ST. PAUL, Minn. – Senior investigators who helped find Jacob Wetterling say they believed they had the right man this entire last year.
But authorities from several agencies couldn’t imagine closing the case until after they’d heard a confession from 53-year-old Danny Heinrich.
“This investigative team felt very confident that they were on the right track, and he may have information about Jacob’s disappearance,” said Superintendent of the BCA Drew Evans.
Evans said deciding on federal prosecution of the child pornography-related charges leveled against Heinrich was key to his cooperation.
“The gamble we took in pursuing a federal prosecution paid off. And the amount of time he was looking at provided the opening for him to plead guilty and structure the sentence in a way that he would give us the information that would find Jacob,” he said.
But that carefully-laid plan for a plea deal also resulted in a difficult day of discovery in a Paynesville farm field, where Wetterling’s remains were found.
“He walked to the site, as if he knew exactly where he was going. And as described, he sort of stops, he sort of suddenly stops, and almost had a confused look on his face. Because what he was seeing was not what he expected to see. Over the intervening years property had changed, trees had grown up. Trees were gone. They had cleaned brush out. So it didn’t look exactly like he expected it to look,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Rick Thornton.
Evans said six scientists reported to work on what was a holiday weekend, trying to assist in both the recovery of the remains and the process of confirming the remains belonged to Wetterling.
“It’s the scientists going through the soil very carefully, with their hands and screens to make sure we don’t miss any bones in that process,” Evans said.
Evans noted the remains were first examined by the medical examiner’s office and a forensic anthropologist before being sent to the BCA where “they underwent a DNA testing process involving both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA testing.”
But weeks after that confirmation came, investigators are still searching for answers. They're now disclosing details regarding the recent recovery of Heinrich's possible murder weapon -- though it may be difficult to verify with what Thornton called “scientific, ballistic proof.”
Investigators also believe it’s possible Heinrich didn’t commit additional crimes – beyond those he’s confessed to – given he may have determined the risk was too great. But they also acknowledge cold case investigators throughout the country will likely consider the developments related to Heinrich when reviewing their own cases.
“I think certainly any time you add new data to the system, so to speak, it’s going to potentially cause someone to take a look at him,” Thornton said, adding he can’t speak to specific cases.
But investigators are clear on one point, they were dealing with a volatile, disturbed person.
"He's a scary person. He's the predator that we're all scared of back in 1989 and that is type of person that he is," Evans said.
"When he talked through what he did in federal court, it gives you very much that sense of immediate gratification... Not really considering the consequences of those actions," Thornton said.
And investigators are also clear the case may be coming to a close, but not in the way any of them ever wanted.
“We’re parents. We’re members of society here. We’re Minnesotans first. So we’ve looked for Jacob all these years, and while we’re able to bring him home, we were hoping for a different outcome,” Evans said.