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The Story Behind Danny Heinrich's Delicate Plea Deal

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- We have new insights Wednesday into the tense plea negotiations that resulted in the discovery of Jacob Wetterling's remains -- and Danny Heinrich's chilling courtroom confession.

Through their attorney, the Wetterlings are expressing strong support for the deal that lead to the breakthrough in the 27-year-old case.

Wetterling family attorney Doug Kelley says the Wetterlings went to the scene just after 1 p.m. last Wednesday afternoon when agents digging on a Paynesville-area farm found the first evidence that it was, in fact, the site where Jacob was buried.

The Wetterlings identified a red jacket as Jacob's, although the jacket did not have the name "Jacob" on it.

Investigators concluded the cotton thread that spelled the name had deteriorated over the years.

There has been some public criticism of the deal, in which Heinrich pleaded guilty to one count of child pornography in exchange for a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

In return, he publically admitted to the chilling details surrounding Jacob's murder, as well as the kidnapping and sexual assault of Jared Scheierl.

"What Patty said to me is, 'Now maybe now we can find peace in our hearts," Kelley said.

He says the Wetterlings are convinced that without the deal crafted by United States Attorney Andy Luger's office and defense attorneys, they never would have found Jacob.

Danny Heinrich In Court
Danny Heinrich in court (credit: CBS)

"She said, 'I want you … to tell people that we are 100 percent behind Andy Luger and this plea agreement,'" Kelley said.

Luger says when defense attorneys approached him in late August with the possible deal, he knew it might be the only chance of finding Jacob.

"When he was opening up with this possibility that he was ready to talk, we immediately went to the Wetterling family," Luger said.

He stresses that if Heinrich had been prosecuted for murder, he would have been sentenced under 1989 sentencing guidelines, and would have served only 17 years in prison.

But the bottom line was they did not have the evidence for a murder case.

"That's the bind we were in. We believed he was the one who did it, but we didn't have the proof," Luger said.

Kelley says the Wetterlings were especially fearful that news of the three-day dig for Jacob's remains would leak, and Heinrich would decide against doing what he did Tuesday -- sign the plea agreement and make a full confession.

Heinrich, who is in the Sherburne County Jail, carefully follows media reports.

"I've had other lawyers that have other clients in that jail say whenever anything comes up about Jacob or anything, [Heinrich] makes everybody be quiet and he sits and he watches," Kelley said.

Kelley also offered insight into why prosecutors insisted that Heinrich go into the horrifying details of Jacob's death.

He says prosecutors were laying the groundwork for Heinrich being civilly committed when he gets out of prison, which could be as soon as 17 years with good behavior.

* Honoring Jacob Wetterling With The Number 11
* Stearns Co. Attorney On 'Making A Deal With The Devil'
* Patty Wetterling: 'There's Still A Lot Of Work To Do'
* Investigators, Wetterlings Credit Cold Spring Victim With Helping Crack Case
* Good Question: How Common Are Plea Deals?
* St. Joseph, Paynesville Communities Grieving For Wetterling Family
* Wetterling Family Reacts To Danny Heinrich's Confession

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