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Sheriff: Wetterling investigation went 'off the rails' as FBI chased multiple leads, killer remained free

Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson displays a photo of tire tread marks left at the Wetterling crime scene as he hosts a news conference to close the investigative file regarding the Jacob Wetterling abduction, Thursday, Sept. 20 at the Stearns County Law Enforcement Center in St. Cloud. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 6
Jacob Wetterling File photo/Center for Missing and Exploited Children2 / 6
Original sketch of suspect in two 1989 Minnesota abductions, including unsolved abduction of Jacob Wetterling.3 / 6
Jerry Wetterling, left, the father of Jacob Wetterling, listens as Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson hosts a news conference Thursday, Sept. 20, at the Stearns County Law Enforcement Center in St. Cloud. At right is Al Garber, the FBI investigator in charge of the case in 1989. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press4 / 6
Al Garber, center, the FBI investigator in charge of the Wetterling case in 1989, reacts vehemently to the conclusions of Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson after listening to Gudmundson's news conference to close the investigative file regarding the abduction, Thursday, Sept. 20 in St. Cloud. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press5 / 6
In Jan. 1990, a Stearns County sheriff’s office investigator noted Danny Heinrich bears a “strong resemblance” to a composite drawing of the Cold Spring suspect in the Jacob Wetterling case. Courtesy of the Stearns County Sheriff's Office via St. Paul Pioneer Press 6 / 6

ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- It took 27 years to get a confession out of Jacob Wetterling’s killer, but investigators had substantial evidence against Danny Heinrich within months of the October 1989 attack in St. Joseph.

“All of us failed,” Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson said Thursday, Sept. 20, as he summarized and then released some 42,000 pages of files from local and state investigators.

Gudmundson, who became sheriff last year, spent over an hour with reporters describing missed opportunities and the failure by scores of investigators to piece together evidence that Heinrich was behind not only Wetterling’s killing but also sexual assaults of several boys in Cold Spring and Paynesville.

Heinrich admitted in 2016 that he’d attacked Jared Scheierl in Cold Spring in 1986 and months later sexually abused and shot Wetterling. He led authorities to Wetterling’s buried remains as part of a plea agreement on child pornography charges.

Gudmundson said the investigation “went off the rails” early on.

Footprints found at the abduction scene were matched to Heinrich early on, along with tire tracks to his car. Stearns County

Despite the similarities in the two attacks, the Cold Spring case didn’t appear in investigative files until five weeks after Wetterling’s abduction.

“How many other boys were abducted in Stearns County? Well, there was one, the Cold Spring boy. The investigators should have been on that in mere moments after Jacob was taken,” Gudmundson said.

Similarly, one of several boys who had been groped by a stranger in Paynesville in the three years prior told investigators two days after Wetterling was killed that it was likely the same man who did it. Both attacks were “quick, military and efficient,” the investigative notes say.

Yet, no one followed up on that lead for more than two months.

Once they did, the Paynesville police chief said Heinrich should be considered a suspect. A sheriff’s office investigator noted Heinrich bears a “strong resemblance” to a composite drawing of the Cold Spring suspect.

Heinrich failed lie detector test

Days later, Heinrich took a lie detector test and registered “deceptive on all questions” pertaining to both Wetterling’s disappearance and the Cold Spring attack. The same day, his shoes and the tires of his car were found to be consistent with tracks left in the dirt where Wetterling was taken.

“What are the chances of anyone else matching both those? Pretty slim,” Gudmundson said. “Not just slim, but miniscule.”

Investigators surveilled Heinrich and took his car. Scheierl sat in the back seat and said the car was the one he remembered riding in when he was assaulted a year earlier.

Investigators search for the remains of Jacob Wettering in a pasture near Paynesville in 2016. Stearns County Sheriff's Office

Scheierl recalled Heinrich keeping a police scanner in his car. Investigators located records from Heinrich’s 1986 drunken driving arrest, which said he’d had a scanner then, too.

However, when Scheierl was asked to pick his attacker out of a lineup, he did not choose Heinrich.

In February 1990, investigators arrested Heinrich anyway for the Cold Spring assault. After an hourlong interrogation, the county prosecutor let him go for lack of evidence.

FBI criminal profilers who watched the interrogation told detectives they didn’t think Heinrich was guilty, Gudmundson said, citing his own conversations. The FBI’s investigative files on the Wetterling case have not been made public.

After that, “Heinrich is essentially forgotten,” Gudmundson said.

When the investigation “goes wrong, it really goes wrong,” he said. “In short order, this task force was not just on the wrong path, it was on the wrong freeway and, later, it was on the Autobahn with no speed limit.”

FBI agent: ‘We had to keep looking’

Following the news conference Thursday, FBI special agent Al Garber, who was in charge of the case, took issue with the sheriff’s characterization of the investigation.

“Don wasn’t there. He didn’t see the day-to-day operations,” he said. “He didn’t see how many investigators were working so hard on this case.”

He said investigators “absolutely” felt Heinrich took Wetterling but couldn’t prove it.

“(Gudmundson) tells you we should have given up, no other leads, just investigate Heinrich again and again and again,” Garber said. “That’s ridiculous.”

But more than one person confessed to killing Wetterling. They had to keep looking, he said.

“I remember a guy who confessed,” Garber said. “He said, ‘I kidnapped Jacob, and I put him in this lake,’ and we found him in state of Washington. Are we supposed to not go and talk to this guy? Of course not. Another guy confessed to an inmate in prison. ‘I did it, and this is how I did it, and this is the car I used.’ Are we supposed to say, ‘He’s in prison. He didn’t do that.'”

“I want the picture to be clear: We’re not dopes. We’re not stupid. We don’t miss big things. We didn’t do everything right, but we certainly didn’t do this.”

Jerry Wetterling, Jacob’s father, attended the news conference along with Garber and another FBI agent, Steve Gilkerson. Wetterling declined to comment.

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