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Our view: A modicum of closure in murder case

Herald editorial board

It was a telling quote and an attention-grabbing headline.

"All of us failed," said Don Gudmundson, sheriff of Stearns County, Minn., in a story that appeared on the front page of this newspaper Friday. That quote was used in the headline.

Gudmundson, who became sheriff last year, spent more than an hour with reporters, describing missed opportunities and failed leads in the investigation following the 1989 disappearance of young Jacob Wetterling. The failure, Gudmundson said, was in not conclusively connecting suspect Danny Heinrich with the boy's disappearance. It wasn't until 2016 that Heinrich admitted to killing Wetterling.

In hindsight, the clues were everywhere. How they were missed is almost as chilling as the murder itself.

Heinrich also attacked young Jared Scheierl in Cold Spring, Minn., in 1986. Gudmundson said investigators should have connected the two similar cases. Also, one of several boys who had been groped by a stranger in Paynesville prior to the Wetterling disappearance told investigators it was likely the same man who did it, but nobody followed up on the lead for months. When they did, investigators noted a resemblance between Heinrich and a composite drawing of the Cold Spring suspect, but still nothing.

Heinrich's shoes and tires were found to be consistent with tracks left where Wetterling disappeared.

Police had Scheierl sit in the back seat of Heinrich's car, and the boy confirmed it was similar or the same as the one in which he was assaulted.

There's more, but the point is the same: Red flags were raised all around Heinrich, yet he walked free for more almost three decades.

The Forum News Service story outlines all of these sad details and Gudmundson's wide-reaching admission of failure. His comments didn't sit well with FBI Special Agent Al Garber, who was in charge of the case and who said so much information — including false admissions from unrelated suspects in faraway states — poured in that it was difficult to sort through the mountain of leads. That's a legitimate counter, and it deserves consideration. We are sure those were hectic days and are equally sure the FBI had the best intention to solve the case.

Garber's response notwithstanding, we appreciate Gudmundson's comments, which are as thoughtful as they are damning of all agencies involved.

In hindsight, yes, leads were missed, and an evil man walked free for 27 years as a family, community and state wrangled with this sinister and unsolved crime. In that respect, there was a failure, and a mighty big one at that.

But now, there are amends. Gudmundson's news conference was a time for acknowledgement and remorse. It was a time to heal and a refreshing display of a public entity admitting its shortcomings. So in that respect, we don't see it as a failure.

It took guts for Sheriff Gudmundson to say what he said. And by saying it, the sheriff has provided closure — if only a modicum of closure — for those still struggling with a heinous crime that shook an entire state.