PAYNESVILLE, Minn. – The acts were brazen, the pattern clear.
A pudgy man, sometimes wearing a mask, would approach adolescent boys in public places as they walked or biked home, then grope them over or under their clothing.
One boy was told to “keep laying down for five minutes or I’ll blow your head off,” according to accounts detailed in court records. Another was ordered to keep quiet or he’d be killed. Later, that same boy was riding his bike in this central Minnesota city of 2,400 people when a man knocked him off and grabbed his crotch.
The eight attacks against seven Paynesville boys ages 12 to 16 happened nearly three decades ago, between 1986 and 1988. Even after a report detailing five of the assaults appeared on the front page of the local newspaper — with a plea from police for help in solving the cases — the crimes made little impression, some residents say.
The attacks are taking on new significance now that a former Paynesville man who lived within a mile of those assaults has been named a “person of interest” in the 1989 disappearance of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling. Danny James Heinrich, 52, was first questioned 26 years ago in the Wetterling case, which has for years stymied investigators and haunted Minnesotans.
On Thursday, authorities charged Heinrich, now of Annandale, Minn., with receiving and possessing child pornography. They had searched his home in July looking for evidence related to Jacob, who has never been found.
It’s the first time in recent years that authorities have publicly identified someone under investigation for Wetterling’s disappearance. Yet, they said that during the search, they found nothing to connect Heinrich to that crime.
Investigators questioned Heinrich at least three times after Jacob was taken on a warm October night in 1989 as he and his brother, Trevor, 10, and best friend, Aaron Larson, 11, headed home from a convenience store in St. Joseph, Minn. In 1990, they searched the Paynesville house where Heinrich — who has long denied any involvement in Jacob’s disappearance — lived with his father.
In an interview last year, Patty Wetterling, Jacob’s mother, said a local blogger — Joy Baker — had “dug up more than we’ve ever seen” connecting the Paynesville attacks to another boy’s assault in January 1989 in nearby Cold Spring. Investigators have since linked Heinrich to the Cold Spring assault through DNA testing, Thursday’s charging complaint showed.
Wetterling said that she and her husband, Jerry, and Baker spent a Sunday morning talking with three of the Paynesville victims. She said then that she was struck by the similarities of their stories, but also by a crucial difference between what happened to them and what happened to Jacob: Their assailant let them go.
“So if it was the same guy, what went wrong?” she said then. “What happened?”
Baker, who lives in New London, Minn., declined this week to be interviewed for this story. The Wetterlings, meanwhile, have not returned calls from reporters since the announcement of Heinrich’s arrest. In a statement, they asked for “a little time.”
“We will watch and learn with everyone else,” they said. “...We know what you all know.”
What happened in Paynesville, labeled by investigators an “assault cluster,” was spelled out in the criminal complaint filed against Heinrich last week.
Investigators looking into Jacob’s disappearance were aware of several of the assaults, according to a source with direct knowledge of the case. In the spring of 1990, they spent a week doing surveillance on Heinrich, watching for patterns and whether he had a network of friends.
But investigators were stuck with weak witness accounts and suspect descriptions in the Paynesville attacks, the source said. Lacking hard evidence, they weren’t able to apply for a search warrant or wire tap.
Paynesville Police Chief Paul Wegner said Friday that because the cases occurred so long ago, all his department’s files have been destroyed “per the records retention policy.”
“Our records show no open investigations or other contacts with Mr. Heinrich,” Wegner said by e-mail.
Coffee shops, convenience stores and bars across Paynesville were buzzing Friday at the news of Heinrich’s arrest.
Several people who lived in town at the time of the ’80s assaults said they didn’t remember hearing much talk of them. Some parents dismissed the attacks at the time because they’d happened or started after dark downtown — a place their own children wouldn’t linger, they said. There also wasn’t as much public attention devoted to such reports then.
“I just don’t remember big talk about it,” said Jane Leitzman, a St. Joseph resident who taught third grade in Paynesville at the time. Leitzman talked about the case as she gathered with other retired teachers at the bustling Paynesville American Legion. “I don’t remember any warnings to be watchful on the playground...
“I think,” she added, “we treat things much differently post-Jacob than before.”
In May 1987, the Paynesville Press alerted residents to the assaults, including the death threats. A sergeant said that police needed “all the help we can get” in apprehending a man who they believed was targeting boys downtown and following them home or lying in wait and accosting them after dark. The attacks were scattered, taking place by a river, a hockey rink, a store, a middle school playground and an alley, the article said.
“The kids are scared,” Sgt. Bill Drager told the newspaper.
The article’s author, Darlene Thyen, now 73, said Saturday that even after covering the story, she never considered a connection between the assaults and Jacob’s abduction, which took place about a half-hour away.
But the details of the Paynesville cases in the federal complaint mirror some of those in Jacob’s abduction: The victims were about 12 years old. They were grabbed in public places. The attacker asked them their age or grade in school. He threatened to kill them.
On the night Jacob disappeared, a masked man with a gun appeared on a rural road leading to the Wetterling house. He told the boys to lie face down in a nearby ditch and asked each his age. He then ordered Trevor and Aaron to run to the woods and not look back. By the time the two boys looked back, Jacob and the masked man were gone.
The Paynesville assailant also was often masked. One boy described the mask as looking like it was made of indoor-outdoor candy-striped carpeting. Another time the man had “blackened everything — so that you couldn’t make out anything on his face,” the Paynesville newspaper reported.
Cold Spring connection
On a January night in 1989, a 12-year-old boy was walking home from the Side Café in Cold Spring when a man snatched him.
The man forced the boy into the back seat of his car and told him that he had a gun. He drove for 15 minutes, then stopped on a gravel road and sexually assaulted the boy. After releasing him, the driver told the boy “not to look back or he would be shot,” according to court documents.
That boy, Jared Scheierl, now 39, has long believed that his attack could be tied to Wetterling’s. Investigators have thought the same.
In an interview last year, Scheierl said that after Wetterling’s abduction, officers questioned him for hours and had him view a dozen lineups.
He didn’t see a connection between his own case and Paynesville until recent years when Baker came across the old newspaper articles. She began blogging about the Wetterling case in 2010 and later interviewed Scheierl.
Scheirl immediately saw similarities. “His demeanor, the low, raspy voice,” Scheierl said. “The threat of a knife or gun. The ages of the kids …”
In January 2014, Scheierl wrote a letter to the Paynesville newspaper, telling his story.
“Twenty-five years have passed, and I’ve dealt with many emotions through the years … a time of being scared, a time of anger, a time of solitude and loneliness, a time of resolution … but still waiting for closure.”
Scheierl asked victims to come forward.
“Now I need your help,” he wrote. “The only way these cases are going to get solved is by people coming together and sharing their stories.”
When authorities searched Heinrich’s house in July, they were looking for anything related to the Wetterling case, including a red hockey jacket with “Jacob” stitched on the front and a red T-shirt with the number 11 on the back.
They didn’t find anything connecting Heinrich to Jacob. But they found computer folders and 19 three-ring binders that contained child pornography. Those images demonstrated a sexual interest in Paynesville boys, the charges filed Thursday showed.
Using Paynesville High School yearbooks from the late 1970s, Heinrich placed images of boys’ heads on other images of naked bodies, crafting what investigators call “morphed” child pornography.
Investigators were able to identify one man, a juvenile during the 1970s, whose yearbook photo was superimposed on the image of “a young male wearing a sleeveless T-shirt with his left leg up exposing his naked genitalia through an opening in his underwear.”
An examination of Heinrich’s computer “reveals evidence of Internet searches’’ for that same person, as well as searches for “Paynesville Minnesota school photos” and “Paynesville Minnesota kids photos,” the criminal complaint said.
The ‘strange’ neighbor
After the Wetterling abduction, Ruth Jones accompanied her son on his Paynesville paper route instead of letting him bike. Eventually, she made him quit the job. “I was too nervous,” she said.
Years later, after her kids were grown, she moved into a four-plex in town and met her neighbor across the hall: Danny Heinrich.
Jones said she thought Heinrich was “strange,” but quiet, neat and organized. As she left for her shift managing a convenience store in the darkness of the early morning, she sometimes could see him playing Nintendo in his underwear, with no window shades drawn, she said. The one time she went to his apartment, she said, he showed her a curio cabinet containing knives.
The news of his arrest last week has put knots in her stomach.
While she doesn’t recall being alarmed by reports of the attacks in Paynesville before the Wetterling abduction, she now wishes that people would have talked about it more.
“I wish they would have made a bigger deal out of it, you betcha,” she said.
Staff writer David Chanen contributed to this report.