Some Educated Speculation About Thursday’s Wetterling News

When social media started blowing up Thursday afternoon about a press conference regarding an arrest connected to the Jacob Wetterling abduction case, most people likely believed the case had been solved. It would’ve been the biggest news story of the year — easily — in Minnesota and would’ve led the national news for the next couple of days.

Wetterling, then 11 years old, was abducted from a gravel road near his St. Joseph, Minn., home in October 1989. He hasn’t been found, despite more than 50,000 worldwide leads in the last 26 years.

Wetterling’s abduction has been one of the most painful crimes in state history. Everybody — and I mean everybody — feels a stab of pain whenever you hear the name Jacob Wetterling. The case is the realization of every parent’s nightmare, a child abducted and never heard from again.

That’s why we wanted so badly for Thursday’s press conference to be an announcement of the case being solved. We wanted authorities to stand before the world and say, “We got him. We got the the person who abducted Jacob.” Maybe they were going to announce a confession. It would’ve been incredibly painful to hear those words, to hear about the end of the Wetterling case and it’s likely tragic conclusion, but it would’ve provided some closure to the case. And we would’ve been satisfied that Jacob’s abductor would face some sort of justice.

Instead, the press conference landed with somewhat of a thud. U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced that a 52-year-old man named Danny Heinrich had been arrested on federal child pornography charges, that he was linked by DNA to the rape of a young boy in 1989 and that he was considered a “person of interest” in the Wetterling abduction. Heinrich had been investigated and questioned about Wetterling shortly after the abduction. He’s long been a suspect, in other words.

So there was never the final, concrete announcement that Wetterling’s abductor had been captured. But, and this is not going to be much consolation to anybody, perhaps Thursday’s press conference is as close as we’re going to get.

Let me explain. And let me say that the following speculation is educated, after talking with a person who understands the federal justice system well.

There could be several reasons for Thursday’s big announcement, which included a representative of the FBI, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the Stearns County Sheriff and the U.S. Attorney. The U.S. Attorney and FBI are particularly big hitters, the BCA is the highest level of state criminal justice and the county sheriff has been involved with the Wetterling case from the beginning.

  • Authorities believe Heinrich committed the crime, have linked him enough to it to believe he did it, but just don’t have enough evidence to charge him. Thursday’s major announcement on charges unrelated to Wetterling, but with Wetterling included as part of the proceedings, was their way of linking Heinrich to the crime without saying he did it. The heavy hitters at the press conference have to be pretty darn sure Heinrich had something to do with Wetterling’s abduction, or they wouldn’t have gone before the world and linked him to it. Thursday’s presser was a very thinly veiled way of saying Heinrich did it, without saying Heinrich did it.
  • By being so obvious, the authorities may have been shaking the tree very aggressively in hopes that somebody who knows something might come forward. Somebody knows what happened to Jacob Wetterling and Thursday’s announcement may have been a way of smoking that person out. If a friend or relative or drinking buddy of Heinrich’s saw the proceedings they might say, “The jig is up. I better say something.” That’s all authorities would need to charge Heinrich. It was perhaps just a way to shake things up and see what falls to the ground.
  • It might also be something as simple as controlling the story. Included in the appendix to the search warrant for the child pornography was a sketch of Wetterling’s abductor. That makes it clear authorities believe Heinrich was a suspect. So when evidence and documents of the child porn charges were released to Heinrich’s attorney and the public, it was going to be reported Heinrich was a suspect in the Wetterling case. Thursday’s press conference was a way to get out in front of that and control the message. Paint Heinrich as a bad person before his attorney had a chance to paint him as a victim of a witch hunt.

I think the strongest case could be made for my first point: That law enforcement and prosecution believe Heinrich abducted Wetterling, don’t have enough to prove it, but wanted to let the world know that they believe he did it.