MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Almost 26 years to the day Jacob Wetterling disappeared, the FBI has named a person of interest in his disappearance.
According to court documents, 52-year-old Daniel James Heinrich of Annandale was arrested Wednesday night, on charges of child pornography. He was questioned in 1990 in connection to the case but never charged. A DNA sample was taken at the time.
That DNA sample has now been matched to the abduction and assault of a 12-year-old boy near Cold Spring in January 1989, which occurred nine months before Wetterling's disappearance. At the time, investigators said they believed the two cases were related.
Despite the DNA link to the Cold Spring case, authorities were unable to arrest Heinrich for the Cold Spring abduction, as the statute of limitations has expired. Authorities say there is currently no statute of limitations on kidnapping, but there was in 1989.
Currently, authorities say there is no physical evidence linking Heinrich to Wetterling's disappearance, but he remains a "person of interest" in the investigation. He is also suspected in a series of unsolved attacks in the late 1980s near Paynesville, most of which were just blocks from where he lived at the time.
At a 2 p.m. press conference Thursday, U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said Heinrich denies any involvement in the Jacob Wetterling case. Authorities stressed that Heinrich is not being charged in connection to Wetterling's disappearance, but he is being charged with possession of child pornography.
Luger and other law enforcement officials said they reopened the Wetterling case in July of this year, focusing on Heinrich. Eight days after authorities confirmed Heinrich's DNA matched the Cold Spring kidnapping case, they executed a search warrant at Heinrich's Annandale home. There they found hundreds of images depicting child pornography in three-ring binders, as well as on his computer hard drive. Investigators said none of the material was linked to Jacob Wetterling.
Heinrich's home in Annandale sits just a block from a middle school, and is surrounded by neighbors with young children.
Investigators also found hours of video apparently taken secretly by Heinrich, showing neighborhood children playing, riding bikes and delivering newspapers.
Police records indicate Heinrich has also had several other run-ins with the law.
Heinrich walked into federal court in St. Paul at 2 p.m. dressed in black, and was not in handcuffs. WCCO's Jennifer Mayerle said he spoke low and slow as he confirmed his identity. He was informed of his rights.
A preliminary hearing was scheduled for next Wednesday at 10 a.m.
Gov. Mark Dayton commented on the case at an unrelated press conference Thursday.
"I remember only too well 26 years ago when this occurred," he said. "I can't imagine as a parent the agony of not knowing what has happened to my child. I pray above everything else for that kind of knowledge. Somebody out there, as Patty Wetterling says, knows what happened."
The crime that engrossed and frustrated Minnesotans for decades happened on Oct. 22, 1989. Wetterling was biking in St. Joseph with his brother and a friend when a masked man abducted him at gunpoint.
Wetterling was 11 at the time. Today, he'd be 37.
As investigators and family members looked for Wetterling in the years that followed, changes came to the way authorities search for missing children.
"It was a different world then," Wetterling's mother, Patty Wetterling, told WCCO-TV last year. "We didn't have the Internet…We worked really hard to make sure that every law enforcement agency had a fax machine, they didn't even have that at that point."
Back then, there were no amber alerts or databases of sex offenders. Now, authorities are better equipped to share information to help find missing children. Today, 97 percent of missing children return home.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Stearns County Sheriff's Department at 320-259-3700 or 320-656-6625.
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