ST. CLOUD – The lead FBI agent on Jacob Wetterling’s kidnapping stood in the rain outside the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday fending off claims that his investigation squandered multiple opportunities to solve the crime within months, if not days.
“If you want to hear me say we failed because we didn’t find Jacob alive, we failed,” an exasperated Al Garber said at one point as reporters pressed him over and over about the investigation that remained open for three decades until Danny Heinrich confessed in the summer of 2016.
Garber spoke to reporters after listening to a long critique from Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson that was a prelude to the release of thousands of pages of previously unseen investigative documents involving one of Minnesota’s highest-profile crime mysteries. Using slides projected on two screens behind him, Gudmundson outlined failures he saw in an investigation that quickly “went off the rails” under the direction of the FBI.
As soon as he finished, Garber stood and headed to the lectern. As he began defending his work, Gudmundson cut him off and told him to “take it outside.”
Garber quietly headed for the door with a stream of reporters, cameras and microphones following up the stairs and onto the sidewalk.
“I want the picture to be clear,” Garber said. “We’re not dopes. We’re not stupid. We didn’t do everything right but we didn’t do this.”
Garber, now 76, patiently answered question after question about his handling of the investigation. He seemed more hurt and confused than angered by Gudmundson’s scathing critique. The two men, both active in Minnesota law enforcement for decades, said they’ve known each other for years.
“I’m not going to question Don’s motives,” Garber said. “I’m just shocked and I’m sad.”
He disputed Gudmundson’s assertion that law enforcement didn’t communicate across agencies and jurisdictions, failing to share key evidence and tips that came within the first 48 hours of Jacob’s disappearance. Gudmundson said FBI agents started outward — interviewing suspects in California and Vermont — before focusing on Stearns County. The order should have been reversed, the sheriff said.
“Don wasn’t there,” Garber said. “He didn’t see the day-to-day operation. He didn’t see how many investigators were working on this case.”
The former agent, who arrived at the news conference and left with Jacob’s father, Jerry Wetterling, said everyone worked together to find Jacob. As to the sheriff’s assertion that the investigation disregarded Heinrich early on, Garber said, “That’s ridiculous.”
The sheriff noted that shoe prints and tire tracks at the site of Jacob’s abduction matched Heinrich’s shoes and tires, but investigators didn’t focus on the link. Garber said the shoe prints and the tire tracks were consistent.
“Do you know what that means in a court of law? That means nothing,” he said.
Gudmundson also said that Heinrich acted suspiciously when he was under surveillance, turning off his car lights and eluding investigators. The sheriff took that as an indication of guilt. Garber responded that investigators conducted 24/7 surveillance of Heinrich for two weeks. “He says that an innocent man doesn’t act suspicious when he’s under surveillance. Baloney,” Garber said.
The sheriff, who has worked in law enforcement for decades and has held his current post since 2017, wasn’t part of the Wetterling investigation. He called the 1990 arrest and interview of Heinrich the “fatal flaw” in the probe. Young FBI agents, rather than experienced state homicide investigators, led the interrogation after arresting Heinrich in a bar, Gudmundson said.
Garber countered that “a lot of people had input” into the staging of that interview. As for the claim it was done by inexperienced investigators, Garber said, “that hurts.” Investigators were looking for a confession but didn’t get one.
Heinrich, who had asked for an attorney, was released from custody the next day. The county attorney reviewed the case and said, “We’ve got no evidence. We’ve got to let him go,” Garber said.