When Danny Heinrich confessed in court on Sept. 6 to abducting and murdering Jacob Wetterling and assaulting Jared Scheierl 27 years ago, investigators declared that at last, the public had the truth. But despite Heinrich's excruciatingly detailed accounts, the truth remains elusive. Many questions remain unanswered.
October 25, 2016
One person sitting in court that day was Scheierl, who had done much to try to find the man who attacked him when he was 12 years old. He was angered by what he heard, especially Heinrich's claim to have said, "If you throw up, I'll kill you." Scheierl is certain Heinrich never uttered those words. He wondered what else was being misrepresented or ignored regarding Heinrich and his life after 1989. Perhaps, he thought, there were other victims.
Touting Heinrich's confession, officials were quick to declare the matter closed. There wasn't much interest in looking back at what went wrong with the investigation or even what Heinrich might have been up to for the last three decades. As part of Heinrich's plea deal, the police agreed not to ask him about other crimes.
In fact, there had been incidents in the Paynesville area shortly after the Wetterling abduction. Some involved a man following boys, including one in which Heinrich was identified by his license plate but not questioned. This was just a year after he had been interrogated as a lead suspect in the Wetterling case.
To hear the authorities talk today, Heinrich was a master criminal, nearly impossible to catch. They described him as a man who kept to himself and covered his tracks remarkably well. But the people who know him paint a different picture.
Heinrich was no loner in the years that the Wetterling case went unsolved. He moved around central Minnesota and held a variety of jobs. He had friends, one of whom described him as nervous and indecisive. He talked freely to co-workers about being questioned in the Wetterling matter. He even made a number of calls to the police to complain about vandalism and noise in his neighborhood. In 2003, after reporting a burglary, he invited an officer into his home.
But few people he associated with were ever contacted by Wetterling investigators. That meant no one ever checked out a shallow depression on a property just outside Paynesville. The property, near a gravel pit right off a main road into town, was well-known to Heinrich's friends as a party spot. They even gave it a name: the Big Valley. A nearby landowner had wondered about the spot because of a small, unusual clearing among the brush.
This was the property, it turned out, where Heinrich said he sexually assaulted and killed Wetterling and buried his body. Not far away was the place where he reburied the remains a year later and where, when investigators looked, they found Jacob's red jacket sticking out of the sod for anyone to see.
Danny Heinrich was not a master criminal. He was simply lucky to have committed his crimes in a county where the Sheriff's Office made wrong move after wrong move. There are no perfect crimes, only failed investigations.
The life of Danny Heinrich
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