MINNEAPOLIS - Describing it as a fragile agreement that could have disappeared in the momentary whims of a killer, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger detailed the days that led to a plea deal with Danny Heinrich.
On Tuesday Heinrich publicly confessed to abducting, sexually assaulting and murdering Jacob Wetterling on October 22, 1989. In truth, the drive to gain that confession began months ago in the Stearns County Attorneys office, when County Attorney Janelle Kendall reached out to the U.S. Attorneys office to up the ante in their case against Heinrich.
A new DNA test had tied the longtime suspect in the Wetterling case to a similar abduction and sexual assault on a Cold Spring boy named Jared Sheierl just months before Jacob disappeared. Unfortunately that case was beyond the statute of limitations, but the DNA test led to a search warrant on Heinrich's home, and the discovery of child pornography. Kendall knew that federal penalties were far more harsh than those that could be levied at the state level, so she called Luger, and the full-court press on Heinrich began.
Luger and the multi-agency team were certain Heinrich was responsible for Jacob's death, but they knew how difficult gaining a confession would be. On Tuesday the U.S. Attorney described Heinrich as "a volatile and unpredictable man who would talk one minute, and clam up the next." Investigators would feel like they were making progress, and then Heinrich would shut down. Through it all the fear of multiple child pornography charges and a lifetime in federal prison was the hammer that kept a deal with Heinrich open.
A major breakthrough came 10 days ago, when the Heinrich defense team contacted Luger's office and told them an agreement could be possible. On Friday August 26 a tentative agreement was drafted with Heinrich and his attorneys that would require the defendant to lead authorities to Jacob's body, and publicly confess to the series of events that led to Jacob's kidnapping, sexual assault and murder. Time was of the essence, because as Luger put it, "we knew he could change his mind at any time."
On Monday, August 29 prosecutors and investigators met with Patty and Jerry Wetterling and their attorney Doug Kelly to outline the deal, which would call for just 20 years in prison if Heinrich detailed the murder and helped bring Jacob home. They agreed, and signed documents the next day.
The FBI took custody of Danny Heinrich on Wednesday, August 30, and were directed to a remote area outside of Paynesville where crews began excavating an alleged burial site. At 1:04 p.m. that day a jacket that matched the description of the one Jacob was wearing when he was abducted was uncovered. Luger's office worried that it wasn't enough, and that Heinrich may have been misleading investigators. After a nightlong interrogation they became convinced that the confession was truthful, returned to the burial site the next day, and after an arduous day of digging unearthed bones, teeth, and a T-shirt with the name 'Wetterling' on it. Jacob was coming home.
"Finally we knew," reflected Luger with resolve in his voice. "Finally the Wetterlings could lay their son to rest."
On a day that would have brought most human beings to their knees, Patty Wetterling summoned the strength and dignity to step before a crowd of reporters, standing by the side of Luger and others who have been instrumental in obtaining a confession from the man who killed her son.
"What I really wanted to say today about Jacob is that he's taught us all how to live, how to love, how to be fair, how to be kind," she said, as tears streamed down the cheeks of others in the room. "He speaks to the world that he knew. That we all believe in. It is a world worth fighting for. His legacy will go on. Jacob, I want to say I'm so sorry. It's incredibly painful to know his last days, last hours last minutes."