Sheriff blames law enforcement for mishandling Wetterling case

Nearly 30-years after 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped by Daniel Heinrich, and just two years after it was discovered where Wetterling’s remains resided, the state of Minnesota ruled for the case’s investigation files to be released to the public.

“We have all had the advantage of knowing the ending from the beginning in perhaps the most famous murder mystery in the history of Minnesota,” Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson said.

Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson addresses the crowd at Thursday’s press conference in Stearns County.

A press conference took place in downtown St. Cloud at the Stearns County Law Enforcement Center on a very fitting rainy and gloomy day on Thursday, Sept. 20 at approximately 10 a.m. At the press conference, all the information files that Stearns County withheld were released to the press on a small flash drive, a piece of technology that was unimaginable back when Wetterling was abducted in 1989.

Along with the flash drive that contains hundreds of papers relating to the case that have never been in the public eye, Gudmundson gave a slideshow presentation explaining the mystery from beginning to end, mixing in his views as well.

“The place to start in our discussion of how the Jacob Wetterling investigation was conducted is not Oct. 22, 1989, the day Jacob was abducted, but Jan. 13, 1989,” Gudmundson said. “It starts with the kidnapping and assault of a 12-year-old Cold Spring boy.”

The sheriff described in detail multiple accusations of child sexual assault by Danny Heinrich that happened before Wetterling disappeared, which were peculiarly similar to each other in that the victims all described Heinrich the same way. Whether it was Heinrich’s car, shoe prints, body type, voice, tire tracks, clothes, etc., everything that was described by the other kids all matched each other, leading to Heinrich as the murderer.

Nevertheless, even with all of the evidence pointing at Heinrich’s face, the investigators at the time could not come up with conclusive evidence that he was the murderer. Gudmundson said that the investigators should have known Heinrich was the perpetrator from the very start of the investigation and that the case was a mishandled mess or “off the rails,” he said.

“Here’s the question I would ask my retired detectives: Did you ever think of going back and taking a run at this guy? Answer, no. Which startled me a little bit. What’s the secret in a cold case? Read. The. Reports,” Gudmundson said.

Gudmundson was not part of the initial Wetterling investigation, but was also not hesitant to point his finger in the direction of the FBI. He also believes that a cause of the mishandling of the case was because there were too many people involved in the investigation.

“In this case, too many cooks spoiled the broth, the soup, the stew, or in Minnesota, the casserole. Investigators need to be up to date on the investigation,” Gudmundson said. “According to retired detectives, that didn’t happen. The right hand literally did not know what the left hand was doing.”

On Oct. 22, 1989, Wetterling was abducted by Heinrich in St. Joseph and then driven to an open field in Paynesville where Jacob was sexually assaulted and soon thereafter shot in the head by Heinrich.   

After Wetterling was kidnapped, his disappearance was a mystery in Minnesota for nearly 30-years until 2016 when Heinrich brought the police to Wetterling’s remains and confessed to the murder and sexual assault of Jacob Wetterling.  

“We can’t change what’s happened, but we can learn from it. The deputies who work [at Stearns County] were not here at the time,” Gudmundson said.

Although the sheriff may have thought the FBI was a cause in the Wetterling investigation, former FBI investigator, Al Garber did not agree.

“He took what happened into his emergency operation center and decided to tell everyone why almost everything was done wrong, and I’m sad about that because it’s not the way it was,” Garber said.

After Gudmundson was formally done giving his presentation at the conference, Garber stood up and asked permission to use the podium to refute his former colleague’s remarks about the FBI to the press.

“What’s missing from his credentials is, has he ever worked a case of this magnitude, with this many agencies, with this many investigators… maybe you have Don, but if you have, you didn’t say you did,” Garber said.

Before Garber made his point at the podium, protecting the side of the FBI, Gudmundson was about to exit the room until he heard Garber’s attacks on him and his qualifications for presenting the Wetterling files, which caused the room to heat up and brought conflict between the two men.

“I worked mafia assassinations, Chicago as part of a task force, I’ve seen some of those– you know what Al, why don’t you take it outside,” Gudmundson said.

“Is it because you don’t want to hear this?” Garber said.

“No, no, take it outside,” Gudmundson said.

Former FBI Investigator Al Garber (left) and Don Gudmundson (right) address the crowd at Thursday’s press conference in Stearns County.

“I don’t think you want to hear this, and that’s unfortunate for everyone,” Garber said.

Even with the Stearns County Police releasing the Jacob Wetterling Investigation files, the public will never know the details of the FBI files for this case. Gudmundson did admit that the bungled investigation was not entirely the FBI’s fault, and that all of law enforcement is responsible.

“I have not said that this is primarily the fault of the FBI. We certainly have responsibility and accountability for that, it was our investigators who were there,” Gudmundson said.

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Tony Langfellow

Tony Langfellow was the Editor-In-Chief at the University Chronicle during the Spring of 2020.

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