When I started blogging for the Star Tribune, way back in April 2014, I never thought I'd be writing about missing children. My background is in politics and most of my posts were focused on politics.
Until last April.
There were three events, occurring between April 13 and 20, 2015, that shifted my attention to the disappearance of two missing sisters from Lakeville. They had vanished exactly two years prior on April 19, 2013.
Just after 11 a.m. on April 13, 2015, I received a phone call from Michelle MacDonald, the Republican-endorsed candidate for Minnesota Supreme Court in 2014.
She told me she had applied for yet another vacancy on the Minnesota Supreme Court, created by the upcoming retirement of Associate Justice Alan C. Page.
She lost in 2014 to incumbent Justice David Lillehaug by just 7 points. Her campaign generated numerous headlines, including a recurring item about being arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and resisting arrest in 2013.
Whatever the case, it was news that MacDonald was now seeking an appointment from Governor Mark Dayton. So I published a post later that very day.
I didn't know MacDonald’s name would appear in another Star Tribune story just five days later.
On Saturday, April 18, 2015, reporter Brandon Stahl filed a story on two missing sisters from Lakeville named Samantha and Gianna Rucki.
As detailed by Stahl, Samantha and Gianna ran away from their father's home on April 19, 2013. They hadn't been seen or heard from since.
Police labeled the girls’ mother, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki, a “person of interest” in the case. Stahl's story quoted police as saying they didn't know “how to get ahold” of Grazzini-Rucki. It also mentioned that Sandra's attorney was Michelle MacDonald – the very person I spoke with earlier that week.
On Monday, April 20, 2015, I received another call from MacDonald. She wanted me to write a follow-up story about her application.
I shifted the conversation to Stahl’s story, which seemed much less important to MacDonald than a potential job on the Minnesota Supreme Court. Nevertheless, MacDonald proceeded to make a series of unnerving statements about Grazzini-Rucki and her two missing children.
After my initial conversation with MacDonald, I found myself questioning my ability to write about missing children. I doubted anyone would take my posts seriously. Yet I felt I needed to do something.
I had several more phone conversations with MacDonald over the next two days. During one of these early exchanges, I noticed she kept responding to my questions by listing her grievances with the family court system. I asked her to focus for just a few moments on where the missing kids might be living.
“You’re missing the point," she said. "They’re gone.”
It was chilling.
I pressed MacDonald to speculate on what she thought might have happened. She offered two theories: The girls may have been murdered by their father, David Rucki. Or they were hidden by Judge David Knutson, who presided over the bulk of the Rucki family's legal dramas in court.
These were two implausible theories. I came to believe MacDonald was blocking my efforts to find out what happened to the girls.
I started asking myself hard questions, and I would keep asking myself those questions over the next seven months: What if my kids were missing? What would I want someone to do?
My answered never changed: I would want someone to do something. I wanted to do something.
I didn't publish anything for the first few days. Then I wrote my first of almost 20 stories about Samantha and Gianna Rucki. I confess, I took every opportunity to post photos of the two missing girls. I hoped that if people continued to read about them, and see their faces, someone would come forward with information.
A tale of two parents
Meeting David Rucki was one of my most emotional moments in writing about the case. I had written a few stories about his missing daughters before we met in May.
Physically, David is a big man – tall and broad. But his face looked lost and sullen. You could see the pain and sadness as he spoke about his missing daughters.
At one point, I was so overcome I had to excuse myself from our table at a restaurant in Minneapolis. I went to the restroom, splashed cold water on my face and took a moment to compose myself.
I kept hearing the despair in David's voice, but I also could see his resolve to reunite with his children. We talked a little bit about the issues with his ex-wife that led them to family court. But most of our conversation concerned his daughters. He was hyper-focused on their wellbeing.
This was a big contrast with Sandra Grazzini-Rucki.
I had spoken with the girls' mother by phone early in the process. MacDonald, her attorney, called me with Sandra on the line just a few days after Stahl’s initial story ran. Both MacDonald and Sandra were preoccupied with Judge Knutson and procedural disputes in family court. I found they didn't want to discuss the search for Samantha and Gianna.
I spoke with Sandra by phone only once. But after reviewing court paperwork and her public comments before a warrant was issued for her arrest, I would characterize her as focusing her energy on working with MacDonald on a legal strategy to fight everything in family court.
What role do reporters play?
Over the following months, I chased down leads, cultivated sources and knocked on doors across Minnesota to talk with people who may have seen Sandra, Samantha or Gianna during the last two years.
This was new territory for me. I had never reported on missing kids, let alone trying to pinpoint their whereabouts.
I was always mindful and respectful that numerous law enforcement agencies, led by the Lakeville Police Department, were looking actively for Samantha and Gianna.
In May 2013, FOX 9 aired an interview they conducted with Samantha and Gianna after they ran from their Lakeville home. The interview with the missing kids was included in a larger story about the custody dispute between their parents.
In working on a story involving missing children, I believe the media should not compromise or hinder an investigation by law enforcement.
I also strongly believe the media should assist law enforcement in providing information through appropriate channels. This respects the authority of law enforcement without compromising the independent role of the media.
Over the summer, my sources provided information that led me to a location near where the girls were found less than two weeks ago. I'm convinced that if I had knocked on one too many doors, I might have made it more difficult for law enforcement to find Samantha and Gianna.
If FOX 9 had cooperated with law enforcement in 2013, it's possible Samantha and Gianna would have been reunited with their family much sooner. In any case, I feel it was is inappropriate to interview these minors without the consent of their legal guardian. The fact that FOX 9 interviewed Samantha and Gianna while they were missing needs to be explored and openly discussed.
Over the course of reporting nearly 20 stories during the last seven months, I interviewed and communicated with many people. Some may face criminal charges for their role in the disappearance of Samantha and Gianna.
I am not a member of law enforcement, a prosecutor, nor a member of the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board. I have not been deputized by anyone to assign guilt or innocence to the people involved in keeping Samantha and Gianna away from their father.
Here's what I will say: Numerous people came into contact with Samantha and Gianna while they were missing. And those people didn't do the right thing.
Adults, many with families of their own, turned a blind eye to the welfare of two children in favor of pursuing their personal vendettas with the judicial system. Fanaticism is the only word to describe it.
Day in court
During a brief hearing this Monday in Dakota County, Judge Michael J. Mayer described the life of Samantha and Gianna as “a circus.”
But it looks like the carnival will soon end. Judge Mayer removed Samantha and Gianna from foster care and into a reunification program, with the eventual goal of bringing them home to their father and siblings.
In his final remarks, Judge Mayer acknowledged that the “ongoing criminal investigation” into the disappearance of Samantha and Gianna was “far from over.”
Sandra, who was handcuffed and wearing restraints, showed no emotion when Judge Mayer mentioned the criminal investigation. Sandra is being held in jail on $1 million bail. She faces six felony charges for deprivation of parental rights.
As the only person in the courtroom in handcuffs, three members of the Dakota County Sheriff’s department supervised Sandra as she shuffled away from the hearing, awkwardly attempting to walk while in restraints.
David Rucki's exit from the courtroom was quite different. He walked out with confidence and his head up high, with his attorney, Lisa Elliot, by his side. Elliot has represented David from the start of his legal problems with Sandra. Meanwhile, Sandra has been represented by numerous attorneys over the years.
Through all of the work over the last seven months, I never saw or spoke with Samantha and Gianna Rucki. I have not made a request to interview them, nor will I ask.
My hope is Samantha and Gianna now will have the opportunity for a normal and productive life in a loving and healthy family.
Blogging with gratitude
My final comments about this story are for Brandon Stahl and the Star Tribune.
On the afternoon of Nov. 19, 2015, Brandon called me to let me know Samantha and Gianna had been found alive.
To hear directly from Brandon was the perfect way to hear such fantastic news.
In the last seven months, Brandon and I spoke on countless occasions. I continued to believe this was his story. It was very generous of him to take a few minutes away from the story to talk with me.
I also want to thank the Star Tribune for their continued support as I reported on this case.
I never disclosed this publicly, but I received multiple threats against my personal safety as a direct result of reporting on this case.
I have a family of my own. I did my best to balance my reporting with the needs of my family. I tried to be responsible about ensuring our safety.
It was during these very difficult moments that I relied on the guidance I received from the Star Tribune.
This story needed to be told and I will be forever grateful that the Star Tribune gave me a role in telling it.