Mpls. custody fight pits women who grieved over Wyo. plane crash

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 6, 2012 - 9:19 AM

Luke Bucklin's former wife and his wife at the time he died in a plane crash are fighting for custody of the 6-year-old boy.

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Luke Bucklin’s single-engine plane crashed in western Wyoming’s Wind River Range on Oct. 25, killing him, his 14-year-old twin sons Nate and Nick, and 12-year-old son Noah. There were no survivors.

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When a plane piloted by Twin Cities entrepreneur Luke Bucklin disappeared with his three sons on board in October 2010, his ex-wife temporarily moved in with his wife.

Together, they waited for news. When the four were confirmed dead, they grieved as a family.

Luke and Ginger Bucklin had been co-parenting five children from his first marriage to Michelle Bucklin, as well as Michelle Bucklin's 6-year-old son from another marriage. It was an amicable relationship. The five Bucklin children split time between their parents, while the youngest boy was able to remain close to his half-siblings and found a father figure in Luke Bucklin.

Now, the two women -- who have both cared for the boy after the crash -- are locked in a custody battle, prompting cries from both sides about who is best suited to care for him in wake of the tragedy.

Attorneys for Ginger Bucklin, who currently has court-ordered custody of the boy, maintain that she has and will continue to provide the best care for him because of his mother's instability and disregard for his emotional well-being. Michelle Bucklin's attorney counters that the accusations against her are distorted and that Ginger Bucklin's claims still would not meet the high legal threshold to remove a child from his biological parent.

"It is very sad and damaging to the entire remaining Bucklin family that [Ginger Bucklin] has chosen to take the path of litigation and drive a wedge between herself and [Michelle Bucklin]," her attorney, Kelsey Swanson wrote.

Swanson declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

"[Michelle Bucklin] loves her son, cares about him greatly and just wants to live with him in peace," she said.

Move to Arizona

The dispute arose two weeks ago when Michelle Bucklin moved with the boy to a recently purchased home in Surprise, Ariz., prompting Ginger Bucklin to seek petition for custody Jan. 13 in Hennepin County District Court. Last week, Judge William Koch granted Ginger Bucklin sole physical custody of the boy and ordered him returned to her. He is now back in the Twin Cities.

In his order, the judge wrote that evidence demonstrates the boy "may be in at least emotional danger while in her care," referring to Michelle Bucklin.

The next likely step, a hearing in Hennepin County Family Court, has not yet been scheduled.

The conflict comes 15 months after Luke Bucklin, who ran Bloomington Web-development firm Sierra Bravo Corp., died along with his 14-year-old twins Nate and Nick, and 12-year-old son Noah. Of Luke and Michelle Bucklin's two daughters, one is an adult living in Germany, and another is 18 and currently chooses to live with Ginger Bucklin.

'Life is shorter than ever'

In court documents, Michelle Bucklin says she allowed her son to be in the Bucklins' lives because the boy needed a father figure in Luke Bucklin, and she appreciated him being able to spend time with his five half-siblings. She says that the move to Arizona with her son is a fresh start to escape a sea of grief, and to be close to family members. "I feel good about this decision," she wrote in an affidavit. "After having just lost three children, I realize life is shorter than ever."

Ginger Bucklin's petition lays out a pattern of instability on the part of Michelle Bucklin, who since the boy's birth asked the Bucklins to help her care for him.

They gladly did so, Ginger Bucklin wrote in court documents, from changing the boy's diapers and rocking him to sleep to enrolling him in kindergarten and T-ball. He had a bedroom in the home and considered Luke Bucklin his father.

In her petition, Ginger Bucklin said Michelle Bucklin, who was recently hospitalized on a psychiatric hold, "is exhibiting extreme disregard for his emotional well-being by her decision removing him from Minnesota so abruptly, particularly when she acknowledges her own precarious mental health."

In court documents, attorney Swanson responded that Michelle Bucklin always cared for her son, but accepted help from the Bucklins when it was offered. The hospitalization was the result of situational depression "in the face of an unthinkable tragedy."

Attorneys for Ginger Bucklin did not return telephone calls. Michelle Bucklin did not return a telephone message. The Bucklin family declined comment, citing the child's interest.

"The Bucklin family appreciates your respect for their privacy at this time, particularly because there is a minor child involved," the family said through a spokeswoman, Bonnie Harris.

In a letter dated after the crash, the boy's biological father, who was since deported to Jamaica after serving prison time in Minnesota, gave Ginger Bucklin permission to raise the boy, though the letter does not appear to be legally binding.

"Over the years you have given selflessly to [his] overall well-being," Leroy Ruddock wrote. "Children are sensitive when it comes to those who treat them well. And you, Ginger Bucklin, have treated my son well."

Star Tribune staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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