A Dakota County jury on Thursday convicted Sandra Grazzini-Rucki of six felonies for hiding her two teenage daughters from their father for more than two years, in a divorce and custody battle-turned-missing persons case filled with plot twists.
After a weeklong trial, the jury took about five hours to find Grazzini-Rucki, 50, of Elko, guilty of six counts of deprivation of parental rights in connection with taking and concealing the girls and violating child custody orders following a bitter divorce from her husband, David Rucki.
Following the verdict, Grazzini-Rucki was arrested and released after posting $100,000 bail. Her sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 21. The county attorney's office will seek an aggravated sentence against her, saying she caused Rucki "particular cruelty" for depriving him of his daughters for two years.
Prosecutors alleged that Grazzini-Rucki took her daughters, Samantha and Gianna Rucki, then 14 and 13, to a western Minnesota horse ranch and left them there until they were found by police last October — 2½ years after they went missing.
Experts say it's not rare that a divorce and custody case would result in felony convictions of a parent, but the circumstances of the case — including how long the girls were missing — makes it an outlier.
Michael Boulette, a divorce lawyer for Minneapolis law firm Lindquist & Vennum, said in most cases a parent knows that their child is with the other parent.
"These sort of cases of concealment of a child are very rare," Boulette said. "Very seldom is that we don't know where these kids are."
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said he's seen similar cases in the state, which have resulted in criminal convictions of a parent concealing their children.
"What's rare and unique about this case is that these children were hidden, in essence, for 2½ years," Backstrom said. "That is not something I have ever seen before, and it's quite disturbing."
In a news release, Backstrom called Grazzini-Rucki's actions "inappropriate and unacceptable."
"The almost 2½ years that these children were hidden led to significant trauma to her daughters and caused significant adverse impacts to the rest of her family," Backstrom said.
Michelle MacDonald, an attorney for Grazzini-Rucki and who at one point was a person of interest in the case, said the verdict is the culmination of many painful years following the split from her husband.
"And now she's going back to jail," she said. "Getting a divorce shouldn't have to lead to something like this."
Rucki, who was in court Thursday, said it was "overwhelming" to hear the verdict announced.
"We've been through a lot," the father of five said. "It was bittersweet. On a personal level, I was happy to see she was finally able to be held accountable."
'To protect them from harm'
Days after the girls ran away in April 2013 in the midst of a tumultuous divorce between their parents, Grazzini-Rucki and her friend Dede Evavold drove them to a horse ranch near Herman, Minn. The ranch was run by Doug and Gina Dahlen, who were sympathetic to Grazzini-Rucki's claims that her children were failed by the family court system. The Dahlens and Evavold also face felony charges of deprivation of parental rights for allegedly helping to hide the girls.
Before they disappeared, the sisters, now 18 and 16, repeatedly accused their father of abuse, but a court-appointed psychologist concluded that Grazzini-Rucki had brainwashed them, and a judge granted full custody to David Rucki.
Assistant Dakota County Attorney Kathryn Keena told the jury in the Hastings courtroom last week that, after dropping the girls off at the ranch, Grazzini-Rucki didn't see them again. She allegedly promised to see them in a few days, but instead left them there for more than two years while the girls' father frantically searched for them, Keena said.
In his opening statements, Stephen Grigsby told jurors that his client, Grazzini-Rucki, was only saving the girls from an abusive father and a disruptive home life.
"This was to protect them from harm," he said.
Grigsby told the jury that David Rucki, the girls' father, was a "difficult" man and "terrorized" his family. During the custody dispute, the girls and their siblings were placed in the care of their two aunts.
The April night the girls ran away, Samantha called and told her mother their plans.
"They begged their mother not to put them back in that situation," Grigsby said. "And she didn't."
Grigsby said the trial was "far worse than a grueling time," for his client.
"This is among the single worst experiences you can get," Grigsby said. "It's like a diagnosis of cancer."
'So much damage here'
Jurors later heard from Samantha, whose testimony marked the first time either of the girls talked firsthand about the ordeal. Judge Karen Asphaug allowed her to be in a room away from the jury and gallery to lessen the trauma.
"The last time I saw my mother," Samantha said, "was a long, long time ago."
Rucki said testifying in court was difficult for his daughter.
"The last place she wants to be is pitted up against her mother," he said Thursday. "She loves her mother. All my children love their mother."
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.
The girls moved back in with their father around Christmas and returned to school. Rucki said several weeks ago that the family is "healing," and Samantha recently graduated from high school. Plenty of healing still lies ahead, he said.
"These kids are going to have to deal with this their whole life," he said. "There's so much damage here."
Karen Zamora • 612-673-4647