Did 20/20 manipulate the Rucki story to hide abuse?

"20/20" ran a program entitled "Footprints in the Snow" about the disappearance in April 2013 of Samantha and Gianna Rucki; Did they tell the whole story.


The exclusion of David Rucki’s criminal history was only part of what has “20/20” under fire; they also missed key elements of the divorce and custody.

In May 2011, before Judge Timothy Wermager, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki was granted her divorce, physical custody of the five children, ownership of the family home, and $3,673 in child support and $10,000 monthly in alimony, according to Wermager’s decree.

Shortly after this divorce decree was finalized, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki said her ex-husband sat the family, including her and her five children, around the kitchen table and threatened to kill all of them.

“I have six bullets, one for each of you,” he said, according to her.

Soon after, one of her daughters, Samantha, received a voicemail with the sound of six bullets being fired.

David Rucki did not dispute the incident occurred but said he threatened to kill himself, not his family, and denied he left the voicemail.

This incident led to Sandra Grazzini-Rucki’s getting an order for protection. Even though this incident was later confirmed in statements by Sandra’s daughter , it was recounted in a 2013 local Fox broadcast about the story. However, once again, “20/20” did not mention it.

In June 2011, Judge David Knutson replaced Wermager on the divorce, which was still finalized. Soon after, Rucki hired Elliott and challenged the decree, arguing fraud.

Knutson opened up the divorce and ordered an evidentiary hearing. On the second day of this hearing, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki’s then attorney, Kathryn Graves, did not show up.

Rather than providing a continuance, Judge Knutson forced Grazzini-Rucki, a flight attendant, to proceed pro se, “I asked for an attorney; I requested an attorney; I practically pleaded for an attorney, and he said, ‘I’m ordering you pro se. It’s my courtroom and I can order you to have an attorney.’” Sandra said on a local television show about the incident.

Soon after, Judge Knutson ordered the divorce opened up and began ordering professionals to look into allegations of parental alienation.

None of this was revealed on “20/20.”

On Sept. 7, 2012, Sandra was told to vacate her home and have no further contact with her children with her sister-in-law; David Rucki’s sister was ordered to move into her home to temporarily act as their guardian.

While this incident was revealed, it was not stated that this was all done without Sandra’s knowledge and based on a letter written by a court order psychiatrist who spent less than an hour interviewing Sandra and her children.

In April 2013, two of her daughters, Sam and Gianna, ran away, leaving only a trail of footprints in the snow outside the home, and their disappearance became the centerpiece of the “20/20” episode.

It was long suspected that Sandra Grazzini-Rucki had taken the girls and was hiding them. “20/20” interviewed an attorney, Dale Nathan, who claimed he was in the car with her the night they disappeared, along with Dede Evavold, who claimed she secured living quarters for the girls.

The girls were eventually found at the White Horses Ranch in Herman, Minnesota, where the couple who owns the ranch, the Dahlens, told 20/20 that Sandra drove them there that evening and made occasional calls to their home to check on the girls.

The girls were found in November 2015 and the Dahlens, Evavold and Sandra Grazzini-Rucki all face criminal charges as a result of the girls’ running away.

Sandra Grazzini-Rucki initially denied having anything to do with the disappearance, but when confronted with this evidence, Vargas proclaimed, “If you’re lying to me about that, what else might be lying to me about?”

A visibly flustered Grazzini-Rucki declined to comment, saying she could not discuss the case.

While both girls were missing, Judge Knutson ordered a new custody trial, which began on Sept. 11, 2013. With her new attorney, Michelle MacDonald, Sandra put on her initial case that day.

That evening, Michelle MacDonald took the unusual step of filing a federal lawsuit against Knutson and asked him to recuse himself due to bias, a request he denied the next day.

During a break the next day during the hearing, MacDonald was escorted into a back office by members of the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office, who repeatedly asked for her name.

“You know my name,” MacDonald said.

She was subsequently handcuffed, placed in a wheelchair and had her hairpiece, glasses and shoes removed while sheriff’s officers taunted her.

When she began to cry and beg for her husband, she said the officers called them “crocodile tears.”

She was then wheeled back into the courtroom, still handcuffed, with no shoes or glasses, and strapped to the chair where Knutson, expressing shock, stated, “something must have happened.”

He demanded that MacDonald proceed with the trial, in handcuffs with no notes and even no client, who was told the trial had ended because her attorney was detained.

Multiple emails to Beau Berentsen, spokesperson for the Minnesota courts, were unreturned.

“The incident you raised regarding Michelle MacDonald in court, when she refused to cooperate with court officers who were citing her for taking unauthorized photographs, certainly had nothing to do with the Rucki marriage or divorce and did not warrant inclusion in our report,” Dooley said of why the incident was not included in their report.

Dooley did not respond when it was pointed out that this incident led to MacDonald’s being forced to represent her client while handcuffed to a wheelchair and whether any judicial decision resulting from such an event can be considered legitimate.

MacDonald said she spent the night in jail and was released more than 24 hours after being detained and never charged; she is now suing the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office for $7.5 million.

A motion to dismiss was recently denied though some charges were dropped largely due to sweeping immunity enjoyed by the Sheriff’s Department but that case continues.

Though MacDonald provided “20/20” with video inside the courtroom, in the holding area and in the jail cell, and a copy of her civil rights lawsuit, and walked them through those events, the program chose not to mention this incident in the broadcast.

Instead, “20/20” merely said that Knutson subsequently gave David Rucki full custody of their five children, “which David sees as a validation.”

Judge Knutson is not without controversy.  In 2013, he sentenced a child rapist, Dennis Michael Roy, to time served. Roy ended up serving 489 days while awaiting trial and received 20 years probation as part of the sentence.

He was convicted of molesting a family member who was under 13; while local media wrote about the sentence, Knutson was not identified as the one responsible.

The most devastating portion of the program for Sandra was when her son took back everything he’d said years earlier. During the program, “20/20” featured a Facebook post from when her son Nico, now 19, then 15 and he called his dad a bad guy; he told Vargas that Sandra hovered over him when he wrote the post and coached him, validating allegations of parental alienation.

He also said his mom tried to convince him that his father abused him and the children, something he now says never happened.

Sandra told CDN that she did not hover over her son while he wrote the post and was not aware of it until weeks later.

Beyond that, the Facebook post was not the only time when he backed his mother.

On June 21, 2011, David Rucki was detained by police after he violated the restraining order by showing up at their home and rummaging through the mailbox. According to the police report, the event was witnessed by Sandra and her children, including Nico.

“Sandra stated that at 17:10 hrs her children began to yell and lock the doors in the residence because the saw David in his vehicle going through the mailbox.”

“While speaking with Sandra Officer Hakanson spoke with Sandra’s children in a different room away from her,” the report continued, “Officer Hakanson advised the children had given him the same account of events as Sandra had provided.”

Rucki later admitted to being at the home and was issued a citation for violating the restraining order.

Michael Rhedin said he had several conversations with Nico about the abuse Nico suffered at the hands of his father. “He told me he (David Rucki) knocked him (Nico) around.”

Of the difference between what he heard and what Nico said to “20/20,” “Either he was lying to me or to ’20/20,’” but added he believed Nico was genuine in their conversations.

He said other Rucki children also recounted to him incidents of abuse by their father and said he put no credence in the idea that Sam brainwashed them.

Rhedin said that though he not only knows Sandra well but also her children and could have provided his recollections of events and alleged abuse, “20/20” made no effort to interview him; he did email a package of documents to producer Beth Mullins.

Nico Rucki did not respond to a message for comment through Facebook.


The author Michael Volpe wrote the book, Bullied to Death: Chris Mackney’s Kafkaesque Divorce last year and Michelle MacDonald, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki’s current attorney, edited the book and wrote the foreword. They are also currently working on a book project about her professional experience including this case.

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