Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson's news conference last month regarding the Jacob Wetterling investigation was irresponsible and a disservice to the public (" 'It went off the rails.' Sheriff: Wetterling case bungled from start," Sept 21). We question why, with zero firsthand knowledge or experience on this case, Gudmundson would present the evidence available in 1990 in a distorted manner and give a revisionist account of the investigation. The news conference misled the public as to what agents did and were able to do in 1990.
We were two of the FBI agents working on the Wetterling investigation in the days, weeks and months immediately after Jacob's disappearance.
Sheriff Gudmundson's hindsight conclusions regarding the final interview with Danny Heinrich and the evidentiary value of tire and shoe imprints and polygraph test results create a false picture suggesting that Heinrich could have been thrown in jail right there on the spot. That is not the reality.
Why does Gudmundson question the experience of law enforcement agents who met with Heinrich on Feb. 9, 1990, calling the interview the most "fatal flaw" in the investigation?
One of us, Steve Gilkerson, led this meeting with Heinrich, having served, at that time, for 22 years as a special agent investigating violent crimes in Atlanta, New York City and Minneapolis and having been involved in three major kidnapping cases before Jacob's. Gilkerson had succeeded in obtaining confessions and critical information in cases including bank robberies, fugitives, kidnappings and murder.
Two FBI agents and a sheriff's deputy were present at that Feb. 9, 1990, meeting. Indeed, Heinrich's interview was considered so important that three FBI agents from the Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Va., came to help prepare ways to approach him.
Why couldn't we obtain a confession from Heinrich that day? Despite what Sheriff Gudmundson would have the public believe, we had no direct evidence to positively connect Heinrich to the crime. The sheriff suggests Heinrich's shoe and tire prints were a match with those at the crime scene. Not true.
The FBI's lab report concluded that the patterns of the shoes worn by Heinrich and the patterns found at the crime scene were similar. This does not mean Heinrich's shoes left the prints.
Regarding tires, FBI's lab concluded that Heinrich's tires were "consistent" with the crime scene tire impressions. Again, this does not mean they were the tires that made the imprints.
Nor was the polygraph during which Heinrich's answers all registered as "deceptive" direct evidence of a crime.
What is the practical and legal effect of this information? Both lab reports and deceptive polygraph results provided information about Heinrich as a suspect, but it was not conclusive evidence or legally sufficient to prove Heinrich committed the crime.
"Looks like," "similar," "consistent" and even "same patterns" are not real evidence. In our American justice system, we do not convict people on "maybe," "possibly" or even "probably." We convict with conclusive evidence using a legal standard of proof "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Sheriff Gudmundson blurs the lines between the evidence we had in 1990 and the evidence necessary to obtain a confession or succeed in a conviction, suggesting that we failed to use this evidence to get Heinrich. Yet we had no eyewitnesses, fingerprints or DNA.
Only after DNA tied Heinrich to the Cold Spring, Minn., case were authorities able to get him.
Confession obtained. Case solved. Jacob is found.
The only way Jacob's case could have been solved — and was solved — was by confession. Heinrich never would have confessed to this crime without direct evidence showing he committed a crime and being given something in exchange for his confession.
Collectively, we have spent over 76 years in law enforcement. If we had had real evidence against Heinrich in 1990 — like the DNA evidence in 2015 — we would have gotten him then.
We must move forward and learn what we can from Jacob's case. For the Wetterling family, our deepest hope is that they continue healing from the horrible tragedy. For the sake of all missing and exploited children, we must continue working with and supporting law enforcement in the hard work they do every day to solve difficult and heartbreaking cases like Jacob's.
Steve Gilkerson served as a special agent with the FBI from 1968-1998. Al Garber served as a special agent with the FBI from 1968-1993. Both later served in other law enforcement positions.