ST. CLOUD – Almost every scrap of information from the nearly three-decade search for Jacob Wetterling — tens of thousands of pages of tips, interrogations and dead-end leads — is stashed in boxes in a basement here.
Those boxes are now open, and soon members of the public will be able to read the contents for themselves.
Jacob’s killer, Danny Heinrich, in September confessed to the crime, and on Monday, will be sentenced to 20 years in prison as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. Sometime after that, the contents of the “Wetterling Room” will become public record.
But before those investigative documents can be released, someone has to go through every box, every page, every line, and painstakingly blot out things like Social Security numbers, private medical data and children’s names.
Teams of five to 14 people have been at it for weeks, running through roll after roll of redaction tape — a mile and a half of it so far, dotted across more than 37,000 pages of investigative reports. That’s not counting boxes of taped interviews that need to be transcribed, stacks of photographs and physical evidence, newspaper clippings, and folders crammed with the 80,000 or so tips that poured in from every corner of the globe between October 1989, when a masked stranger snatched Jacob off his bike, and September 2016, when Heinrich, now 53, led investigators to the lonely field in Paynesville where he assaulted, shot and buried the 11-year-old hours after the abduction.
“It’s all there. It’s all coming,” said Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall, looking around the windowless room in the basement of the county Law Enforcement Center.
On Thursday, half a dozen members of the sheriff’s office were on redaction duty, checking and double checking each others’ work. It may take until January to get the entire contents of the Wetterling Room ready for public release. It might take until March.
Staff from the county attorney’s office, the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office and the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation have read through the investigative reports twice already, and may go through a third time. If they miss one thing — say, someone’s Social Security number — before the files go public, “real-life human beings will pay the price,” Kendall said.
When the files open, many in Stearns County could be in for a surprise. Tucked away in the boxes are the names of neighbors who phoned in tips about neighbors, and family members who suspected relatives.
“We’re only taking out private data, not embarrassing data,” Stearns County Chief Deputy Bruce Bechtold said, looking up from a stack of files. “There’s a lot of embarrassing stuff for a lot of people in the community.”
Worst suspicions aired
In the frantic, fearful aftermath of Jacob’s abduction, people aired their worst suspicions, and shared the darkest chapters in their family histories.
“There’s stuff that could probably damage relationships,” Bechtold said.
If someone phoned in to say their Uncle Ralph molested them when they were 5 years old, Bechtold said, the name of the young victim would be redacted, “but Uncle Ralph’s going to be in there.”
“You’ve got people whose information is in here who have no idea their information is in here,” Kendall said, looking around the Wetterling Room.
Under the harsh fluorescent lights, a whiteboard tallies the checklist to flag for review: victim names, financial data, confidential witnesses, welfare data, medical information. Most of the people in the files had nothing to do with Jacob’s abduction, although Danny Heinrich’s name is in there, almost from the start.
Over the years, investigators followed up every possible lead, and a fair number of the impossible ones. Every paper trail ended up in a box in the Wetterling Room. They investigated every sex offender they could find in a five-state radius. They followed up on Jacob sightings in every corner of the country, and beyond.
In the boxes there are files from Interpol. There are files in Japanese and Spanish, awaiting translation. There’s paperwork noting the psychics who phoned in their visions. There are files from the people who looked to the skies for answers.
“A lot of psychics,” Bechtold said. “Some aliens.”
“Jacob has been seen in every state,” said assistant Stearns County Attorney Lotte Hansen, one of the two attorneys on hand every day to handle the legal questions that turn up in every box of records.
A formidable task
Every hour in the Wetterling Room is time the county’s investigators and attorneys aren’t spending on other cases, but it’s what the law requires. No one expected the work to take quite this long.
The first teams went into the room expecting to have the files cleaned up and ready to release in a matter of days. It didn’t take long for the magnitude of the task to sink in.
“It became clear quite quickly that it was going to take longer than people had hoped,” Hansen said. Even scanning the documents to upload online takes time.
The Stearns County Attorney’s Office does not yet have a date for a release of the records. When they’re ready, they’ll be posted online and available for public review, Kendall said.
The Wetterling case shocked the entire state, and the time it took to solve it has led many people to raise questions about how authorities handled the investigation and why it took so long to connect the dots to Heinrich. That scrutiny is pushing the county to be “as transparent as possible” as it prepares to share the contents of the Wetterling Room, Kendall said.
“I know there’s a bunch of questions about what was done and what wasn’t done” during the almost 27-year course of the investigation, Kendall said. “Well, it’s all in there. All of it.”