On a 30-degree day two years ago, teenage sisters Samantha and Gianna Rucki ran away from their Lakeville home. They didn’t even put on their shoes and coats when they left the house and got into a waiting vehicle.
The sisters, 14 and 13 at the time, have been missing ever since, two of 25 Minnesota children whose faces are publicized by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Their disappearance followed a bitter custody battle between their parents that has taken turns toward the bizarre. Under court order to help locate their children, both parents say they don’t know where Samantha and Gianna are now. Police say they have followed up on every tip they’ve received. The mother is considered a “person of interest” in the case, said police Detective Jim Dronen.
Their parents’ first divorce was vacated after a judge said it was based on a fraud. The mother, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki, then accused the father, David Rucki, of abusing her and their children; Rucki said his ex-wife brainwashed the children to make up the allegations.
During one hearing, Grazzini-Rucki’s attorney, Michelle MacDonald, was handcuffed by sheriff’s deputies to a wheelchair.
About three weeks after the girls disappeared, they appeared on a local TV news show and said they ran away because they were afraid of their father. That was the last time they were seen in public.
Since the sisters went missing, they have been reported to be in at least half a dozen states, from California to Connecticut. Last year, their pictures were plastered on more than a million grocery bags throughout the Upper Midwest.
In February, the Pasco County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office published a Facebook post saying the girls may be in the Tampa Bay area. That Sheriff’s Office said it was “believed that the mother took them from their father.”
It was not the first claim that Grazzini-Rucki was involved in the girls’ disappearance. During a September 2013 divorce trial, the children’s court-appointed advocate testified that she believed the girls were in their mother’s care. In his order granting custody to the father, Dakota County District Judge David Knutson wrote that “the evidence … suggests that [Grazzini-Rucki] knows where her two missing children are and is actively involved in concealing them.”
Dronen said investigators have never spoken with the mother.
“We don’t know how to get ahold of her,” the detective said.
Grazzini-Rucki, 49, called the Star Tribune on Tuesday from a blocked phone number. She denied knowing where her girls were or talking with them after they disappeared. She said an order issued by Knutson prohibited her from speaking with police.
The judge has expressly written that no order prohibits her “from taking actions to locate her missing children.”
Rucki, 52, said in an interview that he thinks about the normal things his daughters used to do. Samantha was an avid hockey player who also competed in beauty pageants. Gianna was a straight-A student, and was named the lead in a school play just a month before she went missing.
Now, he says, despite hiring a private detective, he has no leads to follow to find them.
“I just want them safe,” he said. “I want them to have a shot in life.”
Fight for custody
After nearly 20 years of marriage and five children together, David Rucki and Sandra Grazzini-Rucki were granted a divorce in May 2011.
The mother won full custody of the children and more than $13,000 a month in alimony and child support. The father fought the order, and the case landed on Knutson’s docket. In September 2011, the judge threw out the divorce ruling and ordered a new trial, writing that the court found “sufficient evidence showing that [Grazzini-Rucki] defrauded [Rucki]” and that the idea that the father would agree to those divorce terms was “beyond belief.”
As the new divorce case proceeded, the children lived with their mother and rarely saw their father.
In August 2012, the judge ordered the family to meet with Dr. Paul Reitman, a White Bear Lake psychologist. Reitman recommended immediately putting the children into foster care, records show. He wrote in a report to the court that the children had been alienated from their father by their mother and said they needed to be “deprogrammed.”
“The children appear to be very depressed and browbeaten,” he wrote.
In September and October 2012, Knutson ordered temporary custody to be shared between the mother’s sister, Nancy Olson, and the father’s sister, Tammy Love. Neither parent was to have any contact with the children, and Grazzini-Rucki had to leave the Lakeville home.
When Love moved in, the home was full of garbage and filth, she later testified. Writing on the walls made it appear “as if the children were held hostage and trying to stay inspirational with messages of hope,” Love told the court, records show.
After Olson told the court she could no longer care for the children, Knutson ordered them to be taken from Olson’s home and placed solely with Love.
That day, April 19, 2013, police brought the girls to the Lakeville home. Love told the Star Tribune they were there for about half an hour when she went down to the basement.
“That is the last time I saw the girls,” Love said.
Surveillance video obtained from a neighbor showed the girls running to a red truck, according to police. After a few minutes, Love realized the girls were gone. She called police.
Dale Nathan, a longtime critic of the state courts and a suspended attorney, told the Star Tribune that he was with Grazzini-Rucki in her car the day the girls ran away. He said the girls ran from the home to their mother’s car, and the four drove around for two to three hours. Police have never interviewed Nathan.
Three days after the kids ran away, their mother filed an appeal in court that included statements from each girl.
“Please let us live with our mom, and enjoy the rest of my childhood,” Gianna wrote.
The following month, Fox 9 aired a story on the divorce case that included an interview with the girls saying they wanted to get away from their father.
Dronen, the detective, said he has called the station to ask where the interview was conducted and was referred to their attorney. He has not inquired further.
Fox 9 did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Drama in court
Five months after the girls went missing, a trial began to determine who should get custody. The morning of the trial’s second day, attorneyMacDonald started taking pictures of the courtroom. A bailiff ordered her to stop, saying recording devices were not allowed.
During a recess, court records show, MacDonald left the courtroom, then refused to give her name and other identifying information when a sergeant tried to write her a ticket. She would later be handcuffed to a wheelchair and brought into the courtroom to continue with the trial.
MacDonald, who ran for a seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court last year, is now suing the county and its employees in federal court, claiming she suffered “seven of the 11 internationally recognized forms of torture.”
In November 2013, Knutson granted full custody to the father. He gave supervised visitation to the mother, saying the court was “concerned that [she] would abduct the children if she is allowed unsupervised parenting time with them.”
The judge’s custody order said the mother intentionally alienated the girls from their father and that her testimony regarding the whereabouts of her children was “uncooperative and obstructionistic.”
Rucki said he never abused his children. The two youngest children live with him, and the eldest has started college. He said he wants to move on with his life, but calls the girls’ disappearance “worse than death.”
“This is about two girls who need to be found, need to be in a safe environment,” Rucki said.
Gianna’s 15th birthday was in November. Samantha turns 17 in June. Anyone with information on their whereabouts should call the Lakeville police department at 651-322-2323.