It took a little DNA to crack the Jacob Wetterling case

ST. CLOUD -- The envelope arrived without much fanfare, inside it the results of another DNA test from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Scientists there likely didn't recognize the names: Jared Scheierl and Danny Heinrich. The envel...

A local Bureau of Criminal Investigation forensic sketch artist works on a rendering in his office. David Samson / The Forum
Artist's sketch of a man wanted in the abduction and sexual assault of one boy, and the abduction of Jacob Wetterling, both in 1989.

ST. CLOUD - The envelope arrived without much fanfare, inside it the results of another DNA test from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Scientists there likely didn't recognize the names: Jared Scheierl and Danny Heinrich. The envelope that Stearns County Sheriff's Office Capt. Pam Jensen was holding contained test results that would change everything in the search for Jacob Wetterling.

The letter that arrived July 10, 2015, at the Sheriff's Office confirmed that DNA found on the sleeve of the sweatshirt Scheierl was wearing when he was abducted and sexually assaulted in January 1989 matched Heinrich's DNA.

The similarities between the abductions of Scheierl and Wetterling were unmistakable to Stearns County investigators. Whoever abducted one abducted the other, they believed.

And although they suspected that Heinrich might have committed both crimes, he adamantly denied being involved in either.


"We realize that now we have the one thing on Danny Heinrich that we've never had in 25 years," Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said of the DNA match. "We have positive physical evidence linking him to a crime that he has steadfastly denied."

That set in motion an orchestrated effort aimed at finally determining whether Heinrich was involved in Wetterling's abduction. The plot played out as planned, with a few twists and turns, and led to Heinrich admitting he kidnapped and killed Wetterling. It also ended with confirmation of what the DNA test told investigators: Heinrich had also abducted and sexually assaulted Scheierl.

From early on, the Wetterling investigation was void of much physical evidence. Jacob had vanished, and the attacker left nothing behind except tire prints and shoe prints, both of which were consistent with, but not exact matches to, Heinrich's shoes and tires at the time.

'We lived in terror'

Heinrich was on investigators' radar early and was interviewed multiple times, "interrogated as hard as he could have been back in the early 1990s," Sanner said. He matched some of the physical descriptors given by Scheierl, by the boys who were with Jacob that night and by boys who reported several attacks in Paynesville, where Heinrich lived.

One of those victims is Kris Bertelsen. Twice he was with a friend in Paynesville when a heavy-set man attacked him and the friend he was with. Those attacks were in the late 1980s and led his young teenage friends to carry knives for protection.

"We lived in terror," Bertelsen said. "All of the kids knew about this. (The attacker), it seemed to me, was picking out our friend group. He was stalking us. I felt that at the time."

Heinrich was identified as a suspect in those cases, as was another sex offender who lived in the Paynesville area, Sanner said. Investigators had "connected the dots" between those cases and were trying to come up with any other links between Wetterling and Heinrich.


"There was good circumstantial evidence, but that's all it was," Sanner said. "So you have a very weak physical evidence case. You have a perpetrator and a suspect that are totally unrelated. It's a complete random event. And you have a suspect that doesn't tell a soul. Typically those cases never get solved."

Tying pieces together

Two weeks after the DNA results arrived, a Wright County judge signed a search warrant for Heinrich's Annandale house. Stearns County investigators had hoped there would be something there that would link Heinrich to the Wetterling abduction.

"We were hoping that people like that who keep souvenirs, we call it a trophy, that he would probably still have it," said Chief Deputy Bruce Bechtold. "We found (children's) clothing items there, but nothing that was consistent with Jared's or Jacob's."

"I was a little surprised that we didn't find anything related directly to Wetterling, a little disappointed I guess you could say," Sanner said.

But on July 28, 2015, they found child pornography. Lots of it.

"I think we would have thought that we had the brass ring if we left with something directly tying him to either one of them. I wouldn't say we were deflated," Becthold said. "We knew we had something with the porn, and we didn't know we could use that to leverage for sure, but we had something."

At about the same time, they recovered a handgun that investigators now believe was used to shoot Wetterling, Sanner said.


There was enough child pornography at Heinrich's house that the U.S. Attorney's Office might be interested in prosecuting the case, Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall thought.

She called U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, who later would get a federal indictment against Heinrich. The leverage of a lengthy prison sentence on multiple child pornography charges might be enough to get Heinrich to plead to one count, admit to kidnapping and killing Wetterling and assaulting Scheierl in exchange for a 20-year-sentence, prosecutors thought.

That's exactly what happened. And Heinrich likely will face civil commitment as a dangerous sex offender once he finishes his prison sentence, meaning he'll likely never be released.

His plea brought to a close a case that generated more than 80,000 leads and involved state, federal and even military investigators.

Old work pays off

It also brought criticism of the way the case was handled. But Sanner defended the early work by investigators.

"The reality is those early investigators built the foundation in the case that gets us to where we got just recently," Sanner said. "Because they had enough foresight, when they dealt with Danny Heinrich back in the late 1980s, early 1990s, they thought enough to get a sample of his DNA back then. And DNA was pretty new. They were tuned in to him right away. He was in that handful that can't be eliminated right away."

And they kept Scheierl's sweatshirt, even after the statute of limitations had passed on filing charges in that kidnapping and assault.

Investigators kept an eye on Heinrich during the years after Wetterling was abducted. If he moved, they noted it. If he changed jobs, another new note was made in his file. They checked to see if he committed similar acts in and around where he lived.

"We paid attention to him and where he was all the time," Sanner said.

Investigators even installed a GPS tracking device on his vehicle to see if he would drive to a spot where Jacob was buried. Sometimes criminals revisit the scene of their crimes, sort of like the trophy Bechtold had hoped they would find at Heinrich's house.

But they found nothing. He'd drive to work, he'd drive home.

"Otherwise he really didn't venture out," Bechtold said.

It's odd for someone to commit a crime like the Wetterling abduction and homicide and then seemingly be law-abiding for the next 26 years, Sanner said.

"It's unbelievably odd," Sanner said. "It's also what he said he did. We don't know. Is it a possibility? He said he went back to observing."

Clearing a name

With Heinrich still a suspect, investigators were cautious not to ignore other possibilities.

Kevin Hamilton came forward in late 2003 to describe how he drove to the abduction scene that night, turned around in Dan Rassier's driveway and drove away. Investigators directed their focus to Rassier, discounting his claim that there were two vehicles in his driveway that night.

If there was only one vehicle there that night, and Hamilton had been eliminated as a suspect, the abduction could have been committed by someone on foot, investigators thought. And Rassier's statements to friends, relatives and law enforcement, some while under hypnosis, caused investigators to dig deeper into the school teacher's actions that night.

Patty Wetterling even wore a recording device when she questioned Rassier in 2009 at a St. Cloud health club. In 2010, investigators got a search warrant to dig on Rassier's property and search the residence where he lived with his parents.

Heinrich's confession has exonerated Rassier. But Sanner said recently that, if he had to do it over again, he would have done the same thing based on the way Rassier answered questions, the fact that he was there alone that night and other details included in those search warrants.

"Shame on us if we don't do what we did," Sanner said.

'It's done'

That focus on Rassier's farm deflated Bertelsen, who had watched the Wetterling case from afar and all along believed the answer went back to the Paynesville assaults. He had spoken with the Wetterlings in 1990 and had been in contact with Scheierl as well.

"I remember seeing the pictures when they were digging up Rassier's yard, and I was just like 'Forget it. We're done,' " Bertelsen said. "They're looking at this guy and they're not coming back. They're not going to Paynesville."

Heinrich was among a handful, "maybe five" people of interest that investigators couldn't eliminate until Heinrich confessed, Sanner said.

"And it depended on who you talked to in the investigation," he said.

Sometimes those discussions were heated.

"That also is healthy. Because things get played out then. But emotions run high and there are strong personalities," Sanner said. "That kind of thing was always going on. To say that it ran smoothly all the time was not the truth."

Smooth or not, there is an answer. Heinrich likely won't ever be free, and the Wetterlings are able to bring their son home.

For Becthold, who was the first deputy to respond to the abduction scene, it's over and should be left that way.

"It's done, in my opinion. Let's be done," Bechtold said. "There's some people that want to second-guess everything for 27 years and go back and 'Why didn't you do this and this and this.' What difference does it make at this point?"

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