ST. CLOUD – A district judge on Friday stopped the scheduled public release next week of some investigative documents related to Jacob Wetterling’s 1989 abduction and murder.
Judge Ann Carrott’s order came in response to a privacy lawsuit filed by attorneys for Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, who sought to prevent the release of sensitive investigative documents that include personal information about their family.
“We survived living through this once and choose not to live through it again,” the Wetterling family said in a written statement. “We are moving forward, not backward.”
The Stearns County sheriff planned to release on Monday morning more than 10,000 documents, or 56,000 pages, collected over the course of the 27-year investigation that began when Jacob was abducted at gunpoint near his home in St. Joseph, Minn.
In written statements Friday, county officials said they will wait until a judge reviews the documents in question and makes a decision on what should be public before releasing all the files.
“The struggle here is balancing our need to protect the privacy of victims and state law that requires the release of a closed investigative file,” Sheriff Don Gudmundson said in a written statement. “I believe the law requires the release of the file.”
Until Danny Heinrich, now 53, confessed last year to Jacob’s abduction and killing, the case remained unsolved and the boy’s whereabouts unknown for a generation. Then, late last summer, Heinrich, already in federal custody on child pornography charges, confessed under pressure and led investigators to Jacob’s remains in a field on the outskirts of Paynesville, where Heinrich lived at the time of the abduction.
Heinrich admitted in court to kidnapping the 11-year-old boy in October 1989 on a road near Jacob’s home, about 30 miles from Paynesville. Heinrich said he molested Jacob and fatally shot him that night.
Leading up to that denouement was nearly three decades of work by law enforcement involving numerous interviews of suspects and 80,000 tips.
Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall informed the media last month that the investigative documents would be made public on the county’s website at 11 a.m. Monday. In her statement Friday, Kendall said her office had painstakingly reviewed complicated state data practices laws and the documents for the past several months. Staff redacted the identities of hundreds of sexual assault victims whose names had been forwarded after Jacob’s abduction.
Nevertheless, she said, some “intensely personal information” remains public in the file, so it’s “understandable” the Wetterlings would seek judicial review.
‘Right to privacy’
Doug Kelley, an attorney for the Wetterlings, wrote in the lawsuit that the Wetterlings have a “fundamental right to privacy” regarding some of the information.
“The data ... created, collected and or stored includes personal information regarding [the Wetterlings’] marriage and family relationship, which is protected from disclosure by the state and federal constitutions and which the” family “reasonably and legitimately expected would remain free from public disclosure,” he wrote.
Carrott granted the request for the temporary restraining order after a conference call that was not public.
Kelley now has until June 30 to submit disputed material to the judge.
The Wetterlings aren’t seeking to block release of the entire file, just specific documents pertaining to them. Their complaint noted that during the investigation into Jacob’s abduction, law enforcement personnel were in the Wetterling home, “providing security or other services. As a result of those contacts and other reports, interviews and communications to law enforcement, highly personal details about the [Wetterlings] and their minor children and the inner workings of the Wetterling family were recorded in notes and documents that became part of the” investigative file in the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office.
In addition to personal observations by law enforcement, tips came in from the public about the Wetterlings that were “usually false and sometimes outright defamatory,” the complaint said.
The complaint didn’t go any further into the topics of the relevant documents, nor did it quantify the number.
The Wetterlings are requesting that a judge conduct a private review of the documents at issue to determine whether they can be released.
Kendall had planned to release the documents. In a letter last month that was attached to the lawsuit and addressed to Kelley, she wrote, “While we are sympathetic to your clients’ concerns, we find no” legal basis in state privacy laws “to further restrict access to this investigative data.”
In a written statement Friday, Kelley said, “Nothing that we’re asking to be protected is germane to the central facts of this crime, neither does this information relate to the public’s interest in the transparent operation of government.”
Jacob’s disappearance had been a great mystery as his family worked to help other missing and exploited children.
Media have been keenly interested in the file to learn more about why the case took so long to solve, especially given that Heinrich was a suspect within weeks of the abduction and had been questioned by investigators.
In their statement, the Wetterlings seemed to want to curb any finger-pointing, writing, “Let the blame be on the man who did this.”