An Annandale, Minn., man first questioned 26 years ago about the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling has re-emerged as a "person of interest" in a chilling abduction that has long stymied investigators and haunted the public, authorities said Thursday.
Daniel James Heinrich, 52, was arrested at his home Wednesday night on charges of receiving and possessing child pornography. At a news conference Thursday in Minneapolis, authorities said they are also investigating Heinrich's possible link to the Wetterling case.
Jacob was 11 when he was kidnapped shortly after 9 p.m. on the night of Oct. 22, 1989, as he and his brother, Trevor, 10, and best friend, Aaron Larson, 11, rode their bikes to a Tom Thumb store not far from the family's rural St. Joseph, Minn., home to rent a video.
As they headed home in the warmth of an autumn night, a masked man with a gun appeared on a remote dirt road leading to the Wetterling house, told the boys to lie face down in a nearby ditch and asked each his age. He then ordered Trevor and Aaron to run to the woods and not look back. When the boys did, Jacob and the masked man were gone.
Stearns County investigators who searched Heinrich's home in July looking for evidence in both the Wetterling case and a separate kidnapping and sexual assault involving a boy in nearby Cold Spring, Minn., nine months earlier, found nothing to connect Heinrich to Jacob. But they turned up 19 three-ring binders containing 100 images of child pornography. The binders included pictures of some known child victims. Child pornography also was found on Heinrich's hard drive.
A search warrant filed in the case also noted that DNA was discovered this year on some clothing that may link Heinrich to the January 1989 sex assault victim.
Investigators have long cited similarities in the two cases — both in the description of the suspect and how he approached his victims — as reason to believe the same person was responsible for both. The boy in the Cold Spring abduction was released by his assailant after the assault. Jacob has never been found.
Authorities stressed that they have not charged Heinrich in Jacob's disappearance and that he has consistently told investigators — both soon after the boy's abduction and again recently — that he was not involved. In court documents filed Thursday, investigators also made reference to "an assault cluster" in Paynesville, Minn., in the late 1980s involving eight incidents, all within a mile of Heinrich's home. The perpetrator was described by "various victims" as a "heavy" or "pudgy" white male in his 30s between 5 feet 6 and 5 feet 9. The document describes Heinrich as "a white male ... his physical description in the late 1980s was 5'5", 160 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes."
Heinrich, who is being held in the Sherburne County jail, is scheduled to appear at 10 a.m. Wednesday in U.S. District Court in St. Paul on the child pornography charges.
No direct links to Jacob
Jacob's abduction, in a relatively small and quiet prairie town about 75 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, shocked Minnesotans like few crimes before it, gripping a region for weeks, making headlines across the country and forever changing the way parents watched over their children.
In the years since, investigators vetted more than 50,000 leads worldwide hoping for the clue that would lead them to Jacob. In the meantime, the boy became the face of missing children in Minnesota and nationwide, and his parents became national advocates, fighting to protect other children from similar fates.
At the time of the abduction, Heinrich lived in Paynesville, 30 minutes from St. Joseph.
Heinrich was interviewed about Jacob shortly after he disappeared and reinterviewed at least twice in 1990. The Paynesville house where he lived with his father, who has since died, also was searched by authorities.
They found six photos of children, including one depicting a boy wrapped in a towel exiting a shower, and another of a boy in his underwear. No charges were brought at that time.
In February 1990, Heinrich was arrested on probable cause in the Cold Spring case, which involved a juvenile male identified in documents only as "JNS." Heinrich said he was innocent and was released without being charged.
At Thursday's news conference, FBI Special Agent Richard T. Thornton said authorities decided to take a "fresh" look at the Wetterling case, and out of it came a decision to look at body hair samples that Heinrich had provided the FBI in 1990.
Dennis Kern, a Stearns County sheriff's investigator, provided samples to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for DNA testing. Heinrich's profile matched hair samples on the boy sexually assaulted in January 1989, Kern wrote in a court document.
While investigators made a link, Heinrich could not be charged because the statute of limitations had expired.
An attachment to the criminal complaint said that in January 1990, Heinrich gave the FBI permission to take an impression of the tires on his 1982 Ford EXP. Investigators found that tire marks in a gravel driveway next to the abduction scene had similar marks. In addition, Heinrich's right shoe corresponded in size and design to a shoe impression from the Wetterling abduction scene.
However, an FBI special agent, Shane Ball, cautioned in the document that "an exact match" of such impressions would have to be based on unique characteristics of the tire or shoe, such as a scuff, wear mark or divot. "No such unique markings were present," Ball wrote.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said Thursday that Heinrich "has denied any involvement" in Jacob's disappearance. But according to Thornton, he is considered "a person of interest" based on his being "a contributor" to the DNA on the clothing linked to the Cold Spring case.
Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said child pornography found in Heinrich's Annandale home involved prepubescent boys, some known to law enforcement as victims. VHS videotapes, apparently shot by Heinrich from a hidden location, showed boys riding bikes and at playgrounds.
Few knew suspect well
Heinrich, called Danny by most who knew him, moved from Paynesville to Annandale in the years after Jacob's abduction, according to public records, living in his father's basement for a time. His father, Howard, died in 2002. Public records contain little information about his mother. He has two brothers.
Annandale neighbors described Heinrich as a mostly quiet man who was meticulous with his yard. His small one-story house has a detached garage.
After state and federal agents visited the house and took out boxes this summer, Heinrich gave a few neighbors his version of what had happened, they said.
"He just came right out and told us that things were going to get crazy," neighbor Megan Champlin said. He told Champlin that authorities had found child porn, but that she didn't have to worry because none of it involved her children, ages 5 and 1½.
He also said that authorities were trying to connect him to the Wetterling case, she said.
In the months that followed, Heinrich kept going to work at a factory every day, she said, and she had wondered what became of the raid. Thursday's news, she said was "unsettling … This neighborhood is full of kids."
Across the street, neighbor Rita Kurr described the revelations as "scary." Kurr said her family didn't associate with Heinrich because they got a strange vibe from him and heard him curse loudly when talking with others in his yard.
According to the search warrant, Heinrich worked at various times at Master Mark Plastics in Albany, Minn.; the Fingerhut Corp., and most recently at Buffalo Veneer and Plywood.
Heinrich served in the Willmar National Guard, court documents say, although the Minnesota National Guard said Thursday that it hasn't been able to confirm that he was a member.
Heinrich was convicted of two burglaries in 1984 and filed for bankruptcy twice, most recently in 2011.
Neither Patty nor Jerry Wetterling returned phone calls Thursday to comment about Heinrich's arrest. But in a statement, they described the search for Jacob as "an ongoing investigation, and we will watch and learn with everyone else. ... For 26 long years, we have said that somebody knows something. ...Today, we ask for a little time."
They've been here before.
In 2010, investigators dug up truckloads of dirt and ash from a farm property near the spot where Jacob was taken. But forensic tests turned up no evidence.
Last year, investigators announced they were taking a new look into whether the abduction was linked to similar stranger assault cases in Paynesville in 1986 and 1987.
There were at least five assaults involving teenage boys, including one who was grabbed off his bicycle.
Nancy Sabin, former executive director of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, said Jerry and Patty once gave her advice that still echoes today. "You have to pace yourself," Sabin said, adding that Thursday's announcement is "just one more lead."
Staff writers Jenna Ross and Paul Walsh contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org 612-673-4224 • Twitter: @randyfurst email@example.com 612-673-4141 firstname.lastname@example.org 612-673-7102