When you grow up within walking distance of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, as did Julie Allyn, you’re pretty much fated to spend at least one day of each year, for the rest of your life, lollygagging about the Great Minnesota Get-Together. Allyn, a regular fairgoer from her childhood days in Ferris wheel-shadowed St. Anthony, planned on making her 2016 pilgrimage to the fair on its second day — but that was before she got the phone call informing her that Danny Heinrich wanted to deal.
The call pulled her back to her workaday life as an assistant attorney in the Minneapolis U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“I knew we had him,” she recalls thinking.
“Had,” as in getting Heinrich to confess to the kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling.
Authorities had long considered Heinrich as a suspect in the kidnapping of Jacob, the 11-year-old boy taken at gunpoint as he biked home from an evening ride to a convenience store just down the road from his home in rural St. Joseph, Minnesota.
Police investigated Heinrich almost immediately after the kidnapping but lacked evidence to charge him. In the nearly 27 years since the October 1989 kidnapping, no charges had ever been filed. Now Heinrich, facing a barrage of federal child pornography charges stemming from a 2015 arrest, wanted to cut himself the best deal possible. A confession in regard to Jacob’s disappearance was on the table.
The State Fair would have to wait.
The next 10 days flew by for Allyn, as she and her co-workers at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in cooperation with investigators from various federal, state and local agencies, stepped up their hunt for evidence incriminating Heinrich in Jacob’s disappearance. And finally, they found it. A computer forensics search of deleted files on Heinrich’s personal computer turned up an image of Jacob.
The end game played out swiftly — and jarringly. The game was up for Heinrich. He could face a lifetime behind bars if convicted on the 25 counts of child pornography, and still be charged with Jacob’s murder. What came next, as Allyn acknowledges, was a hard-to-digest deal that let Heinrich off the hook on the Wetterling charges and allowed him to plead guilty to one count of publishing child pornography.
In return, he agreed to tell authorities where to find Jacob’s remains, and to fully confess in court to his having kidnapped, assaulted and murdered Jacob.
“I certainly was open to whatever avenue we needed to follow” to finally get the truth out about what happened to Jacob, Allyn says.
“The Wetterlings were 100 percent behind us” in making the plea agreement with Heinrich, she adds. Heinrich was sentenced to 20 years in prison, the maximum allowed on the child pornography charge. If he completes his sentence in prison, he’ll be in his early 70s when he’s released. To some, the sentencing seemed not severe enough to fit the crimes, but the overriding goal was to get closure — or at least certainty — for the Wetterlings and get Heinrich off the streets, Allyn says.
The Heinrich case earned Allyn and Steve Schleicher, who teamed up to head the prosecution under the leadership of Andy Luger, Minneapolis U.S. attorney, 2016 Attorney of the Year honors from Minnesota Lawyer.
Allyn enjoys the work, demanding as it is. “I’ve always been interested in criminal law,” she says.
Openings and closings are her favorite parts of the work. “That’s probably because that’s when I have the full attention of the jury, and can speak uninterruptedly — it’s more unfettered,” she says.
Sentencing days are her least favorite times in court. “It’s always a hard day,” she says. The guilty may get their just deserts, but “most of the sentenced have families, at the people who were hurt are still hurting,” she says.
High-profile trials come with the territory for Allyn and her colleagues at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“You just have that bunker mentality [when buckling down for a tough case],” she says. “That said, there’s a camaraderie with the team, and you really do believe in what you’re doing — believe in the work, believe it is helping people and righting the wrongs.”
It is what it is, she says of the intensity that goes along with working on a case such as that of Heinrich or the ISIS conspiracy trial, in which three young Minnesota men were charged with conspiring to join the terrorist organization overseas. The government charged nine men in all of trying to join ISIS; six of them pleaded guilty. Allyn prosecuted the 2016 case as well. “I’ve never seen screening like that for the trial,” she says. “And the whole courtroom seemed to be packed against the government.”
All of the young men in question had connections to the local Somali community, and some in that community felt that the government went too far and wide in casting its conspiracy net. Allyn entertained no such doubts. “I have no problem of conscience for getting the 20-year sentence for Heinrich, although that can be seen as an arguable position,” she says. But the ISIS charges were irrefutable, she says. “I have no doubt” that the defendants were guilty of charged in the ISIS trial, she says.
The work leaves Allyn little time for outside interests. She and her husband, an employee of the Minneapolis Police Department, and son live in southwest Minneapolis. Their 11-year-old son has taken up hockey, which, as so many Minnesota parents know, is at that age something of a lifestyle for players and parents alike. “He plays for the Minneapolis Storm hockey team,” Allyn relates.
She admits to having had a few rough moments, as the parent of a young boy herself, when dealing with the Heinrich case. “It hit home,” she says.
Her father, Richard “Dick” Allyn, now a partner at the Robins Kaplan law firm in Minneapolis, set a pretty good parental precedent for Julie. “He worked for the state Attorney General’s Office when I was growing up,” says Allyn. “That did impress me. His office was right across from the governor’s office in the Capitol. It was such an impressive setting, with all the marble and granite, and it was always such a hive of activity.”
So there’s a lesson there, about the value of parents’ taking their children to work with them on occasion. Dad’s workplace environment certainly helped young Julie make a career choice, even before she left home for college — first in Madison, Wisconsin, for undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin, then back to the Twin Cities to earn a law degree at the University of Minnesota School of Law.
She spent a few years living in New York City, where she worked for a large city agency that offered combined social services for the aged. Much of her job involved lobbying legislators in the state capital in Albany. The cause was worthy, but the political wheeling and dealing was not for her. “It’s a nice train ride to Albany,”
“Julie has always wanted to do good things for people,” says Richard Allyn. “She’s always been interested in law and public service.” Even before law school, he notes, she worked for the Southern Minnesota Legal Aid Office. So he was not at all surprised, and certainly not disappointed, when she took up work with the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office upon returning to Minnesota from New York.
Richard also admits, easily enough, that while it was never foreordained that Julie would pursue a career in law, there was a clear family path, three generations in the making, for her to follow. The path-making began not long after the family migrated west from Connecticut to Minnesota in the early years of the 20th century. “My great-grandfather was a Hennepin county judge in Minnesota in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s,” she relates.
Richard himself took up the public service torch while in law school, clerking for the Ramsey County District Court. He worked in the Minnesota AG’s office for 12 years following graduation from the University of Minnesota law school in 1969. In addition to providing an inspirational setting for his daughter, his office at the Capitol made for a lively setting for his own work under two state attorneys general — Warren Spannaus and Skip Humphrey.
If Julie was paying attention — odds are, she was — she would have seen her father involved in an interesting array of cases while working for the Attorney General’s Office.
“I handled appeals for the Supreme Court, including a couple in front of the U.S. Supreme Court,” Richard says. Working for the AG office was “a great experience,” says Richard, who is currently involved in raising funds to establish a Warren Spannaus Law Scholarship.
“Warren encouraged young attorneys to try public service for a while,” he says. “Skip did the same thing, too.
Julie must have been listening in. She’s taken the public service aspect of the law to heart.
“The energy of government, there’s something about that,” she says.
“I love my job, love my team,” she adds.