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Wetterling case file to be released Thursday, but thousands of federal documents won’t be made public

Patty and Jerry Wetterling listen as a team of prosecutors talk about the confession of Daniel Heinrich to the 1989 killing of their son, Jacob Wetterling, in Minneapolis on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

ST. PAUL — About 42,000 pages of state and county documents related to the Jacob Wetterling investigation will be released to the public Thursday, Sept. 20, in Stearns County.

What's notable is what won't be released: thousands of pages of federal documents that have been returned to the FBI.

Mark Anfinson, the attorney who represented a coalition of media outlets and public interest groups that intervened after Jerry and Patty Wetterling sued to keep some documents private, said he was "very troubled" by the number of documents that the FBI has taken back.

A spokesman for the FBI said Wednesday, Sept. 19, that the agency took back about 4,000 pages, but the Stearns County Sheriff's Office chief deputy said the agency has about 13,000 pages.

"Losing that large a percentage of the total investigative file will almost certainly inhibit people's ability to understand what happened with the investigation," Anfinson said.

Once a criminal investigation has closed, the investigative file is made public under the Minnesota Data Practices Act.

The Wetterlings, as victims of the crime, were allowed to review the files first. They requested that 168 pages be sealed, claiming the 22 documents held personal information about their marriage and family, but a judge in March ruled against them.

District Court Judge Ann Carrott sided with media outlets and public interest groups, who successfully argued that if privacy concerns were used to trump the Data Practices Act, it would effectively dismantle the law.

However, Carrott also ruled that the federal documents included in the investigative file belonged to the federal government and could not be released by Stearns County; the Pioneer Press has filed a Freedom of Information request seeking those files.

Anfinson said he was "extremely skeptical" that the FBI needed to take most of those documents back, "given the age of most of them."

"What was so important in taking those back that they were willing to frustrate some broader understanding of the investigation?" he said.

The Stearns County Sheriff's Office will release 41,787 pages of documents via thumb drives during a news conference at 10:06 a.m. at the county's Law Enforcement Center in St. Cloud.

The pages will include all documents from the Stearns County Sheriff's Office and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, including investigators' reports, lab findings and search warrants, said Sheriff Don Gudmundson.

Why did it take so long?

Jacob Wetterling was 11 years old when he kidnapped on Oct. 22, 1989, by Danny Heinrich, who confessed two years ago to sexually assaulting and killing the St. Joseph boy. Heinrich was sentenced to 20 years in prison on a child-pornography charge as part of a plea agreement approved by the Wetterlings.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, Heinrich confessed to Jacob's kidnapping, sexual assault and shooting and agreed to lead authorities to the boy's body. In return, Heinrich was not prosecuted for murder, which has no statute of limitations, and 24 other counts of pornography were dropped.

Heinrich also had to confess in court to kidnapping and sexually assaulting 12-year-old Jared Scheierl in Cold Spring on Jan. 13, 1989, nine months before he abducted and killed Jacob.

The documents released Thursday should shed light on why it took investigators so long to solve both cases and why Heinrich, who was interviewed by investigators in 1989 and 1990, wasn't arrested sooner.

The documents also should provide insight as to why authorities focused so intently on Dan Rassier, whose family farm is near the site where Jacob was abducted.

Former Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner publicly named Rassier, an elementary school teacher, as a person of interest in Jacob's abduction in 2010.

Rassier maintained his innocence but wasn't cleared until 2016 when Heinrich confessed. He and his mother, Rita, have sued authorities in U.S. District Court and are seeking more than $2 million in damages.

Their lawsuit alleges, among other things, that Sanner and other investigators obtained a search warrant for the Rassier farm illegally.

The Wetterlings on Wednesday said they were sorry if any information made public Thursday caused pain to others.

"Our hearts hurt for anyone who is pained or hurt from the release of this file," they said in a statement released through their attorney, Doug Kelley. "Clearly, changes are still needed."

The Wetterlings said it has been difficult for them "to relive those dark days."

"With time, our family is healing and getting stronger, and we appreciate all of the efforts to make things better for future victims of crime, their families and for all of us," they said.

The couple asked that people "honor Jacob and the short life he lived" by hugging their children and telling them how unique and special they are.

It ended with this request: "Say a prayer, light a candle, hold hands, be with friends and always hope."