Retired FBI agent defends agency's actions after Wetterling abduction

Steve Gilkerson says the only way to solve the case would have been a confession

Sloane Martin
October 02, 2018 - 2:06 pm
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A retired FBI special agent who investigated the Jacob Wetterling abduction is trying to clear the FBI's reputation in it. Steve Gilkerson spoke to reporters for nearly an hour Tuesday defending his and the agency's actions in the case.

When thousands of pages of investigative files were released last month, current Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson did not hesitate to list the ways law enforcement failed. He took jabs at the FBI for misdirecting the focus of the investigation and criticized the overall communication.

"They start wide and then focus in," Gudmundson said at a news conference Sept. 20 in St. Cloud. "In the first week, a lead is run in California. By the second week, leads are run in Iowa, Vermont and North Dakota. In essence, Sheriff Charlie Grafft has already lost control of his own investigation. This should not have happened."

Steve Gilkerson had worked for the FBI for more than 20 years at the time he interrogated Danny Heinrich in February 1990. He served in the Marine Corps in the Vietnam War and worked for the FBI from 1968 to 1998 investigating violent crimes like bank robbery and kidnapping. He worked three previous kidnapping cases and disputed Gudmundson's Sept. 20 claim that he and another interrogator were inexperienced.

Gudmundson called that February 1990 arrest interrogation the "most fatal flaw" of the investigation because, "one would never willingly arrest someone drunk late at night." 

Regarding that interrogation, Gilkerson said Heinrich stopped to ask for a lawyer, which is where his biggest regret lies.

"Hindsight again, it would have been better if we just approached him without arresting him," he said. "Once we arrested him, we had to inform him of his rights. If we just approached him for an interview, we wouldn't have done that. The end result would not have been any different. He would not have confessed that night." 

Gilkerson said the FBI was investigating multiple credible suspects simultaneously and no DNA or physical evidence existed at the time for Heinrich. The shoe prints and tire tracks weren't enough, he said. However, there was also the "deceptive" result in the polygraph test, distinctive voice, car carpet fiber that matched a fiber on the victim's clothing, photos of children in his possession, clothing similar to the perpetrator in the assaults, a handgun and the same vehicle used in the Cold Spring abduction -- a kidnapping and sexual assault nine months before Jacob's abduction.

The Stearns County Sheriff's Office in a statement Tuesday continued to reiterate the "multiple missteps" in the investigation and disputed some of Gilkerson's claims. It called Gilkerson's press conference, "a retired FBI Agent defending the indefensible."

In one example, Gilkerson said he was not aware of the multiple assaults in Paynesville, where Heinrich lived, in the late '80s. The department said that Gilkerson wrote a January 1990 report of his interview with one of the victims. The department said no other suspect had "multiple indictators they they were even remotely involved in the Paynesville assaults, the Cold Spring case or the Wetterling abduction. Yet no one goes back to look at Heinrich for more than 20 years."

The Stearns County Sheriff's Office is calling on the FBI to release its investigative files