A Minnesota man charged with child pornography after a search of his home found pictures of naked boys is also a “person of interest” in the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling, whose 1989 abduction led his parents to launch a national center to prevent child exploitation.
Daniel James Heinrich, 52, was charged Thursday with five counts of possessing or receiving child pornography. Richard Thornton, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis office, said Heinrich is a person of interest in Wetterling’s abduction, but he has not been charged in that case.
Thornton told a news conference that Heinrich was originally looked at after Wetterling’s abduction and again when investigators reviewed the cold case. Wetterling was 11 when he was abducted on Oct. 22, 1989, near his home in the central Minnesota community of St. Joseph.
“The defendant has denied any involvement in the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling,” U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said.
Authorities stopped short of calling Heinrich a suspect.
It wasn’t immediately clear if Heinrich had an attorney who could comment on his behalf. The federal defender’s office in Minneapolis did not have Heinrich in its system. Heinrich — who lives in Annandale less than two blocks from a middle school — was in custody Thursday. A number listed for a possible brother did not work.
The disappearance of Wetterling led his mother, Patty Wetterling, to become a nationally recognized advocate for missing children. She and her husband, Jerry, founded the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, which works to help communities and families prevent child exploitation.
“The search for Jacob is an ongoing investigation and we will watch and learn like everyone else,” the boy’s parents said in a statement Thursday.
FBI agent Thornton said that as part of their review of the Wetterling case, investigators used new forensic technology to analyze DNA on clothing worn by a young boy who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted in the same county about nine months before Wetterling’s abduction. The DNA was a match to Heinrich, Thornton said. That and other evidence led authorities to search Heinrich’s home July 28.
Heinrich was not charged in that sexual assault because the statute of limitations expired, Luger said. Court documents show he was arrested in that case back in 1990, but was released without charges.
The application for a search warrant shows authorities went to Heinrich’s home last summer seeking “Jacob Erwin Wetterling … Alive or any human remains.” They were also seeking items including a red T-shirt with the name Wetterling on the back and a red hockey team jacket with the name Jacob on the front.
Luger said child pornography found in the search led to Thursday’s charges.
Luger said authorities seized items including 19 3-ring binders that contained pictures of naked boys. Some of the boys were known victims of sexual exploitation — but there were no pictures of Wetterling. Authorities also found videotapes of boys carrying out routine activities such as delivering newspapers or riding bikes.
Some of that material was shot with a hidden camera, Luger said.
Jacob Wetterling was riding his bicycle with a brother and a friend when a masked gunman abducted him. The case has remained in the public eye over the past 26 years as names of potential suspects surfaced and faded. The family periodically released updated pictures, showing what Wetterling might look like as an adult.
The criminal complaint says that in 1990, Heinrich gave his shoes and car tires to investigators. They found the items were “consistent” with tracks left in a gravel driveway near the site of Wetterling’s abduction, but couldn’t be ruled an exact match.
While Heinrich is not charged in other cases, the criminal complaint also outlines multiple sexual assaults of boys in the Paynesville, Minnesota area in the 1980s. The complaint says the attacker usually wore something like a mask. In one incident, the attacker left behind a baseball cap, and DNA on it can’t be ruled out as Heinrich’s.
Heinrich was living with his father in Paynesville at the time of Wetterling’s disappearance and authorities searched that home in 1990, finding scanners, camouflage clothing and a picture of a boy wearing underwear.
Heinrich lives near a middle school in Annandale, about 60 miles northwest of Minneapolis. His white, one-story home sat empty Thursday with a car in the driveway.
Next door, with children’s toys and strollers out front, Megan Champlin described her neighbor as “kind of a hermit.” The mother of three said she never thought anything of Heinrich, until he told her husband about the July search warrant and the child pornography.
Heinrich’s alleged crimes didn’t hit her until law enforcement announced his possible link to Wetterling.
“It’s kind of a gut-wrenching feeling,” she said.