ST. CLOUD, Minn. (CN) – The criminal investigation file relating to the 1989 abduction of Minnesota boy Jacob Wetterling will remain secret for now, a state judge ruled Friday, citing his family’s privacy concerns.
On Oct. 22, 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted at gunpoint by a stranger in St. Joseph, Minn. The circumstances surrounding Jacob’s disappearance and his abductor remained a mystery until last September, when Danny Heinrich confessed to kidnapping and murdering the boy.
Last week, Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, filed a lawsuit in Sterns County District Court against the county, its sheriff department and Sheriff Don Gudmundson, claiming their rights as crime victims would be violated under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act if the criminal investigation file relating to their son’s disappearance is released to the public.
The Wetterlings sought a temporary restraining order preventing the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office from releasing the file of the now-closed investigation.
On Friday, the day after they filed the suit, Stearns County District Judge Ann L. Carrott granted the temporary restraining order.
According to the Wetterlings’ complaint, the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies received nearly 80,000 tips related to Jacob’s disappearance. They claim the sheriff’s department has stored at least 10,399 individual documents containing 56,373 pages of information in connection with the investigation.
The collected data reportedly includes investigative reports, lead sheets and attachments, photographs and transcripts of recorded statements.
The data that the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office created, collected and stored also includes personal information about the Wetterlings’ marriage and family relationship, according to the complaint.
At various times during the investigation, law enforcement personnel were physically present in the Wetterling home, providing security and other services.
Because of those contacts, interviews and communications with law enforcement, highly personal details and the “inner workings” of their family were recorded, the Wetterlings say.
After the criminal investigation was closed, Stearns County officials reviewed and redacted files from the investigation for months, according to the complaint.
The Wetterlings say they were given access to the redacted investigative file under their rights as crime victims. They reviewed the files and asked Sheriff Gudmundson not to disclose specific data.
However, the Wetterlings claim he and the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office intend to disclose the redacted investigative file, including the personal information about their family.
The Stearns County Sheriff’s Office had planned to post the data to the county website on Monday at 11 a.m., but Judge Carrott blocked the release in Friday’s order.
“Public policy favors the nondisclosure of personal information of the plaintiffs relating to their marriage and family relationships,” the judge wrote. “The entry of a temporary restraining order will impose no administrative burden on the court.”
Carrott ordered the Wetterlings to submit a copy of the personal information at issue to the court for review.
In a released statement, Sheriff Gudmundson said that he wants to make it known that there “is no animosity” been the Wetterling family and the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office.
“The struggle here is balancing our need to protect the privacy of victims and state law that requires the release of a closed investigative file,” he said in a statement. “I believe the law requires the release of the file and I look forward to the day when it can be released. Speaking for Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner, I want to say that the file will show the extraordinary effort put forth by the Stearns County Sheriff as well as our partners in the F.B.I., the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and dozens of other law enforcement agencies.”
Stearns County Attorney Janelle P. Kendall said that her office has followed the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, along with the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office, but said the law does not allow her office to protect the Wetterlings’ wishes and interests.
“We have multiple requests for the release of this closed criminal investigation,” she said. “Due to this now pending legal action, release of the file will be delayed until a judge has had a chance to review exactly what is disputed. Based on a conference call with the judge this afternoon, information in dispute is to be submitted to the court on June 30.”
Kendall added, “Despite intense public interest, this case involves thousands of real human beings and years of intense personal tragedy. It’s 27 years’ worth of information; the lengthy process to review and redact it should not be surprising.”
The Wetterlings’ bid to keep their personal information private is not the only recent lawsuit filed over Jacob’s 1989 disappearance. In March, Daniel Rassier, a Minnesota man once labeled a person of interest in the case, brought a defamation lawsuit against state law enforcement agencies, claiming the recently solved case could have been cracked decades ago.