On the surface, the abduction and death of Jacob Wetterling in 1989 and the murder of Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker in 2012 appear to have little in common. But two men who were named a “person of interest” in each case sat side by side Tuesday with their attorneys to announce their plans to file separate lawsuits against law enforcement investigators who they say wrongly targeted them.
The suits, on behalf of Dan Rassier, in the Wetterling case, and Ryan Larson, in the Decker case, will be filed by the end of the year, attorneys Mike Padden and Devon Jacob said.
Among allegations in both cases: Falsifying affidavits, cruel and harmful allegations, fraudulent warrants and physical assaults against both men, improper training of investigators and ignoring pertinent information.
It wasn’t clear Tuesday exactly who will be named as defendants in the suits, but Padden named several entities and people, including the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff John Sanner and Capt. Pam Jensen, now retired, and the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and agent Ken McDonald. Jensen and McDonald investigated both the Wetterling and Decker cases, the attorneys said.
Sanner was on vacation and could not be reached for comment Tuesday night. Current County Attorney Janelle Kendall said she would have no comment.
Investigators first took DNA samples from Rassier, 61, in the Jacob Wetterling case in 2004. He and his parents own farm property that was closest to where 11-year-old Jacob, his brother and a friend were stopped by a masked man with a gun. Rassier was named a “person of interest” in 2010, when officials searched his property with backhoes, trucks and dogs. They discovered no usable evidence against Rassier.
But Rassier continued to be questioned — up until Danny Heinrich was arrested on child pornography charges and later admitted to the kidnapping and murder of Jacob Wetterling. Heinrich, who led authorities to where Jacob’s remains were unearthed, was sentenced Monday to 20 years in prison on the child pornography charges; a plea agreement called for no charges in the 1989 crimes against Jacob Wetterling and against Jared Scheierl, who was molested by Heinrich earlier in 1989.
Padden said Tuesday that the FBI established a definitive link between the Wetterling and Scheierl cases. Stearns County officials knew about that link but either downplayed it or did nothing, he alleged.
Said Rassier, “I’m thinking the whole Jacob [Wetterling] situation never should have happened. This Heinrich guy should have been locked up before it even became possible.
“I think we need leadership change in the sheriff’s department, the BCA,” he said. “It’s pathetic to see what’s happened to the case with Jacob. I’m right in the middle of it, and they’re trying to pin the most heinous, unthinkable thing on me ... and I’m learning even in that interview in 2004, McDonald and Jensen didn’t do their homework.
Cold Spring case
Attorney Jacob had many of the same allegations against authorities. Officer Decker was killed Nov. 29, 2012, after responding as backup to a call in Cold Spring, population 4,025. Larson lived in an apartment above the shooting scene and was the subject of the call from his mother, who couldn’t reach him. (Attorney Jacob said he had turned off his phone and gone to bed.)
Police smashed down his door while he was sleeping and arrested him. He was named a suspect in Decker’s murder and held for five days without charges.
“Investigators intentionally misled the court in a sworn affidavit” to obtain a search warrant, attorney Jacob said. They swabbed Larson’s hands for gunshot residue and found none but neglected to include that information in the affidavit, he said, citing more deficiencies he said characterized the Decker investigation.
The other officer, Greg Reiter, who called Decker to the scene, “did not immediately report the shooting, pursue the suspect or check on Decker’s welfare,” the attorney said. Despite lack of evidence, “investigators tried to pin this horrible crime on Mr. Larson.”
Larson had to quit school. His reputation and employment possibilities were ruined by false allegations, his attorney said. He was diagnosed as having PTSD. It wasn’t until August 2013 that the BCA said Eric Thomes, who killed himself the previous January, was the probable shooter. Earlier this week, a jury decided against Larson in a defamation suit he had brought against the media for reporting on police statements.
Still, attorney Jacob said, authorities refuse to close the case and refuse to apologize to Larson or return belongings they seized from him.
Both attorneys said they will seek financial compensation for their clients. But both want more, too.
“The reality is there’s only so much a court can provide,” attorney Jacob said. “I often encourage settlements because [then] the parties can work together for nonmonetary terms.
“Part of this is getting his questions answered, getting his name cleared, making it clear...what really happened and proving what law enforcement already knows but are keeping secret,” Jacob said.
Padden posed myriad questions for Sheriff Sanner, including, “Don’t you feel apologies are in order for Mr. Rassier and Mr. Larson?”