Sheriff: Case of missing Minnesota boy could have been solved sooner

Says main suspect was clear from the start

Chris Welch/CNN

ST. CLOUD, Minn. - The case of a missing Minnesota boy may have been solved sooner if not for a multitude of errors, an official said Thursday.

Minnesota Public Radio reported that Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson said it was clear early in the investigation that Danny Heinrich should have been the prime suspect in Jacob Wetterling’s disappearance, but basic errors in policing allowed him to elude capture as key evidence and tips went unnoticed or unattended.

Jacob was 12 when he went missing in October 1989 in rural St. Joseph, Minnesota. He was walking home from a convenience store with his brother and a friend when a man wearing a mask and holding a gun approached.

The man asked the boys their ages, grabbed Jacob and told the other two to run into the woods or he’d shoot them.

Jacob was never seen again. His remains were discovered nearly 27 years later about a half hour away.

Among the revelations from Gudmundson, according to MPR: Heinrich was arrested at a bar in Roscoe, Minnesota, in February 1990, interrogated and released.

At the time, investigators were also looking into similar abductions of boys in nearby Paynesville, where Jacob’s remains were found, and Cold Spring.

Gudmundson said that inexperienced FBI profilers, including one “fresh out of the academy,” concluded after the interrogation that Heinrich didn’t abduct Wetterling and released him.

He called that interrogation the “most fatal flaw” of the investigation, the file of which was released Thursday and contained thousands of documents.

The sheriff said the investigation went “off the rails,” and that it “wasn’t just on the wrong path, but on the wrong freeway.”

MPR reported that former Wetterling task force head and FBI agent Al Garber said the sheriff’s analysis of the investigation was unfair.

"Don wasn't there. He didn't see the day-to-day operations,'' Garber told reporters Thursday after the press conference. "... He doesn't know."

Gudmundson said his review of the case file convinced him that Heinrich should have been the prime suspect from the start, citing evidence from the files, including Heinrich’s resemblance to a man who attacked boys in Paynesville and sexually assaulted a Cold Spring boy just months before Jacob went missing.

He said Heinrich also registered as “deceptive” during a polygraph test and evaded early police surveillance.

The file also showed that Heinrich had asked another known child predator to help him “get rid of a body.”

The case generated more than 50,000 leads and an initial reward of more than $100,000, but went unsolved until Heinrich confessed in September 2016.

He then told investigators where they could find Jacob’s remains.

In exchange for that information, Heinrich cut a plea deal and is serving a 20-year prison sentence for a child pornography charge.

Read more on Gudmundson's press conference and the case documents here.

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