Soon after the abduction and murder of Jacob Wetterling in 1989, Stearns County sheriff's investigators came face to face with his killer, Danny Heinrich, who would confess to the crime 27 years later. Then they let him go. It wasn't the first time that had happened in Stearns County.
October 11, 2016
In December 1978, Alice Huling and her four children were asleep in their rural home near Clearwater, Minn., when a man entered with a shotgun and killed the family, except for 11-year-old Billy, who huddled under his covers as two blasts whizzed by his head. The community was terrified. People armed their children and sat facing their front doors with guns at the ready.
Just a few days after the Huling murders, Stearns County investigators interviewed the man who eventually would be convicted of the crimes, Joe Ture. Ture was eating breakfast at a Clearwater restaurant and harassing waitresses when one of them called the police. Inside his car, they found a metal rod wrapped in a steering wheel cover, a ski mask and a small toy car. Ture acted suspiciously during the interview, but without evidence to hold him, a judge let him go. Once free, he committed a series of crimes, including the 1980 abduction, rape and murder of Diane Edwards, a waitress in West St. Paul, Minn.
The Huling murders weren't solved until state cold case investigators took a look at them two decades later. They did something the Stearns County Sheriff's Office never did — they asked Billy Huling about the toy car. Ture was convicted in 2000.
County sheriffs aren't like city police chiefs, who are usually hired and can be fired. Sheriffs are elected, which means they are accountable to the public only every four years, at election time. It also means that once they get into office, they have a lot of power. Often, they aren't taken to task for poor police work.
The Stearns County Sheriff's Office apparently doesn't analyze unsuccessful investigations to figure out what might have been done differently. "I'm not going to concern myself with the things that weren't done by the investigation more than 25 years ago," Sheriff John Sanner said of the Wetterling case, not long before Heinrich confessed. "It's counterproductive. It's not helpful at all." This lack of introspection and accountability has contributed to the department's failure to solve a string of high-profile crimes, past and present.
In an unsolved case from 1974, two sisters, Mary and Susanne Reker, left home in St. Cloud to buy school supplies and never returned. They were found by two teenage boys 26 days later, stabbed to death in a rock quarry. Their bodies were discovered in October that year, right before the November sheriff's election. The girls' mother, Rita Reker, said the department was too preoccupied to investigate their murders. "They were busy with the elections and all," she said.
Rita Reker is the person Patty Wetterling hoped never to become. Her two daughters, Mary, 15, and Susanne, 12, left home on foot to buy school supplies on Labor Day 1974 and didn't return. They were found 26 days later by two teenage boys, stabbed to death in a quarry. "Those were the most horrendous days of our lives," said Reker, who had six children with her husband, Fred, an ordained Catholic deacon, who has died. She lives in the same house in St. Cloud that she did in the 1970s.
"Things like this just weren't supposed to happen around here," she said. "It was a very rare crime." Fred and Rita had a hard time getting the case taken seriously by the St. Cloud Police Department, which believed the girls had simply run away, and later the Stearns County Sheriff's Office, which was in the middle of an election. "It just seemed we couldn't move the powers that be," Reker said. So family members searched on their own. "We were very frustrated at that time and angry about the whole thing."
The election of 1978
The 1978 campaign for Stearns County sheriff was a heated and high-profile affair, a rematch between one-term incumbent Jim Ellering and challenger Charlie Grafft, the police chief in Waite Park, Minn. Contributing to the acrimony — and ultimately to Grafft's election victory — was the failure by Ellering's office to solve the murders four years earlier of Mary and Susanne Reker.
The Reker sisters disappeared near their home in September 1974, and they were found stabbed to death a few weeks later, not long before the election that year, the first contest between Ellering and Grafft. Their mother, Rita Reker, says today that the election contest of 1974, won by Ellering, was a distraction in the effort to investigate the case immediately after the bodies were found.
In the early morning of Dec. 15, 1978, Alice Huling and three of her four children were shot to death in their beds at their rural home near Clearwater, Minn. Only 11-year-old Billy Huling survived when he played dead under his covers as two shotgun blasts narrowly missed him.
The murders remained a mystery for decades. Several potential suspects were considered, including a Stearns County deputy who lived nearby and has since died. It wasn't until 2000 that a jury convicted a drifter named Joe Ture, largely based on a confession he allegedly dictated to a fellow prisoner, something he denied doing.
"I did not do any of these murders," said Ture, who claims to have been framed in order to close the cold case shootings.
How the Stearns County Sheriff's Office stacks up when it comes to solving major crimes. → Episode 8: What's Going on Down There?
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