In all the years Minnesota wondered why it was taking so long to find Jacob Wetterling, few, if any answers came from law enforcement.
Enter Don Gudmundson, who cut to the chase.
The longtime lawman stepped to the podium at the Stearns County Law Enforcement Center in St. Cloud last week and stunned the state with a blunt critique of the 27-year child abduction investigation and its perplexing blunders:
The case went “off the rails” practically from the beginning, Gudmundson said.
Authorities made a “fatal flaw” in an early interview of the suspect who eventually confessed.
They “squandered” their immense manpower, too, chasing weak leads and indulging psychics.
To some who know Gudmundson, it came as no surprise that the man who is temporarily leading the much-criticized Stearns County Sheriff’s Office cleared the air with plain-spoken candor. With an unprecedented track record serving as police chief in two Minnesota towns and sheriff in four Minnesota counties, the 71-year-old interim sheriff has come to be seen as someone who is comfortable stepping into messes and managing crises.
“He’s fearless about stuff like that,” said St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson, who started his law enforcement career as an intern under Gudmundson and considers him a mentor. “He’s always been a very transparent, very no-nonsense kind of guy.”
Gudmundson was reluctant last week to talk about himself, saying he wanted to keep the focus on the Wetterling case. But in an e-mail and brief phone interview, he explained his motives in delivering such a detailed presentation in advance of publicly releasing the Wetterling files.
“My hope is that in some small way that shining a light on the failures of law enforcement in this case will grant healing to victims, families, and the community,” he wrote. “I did not set out to find failure and errors in the file. They were glaring almost from Page 1. The truth is in those files from long ago and it pained me to see them …
“It was hard because for the first and only time in my life I publicly criticized other cops. I tried to present the facts in the case in a measured, careful and precise manner.”
Steps into Stearns job
Gudmundson wasn’t part of the Stearns County scene two years ago, when Danny Heinrich led authorities to Wetterling’s buried remains and confessed to kidnapping the 11-year-old at gunpoint as he biked home from a convenience store with his brother and a friend on an autumn evening in 1989.
Heinrich admitted to driving Jacob to a remote spot, sexually assaulting him and then shooting him, burying his body in Paynesville pasture.
In the days and weeks surrounding the confession, the Stearns County Sheriff’s office came under fire for its inability to solve the case and was sued for focusing publicly on innocent suspects in the Wetterling investigation as well as in the murder of a Cold Spring police officer. Months later, then-sheriff John Sanner retired midterm. In hiring a replacement in spring 2017, some county commissioners said they didn’t want to give the job to someone who would pursue the office full-time when Sanner’s term ended in December 2018.
Gudmundson, who had come out of retirement twice before, wasn’t looking for a permanent job.
“He came into the interview and just let it fly and whatever was on the top of his mind, we got,” Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier recalled with a chuckle, adding that Gudmundson highlighted anecdotes from his vast experience, shared his opinions and even bragged a bit about doing push-ups. “He’d been everywhere and done everything and that’s how we picked him.”
Gudmundson had started his career in Detroit and Chicago, where he worked homicide investigations before coming home to Minnesota. He served as Fillmore County sheriff, then became police chief in Lakeville in 1989 after the former chief and his assistant took demotions amid administrative problems.
Gudmundson said at the time that the problems represented “one of the reasons I went there.” The challenges, he said, meant he could “make a difference a lot more quickly.”
He later served as Dakota County sheriff. Known for staying even-keeled and keeping a sense of humor despite the demands of the job, Gudmundson was applauded by Dakota County jail inmates on his last day, even though he had banned them from watching daytime TV so they could spend time in more productive ways. He took pride in keeping the jail clean and safe.
After retiring from Dakota County, Gudmundson ended up serving as interim police chief in Faribault while allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced at a local school. Gudmundson voiced criticism over how school officials handled the case — instead of notifying police, they confronted a teacher accused of a sexual relationship with an exchange student. The teacher then shot himself to death.
But Lenzmeier and fellow Stearns County Commissioner Steve Notch said they weren’t looking for a crisis manager to replace Sanner. They were more concerned about someone leading the office through the county’s review of all of its departments.
After making the hire, Lenzmeier said Gudmundson quickly won over many on the Sheriff’s Office staff.
Soon, he’d have to manage the release of the Wetterling investigative documents, and wade through the tens of thousands of pages of reports, tip sheets, transcripts and photographs.
As he read, the many investigative mistakes, missed opportunities and wasted time got him “a little spun up,” he said at the news conference last week.
“There were times, I will admit that … we were screaming at them, like, ‘Can’t you see this?’ You know, and it was kind of tough.”
Although Gudmundson’s assessment might have upset some case investigators, Lenzmeier said he is OK with the way the sheriff shared his perspective.
“I understand their discomfort in some of the points that Don made,” Lenzmeier said. “They’re law enforcement professionals, but they’re people, too. Without a doubt, they would have an emotional attachment to the decisions they made and the way this went forward. … If they didn’t care that much, we wouldn’t want them around.”
‘We can learn from it’
Gudmundson delivered his public critique emphatically, using a 135-page slide presentation to highlight even small details of what went wrong, often pointing to missteps by the FBI. His words about the investigation were sometimes biting. “Failed … meaningless leads … tunnel vision.”
As he left the podium at the conclusion of his presentation, former FBI agent Al Garber, who was the lead FBI agent in the Wetterling probe in 1989, walked up to defend investigators’ work.
Told by Gudmundson to “take it outside,” Garber led a stream of reporters to a rainy sidewalk, where he said he was shocked and saddened by Gudmundson’s scathing assessment.
“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.”
While Gudmundson may have felt more free to speak because he had no history with the department and wasn’t running for election, he offered an explanation for his perspective at the end of his presentation, saying, “We can’t change what’s happened, but we can learn from it.”
For those living in the central Minnesota communities where Jacob went missing and his killer lived, Gudmundson’s frank words, combined with the release of the Wetterling investigative files, were long overdue.
“There’s been so much confusion around it,” said St. Joseph City Council Member Anne Buckvold, who moved to town 11 years ago. Gudmundson “laid it out that there was very clear evidence that this person should have been caught earlier and he wasn’t.”
If there were missteps, a community needs to know, Buckvold said. They need to know public agencies are doing their jobs, she explained.
“People want peace,” she said. “They want resolve. They want to be clear so we can make [good] decisions for our children and our community.”
Staff writer Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report.