FBI agent on Wetterling case to hold news conference in Minneapolis Tuesday

October 1, 2018

Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson last month wasn’t shy about criticizing the Jacob Wetterling investigation for “going off the rail,” including some less-than-subtle jabs at the FBI. On Tuesday, a former FBI investigator who worked the case is expected to jab back.

Steve Gilkerson, a former FBI special agent who was involved in the abduction investigation in the months after it happened, said in a news release Monday that he will address “speculative conclusions” made by Gudmundson when the sheriff released thousands of pages of state investigative documents in the case last month.

Gilkerson’s news conference is scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Hennepin County Government Center. It is not considered an official response from the FBI.

Jacob was 11 when he was abducted by a masked man at gunpoint while he, his brother and best friend headed home from a convenience store in St. Joseph, Minn., the night of Oct. 22, 1989. His whereabouts remained a mystery until 2016, when Danny Heinrich confessed to kidnapping and killing the boy. He led investigators to the spot where he buried Jacob’s remains years ago in a pasture near Paynesville, Minn. — about 30 miles from the abduction scene.

Gudmundson said Heinrich should have been the prime suspect from the investigation’s earliest days, but investigative mistakes and misplaced effort in the days, weeks and months following Jacob’s abduction prevented authorities from connecting the dots and apprehending Jacob’s killer.

During a Sept. 20 news conference in St. Cloud, Gudmundson said there was enough information linking Heinrich to the boy’s disappearance — such as tire tracks, a shoe print and a tip that clearly linked the former Paynesville loner to the case — that he should have been the primary suspect within 48 hours of the kidnapping.

Instead, Gudmundson said, a task force assembled to find Jacob and his abductor wasted more time chasing far-flung leads and conferring with psychics in the weeks and months that followed than tracking more compelling evidence close to home.

While Gudmundson faulted a lack of cooperation among local, state and federal agencies, he seemed to place most of the blame for investigative blunders at the feet of the FBI. When pressed on the point, he said, “All of us failed.”

Gudmundson said that the “most fatal flaw” in the investigation occurred in February 1990, when Heinrich was arrested late at night at a bar in Roscoe, Minn., and interrogated by FBI agents.

Heinrich, who Gudmundson said was intoxicated, demanded to know whether he was under arrest. Gudmundson called the FBI’s decision to interview him at that time “a serious mistake,” adding that “we regard the interrogation as perhaps the most fatal flaw in the Wetterling investigation.”

He said arrests in cases like that are generally meticulously planned. “One would never willingly arrest someone drunk late at night,” the sheriff said, adding that the two FBI agents who interviewed Heinrich were inexperienced.

After that interrogation, the Stearns County attorney directed authorities to release Heinrich, citing a lack of evidence. It would be another 20 years before investigators would take another look at Heinrich. The former Paynesville resident told authorities that he killed Jacob the same night he kidnapped him, burying him in a shallow grave before returning a year later to move the remains to another grave nearby.

Immediately after Gudmundson spoke, Al Garber, the lead FBI agent on the case in 1989, disputed the sheriff’s assertion that law enforcement failed to communicate across agencies and jurisdictions or failed to share key evidence and tips that came within the first 48 hours of Jacob’s disappearance. Gudmundson said FBI agents started outward — interviewing suspects in California and Vermont — before focusing on Stearns County. The order should have been reversed, the sheriff said.

“Don wasn’t there,” said Garber, now 76. “He didn’t see the day-to-day operation. He didn’t see how many investigators were working on this case.”

James Walsh • 612-673-7428

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