ST. JOSEPH, Minn. (WCCO) — Monday, Danny Heinrich, who admitted to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering Jacob Wetterling, will be in court for sentencing.
The Wetterling family has prepared victim impact statements as has Jared Scheierl, who Heinrich has also admitted to kidnapping and assaulting.
Heinrich has indicated in filings he will express his remorse for both the murder of Jacob and the assault of Scheierl.
Also in court for the sentencing will be at least five victims from Paynesville who prosecutors say they believe were assaulted by Heinrich in the 1980s.
Sunday, we have the untold story of how that victim — as a teen — met with Jerry Wetterling just weeks after Jacob’s abduction — and why.
It has been nearly 27 years since Jerry Wetterling and Kris Bertelsen last saw each other. Just over a week ago they met at the Wetterlings’ St. Joseph home. It was a tearful reunion.
In December of 1989, just six weeks after Jacob Wetterling had been abducted, Jerry Wetterling had gone back to his chiropractic practice one day a week.
He remembers his life as a fog of media appearances, meetings with law enforcement and even rumors in the community that he was somehow involved because of his religion.
“They said, ‘You got to tell me, is there anything to this rumor that Baha’is sacrifice their first-born male?’” Wetterling said. “Emotionally it just killed me.”
Bertelsen had just turned 16 and was living in Paynesville just 30 miles away. He remembers the moment he heard about Jacob.
“Immediately I thought of, ‘This is similar to what happened to us,’” he said. “It could have been me.”
“I told my dad, ‘We got to see Dr. Wetterling.’”
Bertelsen, then 16, wanted to share with Jerry Wetterling that he was one of more than a half dozen Paynesville boys who had been attacked, some sexually assaulted by a man dressed in black who sometimes wore a mask. A man with a low raspy voice and who threatened to kill some of his victims if they told.
“I remember hearing the story of how he took Jacob on the bikes and that was us, we were on bikes too,” Bertelsen said.
Bertelsen and a friend were attacked in May of 1987 as they road their bikes in downtown Paynesville just after midnight.
“I just remember he was really fast, moved very quickly and dark clothing. What I really remember is the boots,” Bertelsen said.
The man knocked Bertelsen’s friend off his bike before running away. A newspaper article in May of 1987 in the Payesville Press asked for the public’s help.
“Most of us started carrying knives,” Bertelsen said.
Bertelsen had his father make an appointment with Jerry Wetterling, who was then and is now a chiropractor.
“We need to share this, they need to know, he needs to know what happened to us,” Bertelsen said.
We asked Jerry Wetterling, “Do you remember this boy coming to you?”
“Absolutely,” he said.
He remembers telling Bertelsen and his father, “There’s a lot stuff going on here and it’s reasonably close and it needs to be looked at.”
Bertelsen and his friend were interviewed by Wetterling investigators. They told investigators they had no idea who might have attacked them.
But what Bertelsen and the other Paynesville victims didn’t know is that Paynesville police suspected Heinrich. A document released after Heinrich’s arrest in 2015 shows that former Paynesville Police Chief Robert Schmiginsky told the Wetterling task force in January of 1990 that Heinrich was their suspect.
We asked Bertelsen, “So you have the police chief saying in January 1990 that he was a suspect. There was no lineup?”
“No lineup,” Bertelsen replied.
Bertelsen says he and his friends can’t believe neither the Wetterling investigators nor Paynesville police ever put Heinrich in a lineup in front of them. Even though documents now show and Jerry Wetterling remembers well that in those early months Heinrich was a prime suspect in Jacob’s disappearance.
“I know that he was a very strong suspect, very strong suspect,” Jerry Wetterling said.
We asked Bertelsen, “What do you think would have happened if your guys’ cases really would have been looked at?”
“I wish I could say that they would have stopped him in Paynesville,” Bertelsen said. “That he would have been stopped and arrested when he was a suspect in these cases and not escalated. Not escalated to Jared, not taken Jacob.”
Schmiginsky died earlier this year. For more than two years he refused WCCO-TV’s repeated request for an interview. Jerry Wetterling insists he does not second guess law enforcement.
“We had Heinrich but we couldn’t quite close the deal on him at the time,” he said. “And even then, it’s not going to bring Jacob back.”
Bertelsen says he never knew Heinrich personally but now realizes that during the 1980s his divorced parents lived right next door to Heinrich and his family, at two different Paynesville apartment buildings.
“I am going to the sentencing to show support for the guys in Paynesville, for Jared and for Jerry and Patty. I want it to be crystal clear that Danny Heinrich doesn’t own us,” Bertelsen said.
Jerry Wetterling said he didn’t want to focus on Heinrich or the sentencing. Jacob may be buried now, but Jerry says his short life will always transcend his final moments.
“Jacob’s spirit was incredibly strong and it has been part of what’s got Kris here today,” Jerry Wetterling said.
“I think so too,” Bertelsen said.
As part of a plea deal Heinrich will not be sentenced Monday in Jacob’s case but on child pornography charges.
The most he could get is 20 years.
Prosecutors and the Wetterling family agreed to the plea deal in September in exchange for the information about where Jacob’s body was buried.
Prosecutors say if the now 53-year-old Heinrich ever does get out of prison they will move to civilly commit him.