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Missing for 27 years, Jacob Wetterling's disappearance remained a mystery

Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner speaks during a press conference Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014, to announce the installation of six new billboards that will be placed near where Jacob Wetterling was abducted in 1989. Dave Schwarz, St. Cloud Times (must credit St. Cloud Times)1 / 4
An investigator examines tire tracks in the search for clues in the days after the 1989 disappearance of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling from St. Joseph, Minn. File photo by Mike Knaack / St. Cloud Times2 / 4
Members of the Minnesota National Guard search a field near St. Joseph, Minn. on Oct. 28, 1989 as they join in the search for 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling. Gov. Rudy Perpich called out 100 guardsmen Friday as the search for Jacob intensified. (Pioneer Press: Joe Rossi)3 / 4
Jacob Wetterling File photo/Center for Missing and Exploited Children4 / 4
  • Editor's note: The Jacob Wetterling memorial service Sunday, Sept. 25, will be streamed live on this website. The service begins at 10 a.m.

ST. CLOUD — The question lingered for nearly 27 years.

Investigators internalized it. Patty Wetterling repeated it hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times.

Central Minnesotans discussed it over lunch, at festivals and coffee shops, during holiday weekends, longing for an answer.

"Where's Jacob? Pretty simple question," Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said in an interview this week. "And we couldn't answer that."

The answer, revealed earlier this month, turned out to be beneath the loamy soil of a third-generation organic farm just outside Paynesville. It came 9,805 days after 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted in 1989 by a masked man while biking home from a convenience store.

It was Sept. 2, 2016, just after 5 p.m., when the quiet that had accompanied digging at Doug Voss' farm was broken by an exclamation.

We have material that looks like a shirt, an investigator shouted. It had the name Wetterling on the back.

"It was surreal. It's hard to explain the feeling. It was almost like you were dreaming when you saw that. We just looked at each other," Sanner said, pausing. "It's hard to describe that moment in time. It's finally ending. That simple question Mom had that we're finally going be answering."

That discovery, which finally provided an answer to the Wetterlings, to the world, came after fragile negotiations with a volatile serial-rapist-turned-murderer who had kept a horrific secret since that unseasonably warm night in October 1989.

Making the deal

Her cell phone rang while she was walking to her car with groceries from Coborn's on Cooper Avenue in St. Cloud. It was Friday, Aug. 26, and Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall was about to find out that a carefully orchestrated plan was beginning to bear fruit.

A federal prosecutor was calling. Danny Heinrich, in federal custody on child pornography charges, was willing to tell investigators where Jacob was. In exchange, he wouldn't face murder charges in state court, fearful of what might happen to him if he was sent to a state prison.

Kendall knew this was a possibility — that Heinrich would never set foot in a Stearns County courtroom for kidnapping and killing Jacob Wetterling. She gave up some control over that when she called federal prosecutors after a search of Heinrich's Annandale home last summer turned up hundreds of images of child porn.

"He was saying that he would plead guilty to exactly the way the deal came out," Kendall said. "'I will plead guilty to the child pornography charges. I will do the statutory maximum in prison of 20 years. But I will not plead guilty to anything in state court. However, if I get this federal deal, I will take you to the remains of Jacob Wetterling.'"

As badly as Kendall wanted to prosecute Heinrich in state court, she couldn't without finding Jacob first. She also saw the bigger picture and had heard the desire Patty Wetterling expressed publicly: It was more important to bring Jacob home than to punish his abductor.

Kendall knew that federal pornography charges carried a heavier sentence than state charges. And when a federal magistrate issued an opinion that the search warrant used at Heinrich's house was valid, plea negotiations heated up. The original plan was to use that leverage to convince Heinrich to plead guilty to federal pornography charges and a state murder charge and have the sentences run concurrently.

Having the state charges removed as part of a "global resolution" was a surprise to the county's top prosecutor. And it frankly didn't sit well with her that Heinrich would never see the inside of a Stearns County courtroom.

"I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with that," she said. "But it couldn't be done. And that was part of that four-day conversation before we even talked to the Wetterlings. That was not going to happen."

Federal prosecutors were talking with Heinrich's federal defenders and realized how fragile plea negotiations were. Heinrich could go back on the deal at any time. Any information about a possible plea couldn't leak and get back to him. It had to be orderly, without media fanfare.

The flood of calls between Kendall and federal prosecutors or law enforcement to discuss logistics and planning stopped only when she turned off her phone to attend a Dixie Chicks concert Aug. 28 at the State Fair.

She met with federal prosecutor Steve Schleicher on Aug. 29 in St. Cloud. They talked about what Heinrich needed to say to satisfy the terms of a plea. They talked about who would question Heinrich, how and where.

Kendall met with Patty and Jerry Wetterling on Aug. 30, in the Minneapolis offices of attorney Doug Kelley, who was working with the Wetterlings. They discussed what was going to happen and, more importantly, what wasn't going to happen if prosecutors agreed to the deal with Heinrich.

"It couldn't be 'I tried really hard to take you to the body.' It needed to be proof," Kendall said. "And Patty and Jerry felt very strongly as well that was how that needed to go."

Keeping quiet

Bruce Bechtold got the call Aug. 29 that there was a plea deal in the works. He was a young deputy in 1989, patrolling a couple miles north of Fisher Hill, when he got the call that there was a reported abduction just outside St. Joseph. It took him seven minutes to get there, and he was the first law enforcement official on scene.

Almost 27 years later, he's the chief deputy sheriff, second in command in the Stearns County Sheriff's Office.

He was moving his daughter to her college dorm room when his phone rang. Investigators were going to get a search warrant Aug. 30 for a location yet to be disclosed by Heinrich.

The next day, Bechtold met with Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Special Agent Ken McDonald, who is a former St. Cloud police officer, and Shane Ball from the FBI. They waited nearly all day for the call that Heinrich had finally provided the address.

"Let's go. Let's just go," Bechtold was thinking. "We're waiting."

The call came late in the day. Jacob was buried at a rural Paynesville farm, just off old Minnesota Highway 23. Investigators completed the search warrant but decided to wait until the next morning to get it signed by a judge.

While McDonald was getting the search warrant signed, Bechtold, Sanner and retired Capt. Pam Jensen had assembled at the county highway department in Waite Park, along with members of the BCA .

Sanner had called Jensen out of retirement and deputized her to help finish the investigation, which she had been a part of for years.

"It was just the right thing to do," Sanner would say later.

Stealth was still top of mind for the investigators. If anyone saw Jensen and the top two members of the sheriff's department loading up digging equipment, there would be suspicion within their own department, let alone the public.

"We wanted to keep it quiet here," Bechtold said, "because we have 200-plus people here running around ... and we didn't want them to see us carrying around shovels."

On the scene

Doug Voss got the call from his wife early Aug. 31. Several investigators were at their farm and were asking if they could walk their land. There was evidence they were looking for in an important criminal investigation.

His wife thought they might be looking for stolen property.

Then Voss got home and saw all of the vehicles.

"They came 10-12 cars deep," he said. "My thought was this is something really valuable or it's a missing person. And of course the next thing you think of is 'Well there is one that's been in the media more often lately.' And of course that's the Wetterling case."

Although investigators had a search warrant, they didn't need it. The Vosses didn't object.

About an hour later, federal marshals arrived with Heinrich.

Dressed in street clothes, his hands cuffed in front of him, he was led by an investigator along a barbed-wire fence where he said he buried Wetterling. Three highway flags were put down on spots where Heinrich has told them the remains might be. He's then whisked back to jail.

Investigators first used a metal detector, hoping it would hit on the buttons of the red jacket Jacob had been wearing that night almost 27 years ago. Instead they saw a piece of red fabric sticking out of the sod, 15 feet or so from the fence line Heinrich identified.

It was nylon, the same type of material used to make Jacob's jacket.

"They started excavating the sod away. And the more they work at it, we realize that this is a big piece of fabric," Bechtold said.

Investigators digging with hand shovels, then by hand, carefully remove the material, which was embedded in sod. The material had the St. Cloud police logo on the back that was on Jacob's jacket. But it didn't have the name Jacob stitched on it, something that would give investigators definite proof that they had the right spot. That stitching likely disintegrated over time.

They did find bone fragments, teeth and a jaw bone before finishing for the night.

Federal prosecutors escorted the Wetterlings to the Voss farm as investigators were digging. They were able to see the scene, although from a distance. They knew what investigators had discovered.

"We were reasonably satisfied that it was over and that we found Jacob," Bechtold said. "I wouldn't say they were happy to be there but I think they both felt they needed to see it. That was tough with them there. We had that connection with them all of those years. It was kind of emotional seeing them there, experiencing this for the first time, too."

When investigators left the Voss farm that day they were confident they had what was there to be found.

"With the jacket there and Danny saying he dug this hole no bigger than a couple feet deep and a couple feet across, the jacket's here. So this must be all that there is," he said.

They told Voss that he could fill in the spot if he wanted, that they likely were done at his farm.

Tough to sleep

Kendall was at home, changing and packing music equipment for her band's performance that night at Summertime By George when she learned investigators had found the jacket.

"The thing that would distinguish that coat was not immediately apparent," she said. "So we're in those conversations as I'm loading up my music equipment and getting ready to go."

She had to compartmentalize what was happening. Investigators were on the verge of solving one of the most high-profile cases in Stearns County history and Kendall had chords to remember, lyrics to sing.

Someone suggested that she skip the performance. But it was critical that the public not know what was going on, she said.

"If the county attorney suddenly isn't where she's supposed to be, in front of thousands of people at a very public event like that, people are going to be asking about where I am," she said. "So if I'm not hospitalized, I better be there."

She admits not "being on my A game, candidly" on stage that night. The moment her performance was done, she was again checking her cell phone. She learned that investigators had found some bones and teeth and a jaw bone.

Sleep was difficult for the prosecutor and investigators, and the morning would send the case in a different direction.

The confession

It was a normal day for Bechtold. He was up at 4:40 a.m., as usual, and checking email. There's one from Ramsey County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael McGee. The bones they had discovered the day before were not human.

Bechtold goes for a run and then heads to the office.

Sanner and Kendall drive to Elk River to watch what would be a four-hour interview of Heinrich at the Sherburne County Jail. In a small room at the jail are prosecutors Schleicher and Julie Allyn, Heinrich's federal defenders Katherian Roe and Reynaldo Aligada Jr., investigators Ball, McDonald and Jensen and a court reporter.

Sanner and Kendall are observing via closed circuit television.

There was an agreement that Heinrich would discuss only the Wetterling case and the abduction and sexual assault nine months earlier of Jared Scheierl. Questions about anything else, several Paynesville assaults in which Heinrich was a suspect or other unsolved crimes in the area, were off limits and shut down by his attorneys.

He gave a detailed confession to the Wetterling abduction and murder, an admission he would repeat five days later in federal court.

"He was describing an event that he kind of wanted to get off his chest," Sanner said of the confession. "He kind of wanted to tell his story."

And Heinrich admitted what a DNA test had already confirmed, that he abducted and sexually assaulted Scheierl.

Prosecutors needed that admission to bolster their case that Heinrich be committed indefinitely as a dangerous sex offender after he serves his federal prison sentence.

"He is going to prison for 20 years, and he is the definition of those guys who are at St. Peter," Kendall said.

Back in Stearns County, investigators were preparing to return Sept. 2 to the Voss farm. They still didn't have Jacob's remains.

'Dead silence'

Doug Voss had been busy and never did fill in the area where investigators had been digging. Two days later, a larger team of investigators returned to his farm.

"When they came back, I think they were kind of grateful that I hadn't, because then I hadn't disturbed anything else that they may have to explore further," he said.

Those investigators had a second search warrant. Again, they didn't need it.

The digging expanded on all sides from where the jacket had been found. Hours passed with nothing. A backhoe was requested to help excavate more land more efficiently. Forensic anthropologist Susan Myster was summoned to the scene so quicker identification could be made if investigators found any remains.

It was late in the afternoon, and 10-12 feet from where they had been digging two days previous. After several backhoe scoops had failed to produce anything of note, there was a flash of red. It was another piece of the hockey jacket Jacob had been wearing.

They finally had found the spot, and each of the next several scoops produced evidence, one that brought what little conversation they were having to a halt.

It was a red T-shirt. On the back was the number 11.

And letters, the kind that parents used to iron onto their children's uniforms, one by one.

"Wetterling"

"The lab tech took it out and she laid it out on the soil and you could see 'Wetterling' there. That was, with all of these people there conversing and stuff, that was probably the only quiet time the whole day," Bechtold said. "It was just dead silence and everybody just kind of had a moment just to look at that shirt and think 'Yeah, we have you Jacob.' "

There was some sniffling, Bechtold said.

"I don't think anybody looked at each other," he said. "We just kind of all were still kneeling in the dirt and ... I think everybody had their own moment."

"I remember that feeling of relief," Sanner said. "I think I looked at somebody out there and said 'It's over. It's over.'"

Those backhoe scoops would reveal more clothing and remains. Myster, who attended Hamline University with Kendall, soon would identify one bone as being human and from a juvenile, although she couldn't say if it was a boy or girl.

"So now we knew," Sanner said.

Kendall was on the phone with Schleicher when Schleicher said he was getting a call from the dig site. It was early evening and hope was fading among prosecutors that this second dig would produce the proof they were looking for.

"It was really a horrid afternoon," Kendall said.

As she hung up with Schleicher, she received a text from Sanner. She returned his call.

"I have a shirt in my hands," she recalls him saying.

A difficult answer

That Labor Day weekend was a flurry of media calls, as news leaked that Jacob had been found. There also were efforts to coordinate the plea hearing Sept. 6.

Even though Jacob had been found, concerns remained that Heinrich might back out of the plea deal he had accepted. It wasn't until his federal court appearance, in a packed and emotionally charged courtroom, that Heinrich signed the plea deal.

"I didn't really exhale until he stood up in open court and said what he said," Sanner said. "Until he said it, I wasn't really totally comfortable that he was going to say it. In this case, after 27 years, nothing was going to surprise me."

It was the end to a promise Sanner made to a family and to a boy he never met. He would look at photos of Jacob, look in his eyes to get a sense of the child he was trying to find. In that way, he sort of met Jacob. And he definitely formed a connection and made him a promise.

"You end up making an eternal promise to them that you're not going to let them down," he said.

Owning the property where Jacob was found isn't something you'd want to happen, Voss said, but it's out of his control.

"It just is what it is," he said. "It's a benchmark in life, nothing you'd ever expect to have to put in your mental scrapbook, but it's there."

He's happy that the Wetterlings have answers, as difficult as they were to hear. And as the Wetterlings chose hope, so does he, he said.

He talked about the positives that have come since the abduction, even when there were no answers for nearly two decades.

"The glass has got be half full, you know, and getting fuller," Voss said. "Because now, certain events have transpired. So answers have come to questions."

"I'm so thankful that we were able to get that answer for the Wetterlings," Sanner said. "That alone means everything. A simple question, with a very difficult answer."

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