A look back at child kidnapping that was one of state’s tragic ‘crimes of the century’

By Tom Hintgen, Otter Tail County Correspondent

“In the Dark,” a collection of documentaries on the Jacob Wetterling case, aired from Jan. 30 to Feb. 3 on Minnesota Public Radio.

The documentaries detailed the many missed opportunities that were there to solve the Wetterling case far sooner than 27 years after Jacob’s death.

On the evening of Oct. 22, 1989, Jacob was 11 when he was abducted less than a mile from his home in St. Joseph, a small community near St. Cloud. He, his brother and a friend were riding bikes when a masked man approached them with a gun.

This past fall Daniel Heinrich of nearby Paynesville confessed to Jacob’s murder. As part of a plea deal, he led authorities to Jacob’s remains in Paynesville.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Madeline Baran and Tom Weber pointed out in great detail, in the early days after the abduction, what law enforcement did and did not do to solve the Wetterling case.

Some homeowners near the abduction site were not interviewed right after Jacob was taken. People had observed a car and color that was similar to one driven by Heinrich.

“That’s a violation of Investigation 101,” said a renowned public investigator to the Minnesota Public Radio reporter. “They didn’t quickly interview everyone close to the scene of the crime.”

Heinrich became a suspect in 1989, linked to assaults in Paynesville. A year later he denied any role in the Wetterling case. Heinrich didn’t budge during a two-hour interview and was let go.

The investigation became sloppy, in the opinion of public radio, when law enforcement shifted their attention to Dan Rassier who lives on a farm at the end of the driveway where Jacob was abducted in 1989.

Crime analysts say that solving the case early on would not likely have saved the life of Jacob, but it would have brought closure, much earlier, to his parents, Jerry and Patty Wetterling. It also would have precluded the harassment of Rassier.

In May 2014 investigators said they were taking another look at the series of attempted abductions and molestations in the Paynesville area in three years leading up to the Wetterling abduction.

Some of the victims had never before been thoroughly interviewed by investigators.

This was the first time many people outside of the Paynesville area, including those in Otter Tail County, had ever heard of the attempted abductions and assaults that took place from the summer of 1986 to the spring of 1988.

This begs the question: Why wasn’t more done to connect the dots between St. Joseph and Paynesville, a distance of only 10 miles?

It took the work of an internet blogger, Joy Baker, to persuade investigators to again interview some of the victims.

Public radio said that in 2014 the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department wasn’t buying Baker’s theory that the Paynesville cases and Jacob’s case were connected.

A year later there was a stunning development, due to the work of Baker who connected with those victimized by Heinrich in the late 1980s, prior to Jacob’s abduction.

In October, 2015 Heinrich’s DNA was matched to an abduction of 12-year-old Jared Scheierl of Cold Spring, nine months before Jacob’s abduction.

Unfortunately for Scheierl, the statute of limitations had run out and Heinrich could not be arrested and charged with that crime. However, a search warrant was granted for Heinrich’s home and child pornography was found.

Heinrich was arrested on Oct. 28, 2015. A year later he confessed to killing Jacob.

In accordance with the plea agreement, Heinrich, now 53, was sentenced to only 20 years in prison. However, authorities will likely seek a civil commitment since he is a sexual predator. This will prevent Heinrich from ever going free.

Many law enforcement personnel and local volunteers did their best over the years to bring the Wetterling case to a conclusion.

In the meantime, Patty Wetterling became an advocate of children’s safety. She has chaired the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.