The investigators sifted through the black soil handful by handful, searching for small clues of the boy who had been missing for 27 years.
Agents from the FBI, state and county had already worked the pasture dirt for eight hours that Friday, finding bones and teeth from the scoops of earth spread on a tarp with a backhoe. Days earlier, they had found pieces of a red hockey jacket, but the name had worn off. They wanted more. They needed more.
Then, in the early evening, one of the searchers found a piece of fabric — a T-shirt?
An investigator, wearing gloves, gently worked it out of the soil, laid it flat and cleaned it up. Everyone watched in silence as the light letters on the back of the shirt finally appeared: Wetterling.
“Everybody basically put their hands on that shirt with his name on it and was very quiet for a moment,” said Stearns County Chief Deputy Bruce Bechtold. “That made it real.”
After nearly three decades of false starts, missed opportunities, bad tips and dead ends, investigators had finally solved the haunting mystery of what became of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy from St. Joseph, Minn., who was taken by a masked man on an October night in 1989 and never seen again. The breakthrough, in a grove of trees abutting a farm field just outside Paynesville, Minn., nearly 30 miles from where the boy was kidnapped, stemmed largely from an intense and organized effort over the past two years — one that involved doubling back on a suspect within their grasp decades ago who, after denying the crime for years, finally confessed.
Danny Heinrich had been questioned, surveilled and his home searched in the months after Jacob’s disappearance, but authorities never had enough to pin him with the crime.
That changed in recent years, as a determined blogger teamed with a man who had been kidnapped at age 12 from a dark road just months before Jacob — adding public pressure to a quiet effort by federal and state investigators to take another run at solving the case. DNA from that 12-year-old’s sweatshirt brought investigators to Heinrich, who eventually led them to where Jacob had been hidden for decades.
“This was not the ending that any of us wanted,” said Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner, “but Jacob’s finally home.”
Summer of 2014
It was summer 2014, and key players from the FBI, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office gathered in St. Cloud. Some, like Sanner, had worked Jacob’s case for years. Others were new to the case and knew less about its chilling details.
Their plan: to review anew the state’s most prominent cold case as the 25th anniversary of that warm October night was approaching. As part of their work, they’d re-examine the bike ride home from the Tom Thumb store just after 9 p.m., the description of the masked man with a gun and a raspy voice, the boys with Jacob — his brother Trevor, 10, and best friend, Aaron Larson, 11 — being ordered to run into the woods and not look back.
At that point, the investigation was already heating up. Joy Baker, a blogger from New London, Minn., had been digging into Jacob’s disappearance, driven by her visit to the dead-end road where he was abducted and her “urge to understand exactly what happened there.” In 2013, she told the story on her blog of Jared Scheierl, who was 12 years old when he was snatched from a dark road in nearby Cold Spring, Minn., and sexually assaulted.
Baker had called Scheierl during a difficult time in his life, he recalled last week. His father had died, he was dealing with a divorce and his dog had just been hit by a car. It had been years since he had spoken publicly about his sexual assault, and then using only his first name.
But for some reason, Scheierl talked with Baker, sharing details about the stocky man with a raspy voice, whom he had described to investigators in a series of interviews before and after Jacob’s abduction.
“It was my sketch that everyone was looking for,” Scheierl, now 40, said last week.
After Baker came across a 1987 article in the Paynesville Press about a series of attacks on boys there, Scheierl reached out to victims in that small central Minnesota city where he now lives.
“The more we learned,” Baker said last week, “the bigger it felt.”
In 2014, the pair talked to the nationally televised CNN show “The Hunt,” starring John Walsh. The FBI figured that the show, which aired in August, would bring in “a large number” of tips, Kyle Loven, chief counsel for the Minneapolis FBI office, said last year. So the meeting in St. Cloud was a chance to discuss “how we were going to address” those.
It’s unclear when Heinrich again came to investigators’ attention, or if he was always on a shortlist of suspects. But in a case with more than 50,000 leads, he was no stranger to authorities.
Investigators had long thought it probable the same man had abducted both Jacob and Jared — and that the man could be Heinrich, said Allen Garber, the FBI investigator who supervised the Wetterling case. In February 1990, off circumstantial evidence, investigators arrested Heinrich, who had led a troubled early life of burglary, drinking and financial difficulties, in the kidnapping and assault of Scheierl.
“He denied, denied, denied,” Garber said in an interview last week, recalling Heinrich’s response to investigators’ questions. “The more the interview was conducted, the angrier he got.”
Looking back, Garber said last week, “I think he realized we didn’t have any real evidence against him.”
Heinrich asked for a lawyer, Garber recalled, bringing the interview to an end.
“The whole thing turned into a comedy of errors,” Garber wrote in a 2009 memoir.
In 2015, DNA brought Heinrich back into focus.
Two pieces of physical evidence filed early in the investigation turned out to be key: Heinrich’s hair, which he provided in 1990, and Scheierl’s sweatshirt, which the 12-year-old had been wearing during the attack.
The Sheriff’s Office would “routinely and periodically” resubmit evidence to the BCA crime lab “to make sure we took advantage of DNA advancements,” Sanner said at a news conference last week.
On July 10, 2015, the lab found a match: DNA lifted from the sweatshirt matched Heinrich.
Authorities searched Heinrich’s house in Annandale, where they found 19 binders of child pornography, surreptitious footage of neighborhood boys and girls’ backsides and bins of children’s clothing. But what they really hoped to find was evidence of Jacob — including a red hockey jacket with “Jacob” stitched on the front and a red T-shirt with the number “11” on the back.
They found none of it.
At that point, Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall, who would oversee any state prosecution of Heinrich, called U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger to talk strategy. Evidence linking Heinrich to Jacob was thin — a tire track and a shoe print from the abduction scene. But if authorities prosecuted Heinrich on child pornography charges in federal court, rather than state court, he could face a tougher prison sentence. Could they use that leverage to get Heinrich to tell what happened to Jacob?
“I couldn’t prove [murder], but I had a lot of kiddie porn,” Kendall said in an interview last week. “And that was the only thing the feds could take jurisdiction over. That was the only thing.”
The state and federal legal teams joined forces, and last October, Heinrich was arrested and charged in federal court with possessing and receiving child pornography.
Officials were hopeful they could get Heinrich to talk. But he proved to be difficult.
“Over the months, there were times when it appeared we might get to this point, but those glimmers disappeared,” Luger said last week. “Heinrich was a volatile and unpredictable man who could want to talk one minute and clam up the next.”
The final push
On a trip to St. Joseph this summer, attorney Doug Kelley, who is representing Scheierl in a civil suit against Heinrich, spent three hours talking with Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, in their home.
The discussion turned to a possible plea deal. At some point, Kelley told them, authorities might ask them if they would be willing to accept a murder confession without a murder conviction.
“And Patty and Jerry said: We’re interested in information,” Kelley said last week.
Then on Aug. 29, Kelley got the call: A deal with Heinrich was in the works. Kelley called Patty Wetterling once, twice, then jumped in his car and drove to St. Joseph. Seeing him at the door, she knew something big was happening, he said.
On Aug. 30, in Kelley’s office, the key players gathered. Luger, Sanner, Kendall. Richard Thornton, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis division. The Wetterlings, too. They spent hours discussing the deal, the likely 20-year sentence, and asked the Wetterlings for their blessing, said Kelley, a former assistant U.S. attorney.
“They gave their answer,” Kelley said, “and the next day the feds started digging.”
Heinrich led investigators to a pasture in Paynesville, near a grove of trees.
Bechtold, who was the first officer to respond to the Wetterlings’ house in 1989 after the 911 call, was there. So, too, was Pam Jensen, who led the investigation for 15 years and after retiring, was sworn back in as a volunteer for the final days of the case.
As investigators dug, Jerry and Patty Wetterling watched for a short time from afar.
Conditions weren’t ideal. Cows tried to chase off investigators. And the flood-prone creek that ran through the pasture made sifting through the soil more difficult.
“It took hours — hours — to find the spot first and then hours to continually excavate,” Bechtold said.
Though Heinrich said he had buried the boy in a shallow grave about 2 feet deep, and had placed Jacob’s jacket on top of the remains, the evidence authorities found was scattered across at least 10 square feet, Bechtold said, a sign of erosion and moving soil from frost heaves and flooding.
At 1:04 p.m. on Aug. 31, Luger got word that part of the hockey jacket had been found. The St. Cloud Police logo was visible, but the name had deteriorated. The next day, needing more information and evidence, investigators interviewed Heinrich for hours, drawing a detailed confession.
“It all fell into place,” Bechtold said.
On Sept. 2, agents returned to the pasture to work through the soil. When they found the T-shirt, they knew.
Days later, after Heinrich confessed in court in great detail to abducting, killing and burying Jacob, Scheierl woke up at his house in Paynesville and headed to the burial site, seeking a step toward closure, toward moving forward. Just as the sun was rising, and with permission of the farm’s owner, he stood overlooking the pasture and the spot where the fresh earth remained visible. It had rained that morning, and the ground was wet.
Scheierl closed his eyes and said a prayer.