The break-ins puzzled the owner of the Twice’s Nice consignment shop in Paynesville, Minn. First, eight pairs of men’s pants were stolen. Then six. Then seven. The burglar left a mess of broken glass and strewn clothes for pants worth just a few dollars each.
When, on the fourth break-in, police arrested Danny James Heinrich, store owner Cecelia Eliason couldn’t help but feel sorry for him: “I am most concerned for Danny’s future,” she wrote in a 1984 letter urging the court to ensure that Heinrich got job training. “I think that Danny will need a friend to help him become an honest, self-supporting and upstanding citizen.”
Long before he was named in October as a “person of interest” in the Jacob Wetterling abduction, Heinrich, now 52, led a troubled early life of burglary, drinking and financial difficulties, records and interviews show. Decades ago, investigators considered him a suspect in not only 11-year-old Jacob’s 1989 abduction but also a series of masked attacks in Paynesville, where Heinrich grew up with few friends and several encounters with police.
Authorities first searched his house for evidence of Jacob a quarter century ago, but only recently raised his name publicly after matching Heinrich’s DNA to what they long believed might be a connected crime — a Cold Spring boy’s 1989 kidnapping and assault.
Now indicted on 25 child pornography charges in U.S. District Court, Heinrich has not been charged in Wetterling’s abduction, for which he has long denied involvement. Investigators searched his house in Annandale last summer looking for evidence of Wetterling — including size 5 Nike high-tops and a hockey jacket with “Jacob” stitched on the front — but at an October news conference, authorities said they found none. Heinrich’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
A trial on the federal charges is set for March in Fergus Falls, according to a schedule filed in court this week. As Heinrich waits in Sherburne County jail, interviews with neighbors and classmates, plus hundreds of pages of public documents obtained through data requests, reveal a history of lesser offenses committed by a wayward young man who couldn’t explain why he burglarized the store in the mid-1980s: “I don’t know what got into me, I don’t know why I do these things,” he told authorities, according to court documents.
At his sentencing, his attorney couldn’t explain it, either.
“I don’t really know what Danny’s problem is,” the attorney said. “I don’t think anybody can put a pinpoint on it.”
‘Kind of an oddball’
Quiet and awkward, with thick glasses, a pudgy build and a hairline that looked like it was receding even in middle school, Heinrich didn’t participate in school activities or social events, several former classmates said.
Roger Fyle considered himself one of Heinrich’s only friends growing up.
“He was kind of an oddball, but I guess we all are in our special own way,” Fyle said.
Heinrich’s dad was gone most of the week working bridge construction. Both parents drank, several Paynesville residents said. “He grew up in a rough house,” said Steve Herding, a friend of Heinrich’s older brother, David, who declined to comment for this story.
After his parents divorced, Heinrich lived mostly with his mom in a house by the railroad tracks, Fyle said. Often, Heinrich was left to do what he pleased, seemingly free of guidance or discipline.
Fyle remembers staying in Heinrich’s backyard tent on summer nights in middle school. The two stashed beers in their pockets — with Heinrich also toting Southern Comfort — and roamed around Paynesville, Fyle said. He said Heinrich had no qualms about walking into strangers’ garages and rifling through their stuff.
In middle school, Heinrich blended into the background, classmates said, sometimes getting picked on. In phy-ed class, he’d be one of the first targets during dodgeball games, Fyle said. At lunch, Heinrich would set his food on a table while he went back to get his milk. Often, other kids would take bites of his meal.
One day, “he set his tray down and he spit on all his food and he goes, ‘There, take it now,’ ” Fyle recalled.
In high school, Fyle and Heinrich grew apart, Fyle said: Fyle started smoking marijuana, but Heinrich wanted no part of any drugs.
Later in his teenage years, police reports show, Heinrich ran around town with another boy, who has since died. In a police interview in January 1980, Heinrich admitted to a long line of thefts, sometimes with the other boy: stealing tools, bicycles and cigarettes and candy from the vending machine at the laundromat. He mentioned more than a dozen incidents in all.
Later that year, in juvenile court, Heinrich was ordered to the custody of Stearns County Social Services, which placed him in an adolescent unit at Willmar Hospital to help with emotional problems.
“It is the Court’s belief that Danny is in need of emotional help, which he is not receiving at home,” a judge’s order said. “He is presently having problems at school. Danny has difficult[y] accepting authority and social relationships. It is felt that an out of home placement is necessary.”
‘This is all we get’
After Fyle and Heinrich dropped out of high school, they both wound up working at Jennie-O in Willmar. During winter months, they went to work in the dark and came home in the dark. That bothered Heinrich, Fyle said.
“I’m like a bat. I’m nocturnal,” Fyle recalled Heinrich saying over their lunch break. “This is it, this is all we get … 15 minutes of sunshine.”
In February 1982, at age 18, Heinrich enlisted in the Minnesota Army National Guard, where he would serve for nearly a decade, at one point having his rank reduced from specialist to private first class. Such reductions were not uncommon, a spokesman for the Minnesota National Guard said, with causes varying from not making weight standards to disobeying an order.
Heinrich was “military minded,” Herding said, often wearing military-style clothing and boots. “He liked his camouflage and weaponry,” he said. “Usually, young guys have pictures of women and cars. He had knives and swords.”
During the summer after enlisting, Heinrich, then 19, was stopped after swerving into oncoming traffic, nearly causing a head-on crash, according to a police report. He had a half-full open bottle of beer in the car. He was “polite,” the report noted.
“Yah, I guess I’ve had a few too many,” he told the officer.
At the end of August 1986, Heinrich was stopped for running a stop sign. He led police on a chase that ended with him getting wrestled to the ground and kicking a dent in the door of the squad car. Authorities said he was “yelling and swearing and making a lot of threats.”
A police scanner was in his vehicle. Heinrich was convicted only on a traffic offense.
He left the Guard in November 1991, back at the rank of specialist and under honorable conditions.
A year of change
Heinrich lived for years in an old apartment building in the heart of downtown Paynesville. In the late 1980s, police responded to a series of attacks in the area against boys as they were walking or biking home. All took place within several blocks of his apartment, authorities have pointed out recently.
In nearby Cold Spring, a 12-year-old boy named Jared Scheierl was walking home from the Side Café in January 1989 when a man forced him into the back seat of his car and sexually assaulted him. Scheierl told police his attacker wore camouflage and army boots and had a “walkie-talkie” type of device in the car. Three days afterward, a Stearns County deputy identified Heinrich as a possible suspect, according to court records.
Documents depict 1989 as a year of change for Heinrich. His car was repossessed in March. Heinrich’s mother remarried in May. His last day of work at Fingerhut Corp. was Oct. 8, leaving him unemployed.
Two weeks later, on a warm night in St. Joseph, Jacob Wetterling, his younger brother, Trevor, and best friend, Aaron Larson, rode their bikes to the Tom Thumb store to rent a video. As they headed home, a masked man with a gun took Jacob, who has not been seen since.
Investigators thought it probable the same man had abducted both Jacob and Jared, based on the crimes’ similarities, and saw Heinrich as “a likely suspect,” said Al Garber, the FBI investigator who supervised the Wetterling case, “so we investigated with everything that we could.”
They followed Heinrich for weeks. They had the laboratory test hairs and fibers. They searched his father’s house, where he had moved in November. In February 1990, they arrested Heinrich in the kidnapping and assault of Scheierl “based on this very circumstantial evidence,” Garber said. “We tried to get him to talk.”
Heinrich “stated emphatically he was not guilty, that he was being framed, and that he was not going to talk to the interviewing agents,” court documents say. He was released.
After Paynesville police heard reports in 1991 that a tan vehicle was following paperboys on their morning routes, they asked a Stearns County deputy to help with surveillance. The deputy saw a tan car in the same area as a paperboy, according to an offense report. The car was registered to Heinrich.
But authorities did not apprehend him: “I did not have occasion to stop the vehicle,” the deputy reported.
Warrants and charges
In the late 1990s, Cherie Wall moved into a new home and bumped into a familiar neighbor in the fourplex next door: Danny Heinrich. The two had grown up in the same neighborhood, riding the school bus home together.
One day, Heinrich invited Wall and her two sons, then about 11 and 14 years old, over to see the knife collection he had covering his walls. It was extensive. Machetes, swords, daggers.
He chuckled about how he had been a suspect in the Wetterling investigation. “I remember that being kind of strange,” said Wall, now 51. “You’ve got all these knives and swords and now you’re telling us that you were a suspect in Jacob Wetterling’s abduction?”
Wall later warned her boys not to go into Heinrich’s apartment without her, but “I guess I trusted him,” based on their childhood together.
In 2008, Heinrich bought a small, white house in Annandale, where he had little contact with authorities. Annandale police records show just a few calls for service involving Heinrich: Once, he called to report three disorderly people who had been drinking. Another time, he needed help for his brother, who was living with him.
State court records show no charges against Danny Heinrich for decades. That changed in 2015, after authorities matched Heinrich’s DNA to evidence found on the sweatshirt Scheierl was wearing during the 1989 assault. Investigators then searched Heinrich’s home, discovering computer folders and 19 three-ring binders containing child pornography — the crux of the charges against him.
Court documents detailed Heinrich’s surreptitious footage of “neighborhood children delivering newspapers, riding bicycles, playing in public playgrounds and participating in sporting activities.” Heinrich sexualized the kids he filmed, zooming in on their buttocks and genital areas, the charges say. He baited newspaper boys, dropping coins on stairs so that he could capture them bending over to get them, according to the documents. Investigators also found four bins of boys’ clothing.
Since the charges were filed, Wall has wondered whether Heinrich ever filmed her sons. “It’s kind of icky,” she said.
Eliason, the store owner, thinks about whether she could have made a difference in Heinrich’s life. After he pleaded guilty to the last break-in at the consignment store, Heinrich paid restitution to Eliason for the previous burglaries and wrote her a letter apologizing. Of her supportive letter to the court, he said something like “nobody has ever … said such kind things to me or about me before,” she said.
“It really makes me sad that I didn’t try to reach out to him,” she said. “Maybe, maybe, I could have made a difference in his life.”
Fyle, now a parent with three boys and owner/operator of his own trucking business, said he was shocked to hear what had happened with his old friend.
“But then again,” he said, “how well do you know anybody?