrich.
July 27, 2015: Search warrant submitted for Heinrich.
Sept. 2, 2016: Heinrich admits to killing Wetterling, directs law enforcement to Jacob's body in a farm field.