The massive investigative file on the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling won’t be released anytime soon after a judge pushed back the deadline for challenging the release of some documents, saying that “new issues have arisen.”
District Judge Ann Carrott didn’t identify those issues in a brief order moving the deadline from June 30 to July 31.
But Doug Kelley, the attorney for the Wetterling family, which seeks to block the release of some documents out of privacy concerns, said the delay stems from a request by the FBI to Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall seeking the return of investigative documents the agency shared with the county during the decades-long search for Jacob and his killer.
It’s not certain how much of the county’s 56,000-page file contains material shared by the FBI. Kelley estimated about half the file contains FBI material.
Kendall said late Thursday that she and Sheriff Don Gudmundson believe the entire file is public under Minnesota law and have declined to hand over documents to the FBI.
“It’s not mystical magical stuff,” she said. “This is public information under state law.”
If the FBI gets the documents, they would be subject to requests for release under the federal Freedom of Information Act, which has stronger privacy protections than state law.
Neither an FBI nor a U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman would comment on what happens next.
Carrott’s order last Friday came less than a month after the entire file was set to be released and after Patty and Jerry Wetterling, Jacob’s parents, sought to keep some documents private out of concern that they revealed too much about the family’s personal life.
Kendall had determined this spring that the file was public and was preparing to release it June 5 until the Wetterlings, who as crime victims were allowed to review it first, filed a legal request to stop her.
In the early days after Jacob’s disappearance, county, state and federal investigators were at the Wetterling home around the clock and privy to the inner dynamics of the family.
Carrott had given Kelley a June 30 deadline — last Friday — to submit to the court the documents the Wetterlings wanted to keep from public view. Kelley said that amounts to about 170 pages of material.
He couldn’t say Thursday whether those pages were FBI or Stearns County documents, but said some may be “blended” and involve both entities.
“That will materially alter the case,” Kelley said of the FBI demand. “I would like to see the results of what happens between Stearns County and the FBI before I submit my final request.”
Protective of files
Kelley, who requested the month extension last Friday in an on-the-record conference call with Carrott and Stearns County, said that he expects the FBI to fight hard on the issue.
“My experience when I was an assistant U.S. attorney is that the FBI is very protective of its documents,” he said. “In past situations the FBI has actually gone to court to request documents returned to them.”
Even before the FBI made its request, several open government and media organizations wanted to weigh in on the case and asked Carrott that they be allowed to step in and argue against the Wetterlings’ bid to keep some documents private.
Mark Anfinson, attorney for the coalition, said Thursday that he was not aware of the deadline extension or the FBI request, which he characterized as “troubling.”
“I am skeptical that there could be that many documents that were the exclusive property of the FBI that were maintained by Stearns County,” he said.
Jacob’s disappearance at gunpoint by a masked stranger on a dark October evening in St. Joseph, Minn. gripped a state and region like few crimes before it. The case went unsolved for nearly three decades until the boy’s killer, Danny Heinrich, who was jailed on child pornography charges, confessed to the crime last fall and took authorities to Jacob’s remains.
When a criminal case is closed, state law requires the release of the investigative file.
After 27 years, many questions remain about law enforcement’s handling of the Wetterling investigation.
Heinrich, who lived in Paynesville, Minn., about a half-hour from St. Joseph, at the time of Jacob’s abduction, was an early suspect and interviewed by investigators less than two months after Jacob’s disappearance. But he wasn’t held at that time or arrested in connection with the case.
Meanwhile, suspicion for years publicly focused on a neighbor of the Wetterlings who has since filed a lawsuit against Stearns County.
The group fighting for release of the documents is led by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information and includes the St. Paul Pioneer Press, KSTP-TV and the Minnesota newspaper and broadcast associations.
The Star Tribune has not joined that effort.