She played pivotal role in ending Jacob’s mystery
While she sat in law school in 1989 as a child abduction case began unfolding and capturing the hearts of all Minnesotans, little did Janelle Kendall know that she would be the one playing a pivotal role in ending the mystery decades later.
Kendall, who is the top prosecutor for Stearns County, helped carve out the legal maneuvering needed to finally find Jacob Wetterling and get his killer to confess to the chilling crime that horrified and mystified Minnesotans for more than a quarter-century.
Danny Heinrich confessed to killing Jacob last week in U.S. Federal Court in Minneapolis last week, ending the decades old secret that propelled parents to change the way they raise their children.
She describes the work of dealing with the killer as being a “volatile situation” in the days leading up to Jacob’s discovery. “You’re making a deal with the devil,” said Kendall, who grew up in Blooming Prairie.
The deal that Kendall and others hammered out with Heinrich was that he would lead investigators to the spot where he buried Jacob and provide a detailed account of the crime. In return, Heinrich would not be charged with the murder, but would plead guilty to possession of child pornography and receive a 20-year sentence in federal prison.
“It’s been the toughest 10-12 days of my professional career,” Kendall told the Times just hours after a grueling day of testimony in a packed courtroom. She has been a prosecutor for 26 years, the last 14 as the county attorney in St. Cloud. “We had to make decisions in real time and a series of decisions in the dark. Lawyers are not necessarily wired to do that,” she said. “It was very dicey at times.”
No proof of murder
What made things so difficult for Kendall and investigators was that they had to make decisions based on information they didn’t have. Because the statute of limitations had expired for the kidnapping and assault of Jacob, the only remaining charge that could be pursued was murder. “To prove murder, we had to be able to prove that Jacob died. Up until last Friday (Sept. 2), proof that Jacob was no longer alive did not exist,” Kendall said. “We did not have proof of murder. We literally had to find Jacob to move forward at all,” she added.
Heinrich led investigators to the area near Paynesville where he buried Jacob 27 years ago just hours after he abducted him at gunpoint while riding bicycle with a brother and a friend in near St. Joseph. “The team of investigators will tell you it was difficult to find Jacob’s remains even with Heinrich’s help,” Kendall noted. “Without it, Jacob would not have been found and the details of what happened would have never been told.”
One card that played favorably into Kendall’s hand was that Heinrich possessed child porn in 2015. Prosecutors would have little difficulty proving the pornography charge. Heinrich had been in jail since his arrest last year awaiting trial.
Call to the Feds
Because of greater federal sentencing consequences compared to those available in a state law prosecution for child porn, Kendall called U.S. Attorney Andy Luger and asked for consideration of the exercise of federal jurisdiction for the porn case, seeking the leverage that a substantial federal prison sentence could provide in furthering the Wetterling investigation.
It was a call Kendall felt comfortable making, especially since Sen. Amy Klobuchar appointed her to be on the hiring committee for Luger’s job a few years ago. “I told him this is unusual, but hear me out,” Kendall said. “It’s not a case they (the feds) would normally take,” she added.
Luger agreed to take it on.
Kendall admits it wasn’t an easy decision to let the feds take the case. “Sometimes the only way to get an outcome is to give up power and control,” she said. “I had to call in the feds. This was a local case and had local jurisdiction.”
She paused, wondering, “What was the other option? Bummer, I guess we can’t solve this.”
With pressure mounting to solve Jacob’s disappearance, Kendall worked closely with Luger and his staff in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis.
“The difficulty was giving up power and control, but it worked,” Kendall said.
Kendall sat down with Jerry and Patty Wetterling to outline the options they had before them. When Kendall asked what they thought of the proposed agreement, Patty responded, “Please sign it.”
From the beginning, the Wetterlings wanted to find their son and learn what happened to him, according to Kendall. “She was very supportive of it. My role was to ensure the Wetterlings knew what was going on,” Kendall said.
The county attorney says the deal local and federal authorities struck with Heinrich “isn’t necessarily the perfect outcome.”
Asked what would have been better, Kendall responded: “A first-degree murder conviction and child porn.”
Praise from FBI
But Kendall and the other attorneys involved are winning the praises of the FBI. “We would not have just witnessed Danny Heinrich’s guilty plea without the skill, determination and commitment of our prosecutors,” said Rick Thorton, FBI Director in Minneapolis. “The outcome is proof of what we can accomplish when law enforcement and prosecutors work together at the federal, state and local level.”
Thorton added that the lawyers involved did “amazing work and often don’t get the credit they deserve.”
Kendall said, “It’s not the perfect resolution. I’m hard on myself over that. If we could have only gotten to the body without him (Heinrich).”
But, she admits, this isn’t bad. “We found Jacob Wetterling. That was the goal. The Wetterlings got their son back,” Kendall said.
“As someone who is not necessarily a risk taker, sometimes we have to take calculated risks based on what we don’t have,” Kendall said. “Hope is not an effective management strategy,” she said, noting the irony of hope being what kept this case going all these years in bringing Jacob home.
Kendall said Jacob would not have been found without the help of every member of the local, state and national team of investigators and attorneys.
“This case demonstrates that no case is too hard to solve, no tip too insignificant to consider and no legal obstacle insurmountable in finding answers,” she said.
ABOUT JANELLE KENDALL
Profession: Stearns County Attorney since 2002.
Childhood: Grew up on a farm near Blooming Prairie (maiden name Prokopec).
Education: Graduated from Blooming Prairie High School in 1983, Hamline University with degree in business administration and University of Minnesota Law School with a law degree.
Stress Reliever: Lead singer and guitarist in a band, “Walter’s Wheelhouse.” Plays at Brooktree Golf Course in Owatonna Sept. 23.