Wetterling files close case, but memories of missed clues remain

Mike KnaakColumn, Print Sartell - St. Stephen, Print St. JosephLeave a Comment

The green numbers on the digital clock flip over to 10:00 a.m.

Six minutes to go.

More than 40 journalists jam a basement meeting room at the Law Enforcement Center and sit in silence waiting for Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson to walk to the podium.

It’s been 10,561 days since a man with a history of sexual assaults on young boys snatched Jacob Wetterling as he returned home from a convenience store with his brother and a friend.

Now the digital clock clicks to 10:03 a.m. Gudmundson steps to the podium, shuffles his papers and waits for the clock to roll to 10:06 a.m., the announced start time for the meeting.

As I look around the quiet room, I notice many of the reporters gathered to write the final chapter in the story that has haunted Central Minnesota for 28 years, 10 months and 29 days weren’t even born on Oct. 22, 1989.

We gather because two years after Jacob’s killer Danny Heinrich goes to jail, after legal battles over the files, Gudmundson is going to release almost 42,000 pages of investigation files.

In the back row of reporters, in front of more than a dozen television cameras set up to record Gudmundson’s words, is Jerry Wetterling, Jacob’s dad.

For all those years, Jerry has been the always-seen-but-seldom-heard parent. While Jacob’s mom, Patty, was interviewed thousands of times and gave hundreds of speeches advocating for child safety, Jerry was there, watching, listening, but speaking sparingly.

Jerry is here again. To listen.

Only two people in the room have been part of the story since the very first day, a Sunday night in 1989.

Jerry and me.

I was working as photo editor at the St. Cloud Times on that October night when I heard the call on the newsroom scanner about a missing boy in St. Joseph.

Missing children calls aren’t terribly unusual and most times the parents’ panic ends quickly when the child is found at a friend’s house or a similar innocent explanation.

But not this time. As radio activity picked up, I decided it was time to head to St. Joseph where I found deputies blocking traffic near what turned out to be the abduction site.

Now, years later, the story is about to end. Rather than just dumping the thousands of files, Gudmundson wisely chose to set the scene with his own narrative of the case revealed in the files. We all know the ending but the files document why the case remained unsolved for decades.

Gudmundson launched his 135-slide PowerPoint by detailing his resume of more than 40 years of homicide investigations, setting up his standing to back up the statements he’s about to make.

After reading the files himself, Gudmundson concludes investigators missed 20 clues that would have helped solve the case, the first ones beginning 10 months before Jacob’s kidnapping. (Details of Gudmundson’s presentation appear in this week’s Newsleader.)

As Gudmundson flips through his slides I relive covering the story as it unfolded each day nearly 30 years ago.

The morning after the kidnapping, I returned to St. Joseph, first taking photographs at the Wetterling house and then at the crime scene. My photos at the scene recorded what would turn out to be one of the missed clues on Gudmundson’s list.

I photographed Detective Steve Mund making plaster casts of tire and shoe prints. I had known Mund for years since we both worked on the high school newspaper. He was a meticulous and detailed-focused guy, even in high school.

On Jan. 12, 1990, Mund writes in a report after photographing Heinrich’s tires “Photographs were taken of the tires which were consistent with those tires found at the scene (Wetterling) by gross tread design.”

And on the same report, Mund writes “It should be noted during the interview, writer observed Mr. Heinrich’s soles of his shoes. Found them to appear to be consistent with the footprint pattern found at the scene of Wetterling abduction.”

Those words, written by the investigator most familiar with evidence, end up on Gudmundson’s summary of missed clues.

Gudmundson wraps up his presentation by taking questions and talks about what his department has learned. He mentions returning to two other unsolved homicides and making sure investigators read every word of those files.

His words fly by the gathered reporters but to me the victims were real people and stories I had covered – the 1974 killing of the Reker sisters whose bodies were found in a quarry and Mrytle Cole, an 81-year-old Fairhaven woman stabbed to death in her home in 1981.

As Gudmundson ends his presentation, Al Garber, a retired FBI agent who worked the case, challenges the sheriff’s conclusions. Gudmundson suggests Garber take his assertions outside.

Moments later, reporters surround Garber on the sidewalk in front of the Law Enforcement Center.

My friend and former colleague, Dave Schwarz, captured the day’s most powerful moment in his photo for the St. Cloud Times.

Standing away from the gaggle, there was Jerry Wetterling, leaning against the building, watching and listening. Again.

Author: Mike Knaak

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