Victim in sex assault linked to Jacob Wetterling case speaks out

MINNEAPOLIS -- A man whose 1989 sexual assault has been linked to a person of interest in the case of a long-missing Minnesota boy whose remains were recently discovered is speaking out.

Jacob Wetterling WCCO

In January 1989, then-12-year-old Jared Scheierl was sexually assaulted by a man in Cold Spring, Minn. Nine months later, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped by a masked gunman biking home from a convenience store in nearby St. Joseph. The 27-year-old mystery surrounding Wetterling’s abduction came to a sad end in recent days when his remains were discovered in rural Stearns County in central Minnesota.

Danny Heinrich, who police have called a person of interest in Wetterling’s abduction, led the FBI to the boy’s remains, a law enforcement source confirmed to CBS News senior investigative producer Pat Milton on Saturday.

Heinrich, of Annandale, was questioned in 1990 about a series of sex assaults including Scheierl’s case, and the Wetterling case, but was never formally charged. The FBI named Heinrich, now 53, a person of interest in the Wetterling case last October, and the same day, he was charged with 25 counts of child pornography stemming from a search of his home.

Police announced that DNA taken from Heinrich in 1990 linked him to Scheierl’s assault, a discovery made by investigators in 2015. Heinrich would not face any charges due to the statute of limitations, but Scheierl filed a civil suit against him in May, accusing Heinrich of sexual battery and false imprisonment.

Scheierl told CBS Minnesota he was with his 12-year-old son when he learned that Wetterling’s remains had been discovered.

“It’s 27 years later and I’m looking at my own 12-year-old boy. It was a moment that was spiritual, kind of surreal. I’m still processing it in some ways,” Scheierl said.

Now 40 and a father of three, Scheierl says the assault still affects him and that he is constantly thinking of his children’s safety.

“Call me a helicopter dad, but fear of children’s safety has always been one of my biggest concerns,” Scheierl said.

Scheierl told the station he’s relieved that the Wetterling family may now finally find closure, and he thinks he may be able to as well. He said he’s not sure what prompted Heinrich to allegedly cooperate with investigators now.

“Sitting in jail for a year, reflecting on the past,” Scheierl said. “The truth catches us. The truth will come out.”

Danny Heinrich

Scheierl said he was angry when he learned that Heinrich couldn’t be prosecuted in his case because of the statute of limitations. He said he hopes to talk to Heinrich, face to face.

Investigators had long suspected Scheierl’s case was connected to Wetterling’s. As part of the fresh look into Wetterling’s abduction around its 25th anniversary, investigators took another look at Scheierl’s assault.

Using technology that wasn’t available back in 1989, investigators found Heinrich’s DNA on the Scheierl’s sweatshirt, Richard Thornton, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis office, said when authorities announced Heinrich’s arrest last October. They used that evidence to get a search warrant for Heinrich’s home.

While they didn’t discover anything to firmly tie Heinrich to either Wetterling’s kidnapping or the assault on the other boy, they found a large collection of child pornography. Heinrich was charged with 25 child pornography counts, to which he pleaded not guilty.

At the time of his arrest last year, as he had done since 1989, Heinrich insisted he was innocent in Wetterling’s disappearance.

The Stearns County Sheriff’s Office released few details over the weekend about the new developments in the Wetterling case, and no fresh information Sunday, but said that authorities expect to be able to provide more details early this week.

Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, became a nationally recognized advocate for the cause of missing and exploited children. A 1994 federal law named for Jacob requires states to establish sex offender registries.

The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center released a statement Saturday morning on its Facebook page, saying its staff was “in deep grief.”

“We didn’t want Jacob’s story to end this way,” the statement said. “Our hearts are heavy, but we are being held up by all of the people who have been a part of making Jacob’s Hope a light that will never be extinguished. ... Jacob, you are loved.”