The lights in a Hastings courtroom dimmed, and Samantha Rucki appeared on four flat-screen monitors. She sat in a small conference room, her head slumped down, cheek resting on her hand, her eyes pointed down to a table as a court reporter sat on her right and a judge to her left. Her voice was barely audible when she confirmed her name.
“The last time I saw my mother,” she said Thursday, “was a long, long time ago.”
It was the first time in more than three years that her mother, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki, saw her daughter. From a courtroom a floor below, she watched, stone-faced.
The mother subpoenaed her daughter to testify in a fourth day of a trial where she’s facing six felony charges of deprivation of parental rights for allegedly hiding the girls on a rural Minnesota horse farm.
Samantha and her father, David, had attempted to fight the summons to testify. Judge Karen Asphaug ruled the girl’s testimony admissible in court but allowed her to be in a room away from the jury and gallery to lessen the trauma.
Grazzini-Rucki’s attorney, Stephen Grigsby, had promised to make his questioning “as painless and brief as possible.”
But a few minutes into the questions, Samantha, now 18, broke down in tears as she described the day she and her sister went missing. Before that, her parents were in the midst of a bitter divorce. They were constantly fighting. She saw her father grab her mother once. “I heard a lot of screaming,” she said.
The judge presiding over the divorce dispute had ordered the children to live with an aunt on Grazzini-Rucki’s side.
But then one day in April 2013 the kids were brought to a police station and told they would be living with an aunt on their father’s side.
“I wanted to go home to my mom,” Samantha testified, her head down, bangs covering the top of her face. “I just wanted it all to end.”
Once she got to the home with her aunt, Samantha said she “freaked out.” She went into a bathroom and turned on the shower so no one could hear her. Then she called her mother.
“I wanted her to help me,” she said. “It was my idea.”
She said her sister begged to come with her. The two ran from their home, barefoot across the snow without coats, into their mother’s truck.
“Did you beg her not to return you?” Grigsby asked Samantha.
“Yes,” she replied.
Later, she said their mother took them to a rural Minnesota horse ranch.
According to the court charges, Grazzini-Rucki told the kids she would see them soon, but never did.
It would be more than two years later that police found the girls in November 2015. Samantha said she told police she wanted to run from them.
“I just didn’t want to go through all the court stuff again,” she said.
Contrary to statements she made before running away, Samantha had said her father never hit her, and she never saw him hit any of her four siblings.
Samantha talked about going to a police station last month to talk with police about having run away years ago. She didn’t want to do that, she told the jury, because it would be used in her mother’s trial.
Grazzini-Rucki testified afterward, as she and her attorney continued to build their case that she hid the girls to protect them from abuse. She and her attorney went through surveillance photos of David Rucki she said were taken at her home before the girls ran away. Grazzini-Rucki said she lived in fear of her ex-husband and that police never provided the help they needed.
In earlier testimony, Rucki denied ever harming his ex-wife or children.
Testimony is scheduled to resume Monday.