At 1:00 pm yesterday in Minnesota, Danny Heinrich, 53, was taken before a federal court on charges of possession of child pornography, to which he pleaded guilty to one charge, even though a search warrant of his home last year yielded reams of the offensive material. More significantly, however, he surprised almost everybody in the courtroom by pleading guilty to kidnapping, sexually assaulting, and murdering Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy, on October 22, 1989.
Heinrich’s decision to lead authorities to Jacob’s body and his guilty plea to the one count of child pornography were part of a 20-year plea bargain entered into with the approval of the Wetterlings. Under the plea deal, he will not be prosecuted by the state or federal authorities for Jacob’s murder.
Up until this hearing, Heinrich was merely regarded as a “person of interest” in the abduction and the murder of Jacob. Although Heinrich led authorities to the location of Jacob’s remains on a farm near his home at the time, until yesterday no connection between Jacob’s abduction and murder and the possession of kiddie porn had been conclusively established. All the while he was a “person of interest,” Heinrich had denied to have anything to do with the Wetterling case. It, plus sexual attacks on several other boys (one of which is linked to Heinrich’s DNA), had been nothing more than a “pattern.” The statute of limitations on the sexual assaults had expired—but of course, there is no statute of limitations on murder.
Yet that is all a moot point; Heinrich is now a confessed child molester and murderer. He is unmasked as the selfish, unpredictable, narcissistic, volatile, depraved monster that he is. He will likely serve the maximum sentence—20 years (18 years with “good behavior”)—on the one child pornography count in a federal prison. Thereafter, as a sex offender, he is presently subject to civil commitment (though the constitutionality of civil commitments is currently being challenged)—so he may not see a single day of freedom for the rest of his life.
And who knows? Maybe he will ultimately meet the same fate as Jeffrey Dahmer.
“Person of interest” is a term used by US law enforcement when identifying someone involved in a criminal investigation who has not been arrested or formally accused of a crime. It has no legal meaning, but refers to someone in whom the police are interested, either because the person is cooperating with the investigation, may have information that would assist the investigation, or possesses certain characteristics that merit further attention. While terms such as “suspect,” “target,” and “material witness” have clear and sometimes formal definitions, “person of interest” remains undefined by the US Department of Justice. “Person of interest” is sometimes used as a euphemism for “suspect,” and its careless use may encourage trials by media. Some legal scholars say its ubiquitous use by police and other officials belies the fact that they’re trying to create a more benign public image, even as their power expands.
Danny Heinrich has always been a loner, a bit of a loser, and did get into some trouble as a young man. His past includes bouts of unemployment, a move, and an unsolved arson. He admitted to drinking and driving on at least two different occasions, and was involved with two break-ins at Paynesville businesses. He said he was looking for cash after he lost money in a gambling game.
His first DWI came in 1982 when he was 19. Heinrich told a judge he was working in Willmar at the Jennie-O Plant at the time, but was living in Paynesville. He got another DWI in 1986—just three years before Wetterling’s kidnapping. He blew a .17, and then tried to run from the arresting officer. He also punched and kicked the officer to try to get away. All of these charges were misdemeanors.
Documents suggest one year in particular was filled with turmoil. That year was 1989. A then 26-year-old Heinrich was having financial trouble. In March of 1989 his Mercury Topez was repossessed. Investigators believe he used that car to sexually assault Jared Schierel in Cold Spring MN.
Heinrich admitted to his attorney in a burglary case years prior he’d been having problems dealing with his parent’s divorce. His mother remarried in July of 1989. Heinrich also stopped working at Fingerhut in St. Cloud on October 8 of that year.
In July of 1989, three months before Wetterling was kidnapped, a 9-year-old St. Joseph MN boy told police he ran from a man driving a light tan van who asked him to get inside. Authorities released a sketch of that man a week after Wetterling went missing. If it is Heinrich, it’s the only sketch of him without glasses which he is usually pictured wearing. Some parents called to say their kids saw that same man driving around St. Joseph that summer snapping pictures. While it’s unknown if Heinrich had access to a van, recent records show Heinrich registered eight cars in the past 11 years.
Perhaps one of the most telling pieces of all is the suspect profile the FBI released just three days after Wetterling’s kidnapping: a white man, 25 to 35 years old, employed in a low-skilled job. Investigators also believed he recently had a high-stress event in his life that triggered the high-risk way he kidnapped Wetterling. They also thought the threat of a gun indicated he may have tried a similar event before and failed.
Around the same time, the FBI described the suspect as commanding like a military man. Heinrich served as a specialist in the National Guard. He also said he joined the Minnesota National Guard after dropping out of high school in the 11th grade. Major Scott Hawks confirmed Heinrich’s service with the National Guard, which was from February 1982 until November 1991. Hawks says Heinrich reached the rank of specialist, and was honorably discharged. A Guard spokesperson said he did not take part in any search for Wetterling in St. Joseph.
Sources said just this year investigators revisited Heinrich’s connection to an early morning arson on November 12, 1989 at a home he was known to visit. It’s the same date documents said Heinrich started a new job.
Two weeks later, Heinrich moved from his downtown Paynesville apartment, where he’d lived for years, into his father’s basement two miles away.
Potential victims of Heinrich have been told by investigators that Heinrich lost 60 pounds before Wetterling’s kidnapping and then put 60 pounds back on in the few months that followed. Another indication, experts said, that he may have been trying to avoid detection.
With Patty and Jerry Wetterling, Jacob’s parents, present in the courtroom yesterday, Heinrich described how he abducted 11-year-old Jacob from a rural central Minnesota road on October 22, 1989. Jacob was riding his bicycle with his brother and a friend near his home in St. Joseph MN, when a masked Heinrich abducted him at gunpoint, holding onto Jacob, threatening to shoot the other boys, and telling them to run.
Heinrich handcuffed Jacob behind his back and drove away as Jacob asked, “What did I do wrong?”
Heinrich stopped at a secluded quarry. Heinrich told Jacob to undress, then undressed himself, and sexually abused Jacob. After the assault, Heinrich told Jacob to turn away so he could relieve himself in privacy, and then shot Jacob twice in the head, apparently as Jacob cried after the assault. Heinrich said he had panicked at the presence of a police car in the vicinity.
Heinrich said he left Jacob’s body and went home, then returned later to hide the body, using a Bobcat to dig a hole. He returned to the site a year later to discover Jacob’s jacket partially exposed. He moved the remains to a field in Paynesville MN. The Stearns County Sheriff’s Office said Jacob’s remains were identified Saturday.
In brief comments following Heinrich’s confession, Patty Wetterling thanked all who worked on the case.
“Jacob, I’m so sorry,” she said. “It’s incredibly painful to know his last days, his last hours, his last minutes…For us,” she said, her voice choked with emotion, “Jacob was alive until we found him.”
Disturbed dirt lies at the location in a cow pasture of a farm in Paynesville MN, where Jacob Wetterling’s remains were found.
Heinrich was questioned by authorities shortly after Jacob’s disappearance, but he denied involvement. Court documents say his shoes and car tires were “consistent” with tracks near the site of the abduction, but couldn’t be ruled an exact match.
In Annandale MN, Heinrich’s modest home now sits empty.
Neighbor Megan Champlin recalled Heinrich as a man always outside who kept his yard meticulous but generally kept to himself. “We’d chat about the weather, just small talk, nothing in depth,” Champlin said. “We never really thought he was a threat of any sort, didn’t give us the creepies or anything like that. Just someone who kept to himself.”
Champlin now has four children, including a 4-month-old. She said she was sickened by the details of Heinrich’s confession. “I couldn’t believe that, having small children, living right next to him, and our block being full of small kids, and that he was the one who did those horrible things to Jacob,” Champlin said. “It’s a really raw feeling right now.”
Heinrich is expected to be sentenced on November 21st to 20 years in prison on the federal child pornography charge.
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