ST. CLOUD, Minn. Researchers missed opportunities at an early stage to catch the man who abducted and killed 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in 1989, a Minnesota sheriff said Thursday for the release of thousands of research documents in the case that focused national attention on missing children.
Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson said in a press conference that the study “went off the rails” decades before the suspect was finally caught.
“Our desire was this the case would have turned out differently and better,” said Gudmundson, who was not of the sheriff in the time of Jacob’s abduction. “Stress and anxiety puts us in a tunnel vision.” He added: “each of us has failed.”
Danny Heinrich, 55, confessed to killing Jacob, and led investigators to his remains in 2016. In a deal with prosecutors , he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for child pornography.
The sheriff, it appeared that a drunken Heinrich was arrested in a bar in Roscoe in central Minnesota, in February 1990, a few months after Jacob was abducted by a masked gunman near his home in St. Joseph, about 20 miles (30 km), in October 1989. But Gudmundson said inexperienced FBI profilers concluded after a hearing that Heinrich not kidnap Jacob.
Gudmundson said there are “about 20 things that” researchers must have pieced together points to Heinrich. The sheriff said a shoe print and tire tracks at the scene bound Heinrich the abduction, and the chances were “not only smart but minuscule” that both prints and tracks belonged to someone else.
In January 1989, a Cold Spring boy was kidnapped and sexually assaulted in a vehicle that he later said matched the interior of Heinrich’s car. But Gudmundson said a law enforcement task force waited a month after Jacob’s abduction in October for making a connection with the earlier attack.
The sheriff also cited similar attacks in the near Paynesville in the run-up to Jacob’s abduction that were carried out by a heavyset man who wore face paint or a mask, spoke in a deep, raspy voice, and the victims threatened with a gun. Instead, the task force is focused on another man, even though Heinrich failed a polygraph test given by law enforcement, Gudmundson said.
Former FBI agent Al Garber, who supervised the original research in 1989, the so-called Gudmundson analysis is unfair.
“He didn’t see the day-to-day operations,” Garber said. “He does not know.”
Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, fought to keep documents private, say they contain personal information. But media organizations convinced a judge that the documents were public information under the legislation of a member state, because the survey was recent.
Gudmundson released about 42,000 pages of the files of the local and national researchers. Federal documents were not included.
Jerry Wetterling present at the press conference, but declined to comment. On Wednesday, the Wetterling family in a statement said it is difficult for us to relive those dark days. With the time, our family is healing and getting stronger and we appreciate all of the efforts to make things better for the future victims, their families and for all of us.”
Patty Wetterling became a national advocate for missing children after Jacob’s disappearance. In 1994 federal law named for Jacob requires states to establish sex offender registries.