ST. PAUL - When law enforcement caught up to Jacob Wetterling’s killer in October 2015, he said he wasn’t the “monster” he was 27 years earlier.
In transcripts of jailhouse phone conversations between Danny Heinrich and his brothers, released Thursday along with much of the Wetterling investigative file, Heinrich said Wetterling was his last victim.
“I was a monster back then but I stopped 27 (years ago). I haven’t had no sexual contact with anybody, David, since that night,” Heinrich said to his brother after confessing in 2016, according to transcripts.
He went on to describe his mindset after the murder.
“I got home that night, David, I’m gonna tell you the truth, and I cried. I could, my god, what have I done. … The wonderful, I don’t know, I’m trying to think of what was wrong. I don’t know what went, went wrong, everything went wrong. S-, I don’t know what to think.”
Heinrich was on investigators’ radar early on in 1989 but wasn’t publicly named in connection with the case until 2015, when he was arrested on child pornography charges.
In one of his first phone calls from Sherburne County Jail, Heinrich admitted to a brother that he was “guilty of the porn.” But Heinrich at first called his suspected connection to the Wetterling case “bull” and a “setup” and said he would not be convicted.
Much of their conversations concerned what property Heinrich’s brothers could sell so that Heinrich would have money while in jail and once he was released from prison.
At one point, Heinrich said he missed his cats and sobbed, “Oh god, I hope I don’t go away too long. … I don’t deserve this. I tried to be a good person.”
“There’s lots of excuses I could say, I guess,” he said at another point in the call. “Whatever. So, it’s done, it’s done, it’s done, it’s done.”
A Pioneer Press review of the state and local files revealed other aspects of the investigation, including Heinrich’s connection to other crimes, the role of psychics and the intense focus on Daniel Rassier, a Wetterling neighbor.
Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson on Thursday described eight incidents in Paynesville from 1986-1988, in which a stranger ambushed and groped or tried to grope one or more boys.
Heinrich never was charged but in a phone call from jail, Heinrich took responsibility for “a couple” of those attacks.
“They’re blaming me for a lot of them Paynesville incidents and I never committed. … I was involved in a couple, but not all of ‘em because I, I know what I did and what I didn’t do,” he told his brother.
The files show that investigators looked into hundreds of possible suspects in Jacob’s abduction, including every known sex offender in the state about a decade after the crimes.
They also followed leads from the great beyond.
Within a week of the abduction, a former neighbor went to authorities with information he got from his sister in St. Louis, who knew a clairvoyant who’d been “very successful in finding missing persons and bodies.”
Agents called the man’s sister the next day.
Jacob’s father, Jerry Wetterling, at times welcomed the dubious assistance.
In 1992, two clairvoyants wrote him a long letter asserting that previous tips from psychics were “in large-part accurate.” They wrote that Jacob was taken by a man named Willy to the home of a white supremacist cult and was “no question” still alive.
Investigators also learned from two fellow inmates that Duane Hart, a convicted sex offender and Heinrich acquaintance, claimed to have psychic powers and had “seen” what had happened to Jacob.
In the tens of thousands of pages of documents released Thursday, one name stands out: Daniel Rassier.
Rassier, a music teacher, lived with his parents on their family farm near the Wetterlings, and their driveway was near the spot where Jacob was abducted. After Rassier was identified as a ���person of interest” in the case in 2010, investigators searched his home and dug up the farm, looking for clues.
But it’s clear from the documents that law enforcement officials had mistakenly narrowed in on Rassier at least eight years prior. A 2002 cold-case review by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children focused heavily on Rassier as a prime suspect in not only Jacob’s abduction but also the January 1989 attack on Jared Scheierl in Cold Spring.
The documents also include a list of every marathon Rassier ran in 2006; a surveillance log detailing Rassier’s movements over four days in 2007, including a stop at Mills Fleet Farm to get gas; and a list of all mail Rassier received over a 30-day period, beginning on Dec. 11, 2007.
In the fall of 2009, Patty Wetterling agreed to wear a wire and confronted Rassier at the Midtown Mall in St. Cloud, where authorities knew he liked to work out on Tuesday nights.
In March 2017, Rassier sued former Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner, Stearns County and the BCA in U.S. District Court, claiming they defamed him and caused him emotional distress. He and his mother, Rita, want $2 million in damages.
The release of documents on Thursday related to the Wetterling case and the arrest and conviction of Danny Heinrich in connection with the crime help vindicate Rassier, said Mike Padden, his attorney.
“He wants the truth to come out.”
Gudmundson released the 41,787-page investigative file Thursday in response to a court order ruling that the documents be made public.
Once a criminal investigation has closed, the investigative file is made public under the Minnesota Data Practices Act. The documents include countless interviews, transcripts, tips, names of potential suspects and scores of photos.
Some of the information is particularly sensitive; some of the information Patty and Jerry Wetterling sued unsuccessfully to keep private.
About 12,500 pages were pulled from the file and returned to the FBI; the Pioneer Press has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for those documents.
Gudmundson said he hopes the release of information will help future investigations. “We can’t change what’s happened,” he said. “But we can learn from it.”
The file labeled “Transcripts 1989, Part 1” starts with a transcript of a recording of Jacob.
“The date is Oct. 12,” the transcript reads. “I’m 5 feet tall. My favorite food is steak. My favorite color is blue. I don’t really have a favorite song. My favorite game is Clue. My favorite thing to do most is watch football. My favorite sport is football, and my favorite TV show is ‘The Cosby Show.’ What I want to be when I grow up is a football player. My favorite hobby is collecting football cards. I don’t have a favorite book, and my newest friend is Gabe. I’m finished.”
A Stearns County Sheriff’s Office transcript of a 911 call from Merlyn Jerzak, a neighbor of Patty and Jerry Wetterling, is included in the documents.
Jerzak’s daughter, who had been babysitting at the Wetterling house, called him to come to the Wetterling house when she learned of Jacob’s abduction from his brother, Trevor, and their friend, Aaron Larson.
Q: 911 emergency.
A: Ah, yes this is Merlyn Jerzak calling from … in St. Joe, out in the township.
A: I’m right now next door to um, my neighbors, at my neighbors, the Jerry Wetterling family.
Q: That’s where you’re calling from, correct.
A: And some of their boys went down to Tom Thumb to pick up a movie and on their way back ah someone stopped them and ah, we believe that they have one of the boys because the, one of the boys did not come back with them.
Q: OK, were you, were they picked up in a vehicle?
A: Just a second I’ll ask the boys, was there a vehicle there or was he walking? They couldn’t, they didn’t see a vehicle, ah, this person appeared ah, on the road when they were bicycling back home.
Q: OK, was it, and they don’t know where the other friend is at?
A: They don’t where their brother and friend is at.
Q: OK, so we’re missing two people?
A: Just missing one.
Q: OK, did they see the individual at all?
A: Yes, they did. Did you see the individual at all? He had a mask on.
Q: He had a mask on?
Q: OK, Jacob. It’s Jacob, right?
Q: And he’s 11.
A: Jacob. Jacob Wetterling.