Stearns County to release case files in Jacob Wetterling investigation Thursday

September 20, 2018

Thousands of investigative documents in the Jacob Wetterling abduction and murder case will be released to the public Thursday morning on tiny devices barely imaginable when the 11-year-old was kidnapped at gunpoint by a masked stranger in October 1989.

The computer thumb drives are to be released after Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundsons morning news conference in St. Cloud that is anticipated to draw a massive media presence. Gudmundson provided no preview of what he planned to say.

On Wednesday, however, Patty and Jerry Wetterling distributed a written statement in anticipation of the release of the documents, which are expected to include finger-pointing and accusations made in the heated, days, months and years following Jacobs disappearance.

Our hearts hurt for anyone pained or hurt from the release of this file, the statement said, ending with an urging to be with friends and always hope.

The documents have been tightly held by law enforcement for nearly three decades. With the closing of the case and the confession of killer Danny Heinrich in 2016, the case file was to be opened under Minnesota law. As victims, the Wetterlings were allowed to review the documents before the public release.

Days before the file was to be made public in June 2017, the family filed a lawsuit seeking to withhold nearly 200 documents of an estimated 56,000 pages. Media and open government organizations opposed that effort. The Stearns County prosecutor had determined state law required the release of the full file. A judge ultimately ruled in favor of the release and the Wetterlings ended the fight rather than appeal.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit was the Silha Centre for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. Professor Jane Kirtley, who leads the center, said the Wetterlings are sympathetic figures, but the issue of access to the documents is bigger than one case. Its about keeping the system open and accountable, she said.

Jacob Wetterling was abducted on an October night in 1989 as he and his brother, Trevor, and best friend, Aaron Larson, headed back home from a convenience store in St. Joseph, Minn., where theyd gone to rent a video.

In the nearly three decades since Jacob disappeared, his name never faded from the public consciousness. His abduction remained one of the great unsolved mysteries for generations of Minnesotans and put a face to every parents worst nightmare.

The crime was solved in 2016 when, under pressure from federal investigators, Heinrich confessed and led law enforcement to Jacobs body, buried in Paynesville, Minn., about 30 miles from St. Joseph and where Heinrich lived at the time of Jacobs disappearance. While that resolved the biggest question what became of Jacob? many remain.

The documents will now become the focus of an intensive hunt for more answers, chief among them: Why did it take law enforcement so long to close the case when the killer was someone they interviewed within weeks of Jacobs disappearance and who lived close by?

What wont be in the files are documents created by the FBI during the investigation. The bureau has custody of those papers and they are subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act. Seeking access to the FBI documents is an entirely separate and usually drawn-out process.

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