MINNEAPOLIS – An elementary music teacher who has lived under a cloud of suspicion since 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped from his Minnesota driveway in 1989 can breathe easier now that another man has confessed to the boy's abduction and killing.
Dan Rassier was questioned about Jacob's abduction several times over the years and was subjected to lie detector tests and hypnosis. In 2010, authorities got search warrants to dig up his farm after they said he made suspicious statements to investigators and to Jacob's mother. He was then named a person of interest.
"I became toxic," Rassier said.
The case that haunted Minnesota for decades and devastated the community of St. Joseph, 80 miles northwest of Minneapolis, impacted Rassier's life in ways that he says are hard to explain.
On Tuesday, Danny Heinrich, 53, of Annandale, confessed in federal court that he abducted, sexually assaulted and killed Jacob. The confession "essentially cleared Dan Rassier as a person of interest in the Jacob Wetterling case," Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said in an email to The Associated Press on Thursday.
Heinrich said he buried the boy's body in a field in Paynesville, where Jacob's remains were recovered last week.
Rassier, now 60, was just days shy of his 34th birthday and home alone at his family's farm when Jacob was abducted from the road at the end of Rassier's driveway on the night of Oct. 22, 1989. He was questioned that night and told authorities about a car that had turned around in his driveway. Later, he told them he might have seen Jacob inside.
Court documents made public Friday show why authorities had Rassier on their list of potential suspects. Although he was highly organized, he couldn't account for time surrounding Jacob's abduction. He acted strangely under hypnosis, crying when Jacob's abduction was mentioned. He also made comments that authorities found unusual — for example, pointing out that there were many places on his property where someone could hide a body.
In 2009, authorities asked Jacob's mother, Patty Wetterling, to talk to Rassier while wearing a recording device. According to the documents, Rassier told Wetterling he didn't know what happened to Jacob and insisted that the driver of the car he saw was the abductor. He also expressed a fear that if someone buried Jacob on his property, he'd be blamed.
Those statements and others were enough for the search warrant, a judge found.
After his name came out in 2010, parents at one school where he teaches got nervous, and an aide was put in his classroom. People stopped asking him to play the trumpet at weddings. His private music lessons virtually dried up. He lost some friends. All the while, Rassier, whom students call "Mr. BeBop," maintained he had nothing to do with Jacob's abduction.
Ann Reischl, a lifelong resident of St. Joseph Township and the town clerk, said she always knew Rassier couldn't have harmed Jacob, but she knows some people wondered about him.
"I just don't think any apology (from law enforcement) is going to be big enough," she said. "The continual interrogation, and asking Dan to admit it ... and he kept saying, 'No, I didn't do it.' It's got to be frustrating."
Rassier says because of the experience he no longer trusts law enforcement. The stress impacted his health, leaving him with headaches and causing him to miss work. As his relationships changed, he had to adapt and do more things on his own.
Yet he looks for the silver lining: Because of the scrutiny, he started helping his ailing father more. His dad died last year, two days after authorities announced Heinrich was a person of interest.
"I got to spend more time with my dad because of this happening," he said. "You try to look for something good out of it."
And while Heinrich's confession cleared Rassier, the case still haunts him. He feels for the Wetterlings, and now the truth has him wondering whether he could have done anything to stop the abduction.
"Would there have been anything that could've been done that could've saved him — if I would've done something differently?" he paused. "The only thing that could've saved him would've been me chasing the car."
Follow Amy Forliti on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/amyforliti. More of her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/amy-forliti