A federal appeals court has affirmed a lower-court ruling that a man wrongly named a person of interest in the Jacob Wetterling case cannot sue law enforcement investigators for defamation and emotional distress because the suit was filed after the statute of limitations had expired.
In a 34-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in St. Paul in 2017, Daniel Rassier said he didn't know he was being recorded when, in 2009, he told Patty Wetterling that he thought authorities had done a poor job of investigating the abduction of her 11-year-old son, Jacob, decades earlier. Partly in retribution for those comments, Rassier alleged, law enforcement wrongly went after him, digging up his farm property to search for human remains in 2010 and publicly naming him as a "person of interest."
In the suit, he also alleged that Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner, former Capt. Pam Jensen and state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Ken McDonald defamed him and intentionally inflicted emotional distress, among other claims.
The U.S. District Court dismissed the claims because of the statute of limitations on alleged unlawful searches. On Friday, the three-member Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that the emotional distress claim had a two-year limitation and the defamation claim a six-year limitation.
Mike Padden, Rassier's attorney, said Friday that Rassier hired an attorney as soon as the Wetterling case was solved, believing it was unrealistic to sue anyone before the case was solved.
"Many, if not most people in Minnesota, and certainly in Stearns County, thought he was responsible for Jacob's kidnapping. This ruling means that he should have started a lawsuit before the case was solved and even before he retained an attorney," said Padden. "We felt, under the unique circumstances of this case, that equitable rolling was applicable, which the federal judge assigned to the case initially agreed was the case."
Sheriff's Department attorney Jason Hiveley didn't respond to an e-mail for comment. Previously he said "the actions of the Sheriff's Department investigators were reasonable and we believe this case will ultimately be resolved in their favor."
It's unclear if Padden will pursue further legal action.
Danny Heinrich, who confessing to killing Jacob, is serving a 20-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to one count of receiving child pornography. Though he will not be prosecuted for the murder, he could remain in state custody under Minnesota's civil sex offender commitment.
Rassier said Sanner admitted to the retaliation during the search, twice stating to him: "This is what happens when you talk." Rassier knew then that his rights were violated, according to the Appeals Court ruling.
Until Heinrich's confession, Rassier couldn't prove his innocence. The confession came more than six years after law enforcement dug up his property, putting the search past the time frame to file a suit.
When the suit was filed in 2017, Padden called law enforcement's actions "chilling."
"They submitted false information to secure a search warrant," he said. "This could happen to any citizen."
Daniel's mother, Rita Rassier, was also a plaintiff. They were seeking more than $2 million in damages.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465