LAKEVILLE, Minnesota June 26, 2016 – The months between the day Sandra Grazzini-Rucki was removed from her home and her children’s lives and the day two of her daughters ran away were full of chaos, terror, and turbulence, according to court records, recordings made by the children, and interviews conducted by CDN.
The divorce between Sandra Grazzini-Rucki and her ex-husband, David Rucki, became a media sensation after two of their five children disappeared in April 2013. ABC’s “20/20” highlighted the Rucki story in April 2016, and raised questions about the allegations of abuse put forward by Sandra Grazzni-Rucki.
On Sept. 7, 2012, Judge David Knutson, who had presided over their divorce since 2011, held an “emergency telephone conference,” according to an order he signed later that day.
This telephone conference consisted of Knutson; Lisa Henry, Grazzini-Rucki’s attorney; Lisa Elliott, the attorney for David Rucki; and Julie Friedrich, the guardian ad litem on the case.
That day he ordered Sandra Grazzini-Rucki out of her home and issued and order forbidding her to have contact with her five children. He also ordered that Tammy Love, her ex-husband’s sister, move into her home to take care of her five children.
James Gilbertson was appointed the therapist for the children by Judge Knutson on the same day.
When the children came home from school and learned of the court order, four of the five ran away and began living with Nancy Olson, their mother’s sister.
Only the oldest child, Nico, agreed to continue living in the family home.
Court records showed that Nico, who disavowed his mother and claimed no abuses occurred against him or his mother, had consistently sided with his father since before his sisters disappeared in April 2013.
The children were told a variety of stories about why they were no longer allowed to see their mother by Gilbertson and others.
“They’d sit there and one moment they’d say she was in Philadelphia, then she signed over her rights and the next moment they’d say, ‘well, we haven’t had any contact with her.’ We’d be like, ‘you just told us she moved to Philadelphia’ so their lies would just overlap.” Sami Rucki, Sandra Grazzini Rucki’s daughter, said in an audio tape from April 2013 that was posted on YouTube addressing the issue.
Sami Rucki said in the same tape that the children were told that unless there was a video of their mother being beaten, their allegations of abuse had no credibility.
Meanwhile, Lisa Henry, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki’s attorney, left the case on Nov. 1, 2012, leaving Grazzini-Rucki to represent herself until Michelle MacDonald stepped in officially on Jan. 8, 2013.
“Following a review hearing on Nov. 5, 2012 (With Sandra representing herself), the Court issued an order stating that the parties shall cooperate with and follow all instructions of Dr. Gilbertson regarding contact and parenting time,” Knutson stated in an order.
Though Judge Knutson’s court order stated that neither parent should have any contact with any of their children, David Rucki violated that order on Nov. 29, 2012.
“Jay Olsen, Nancy Olsen’s husband and Defendant’s former brother-in-law testified at the trial. Mr. Olsen testified that on Nov. 29, 2012, at approximately 6:45 PM he was at Eastview Elementary School in Lakeville, Minnesota for a school program with Defendant’s four youngest children,” according to a court order. “Mr. Olsen testified that he observed that Defendant David Victor Rucki was present at the school program.”
David Rucki was charged with contempt of court, but those charges were dismissed in April 2013 by Judge Knutson.
Knutson presided over every single matter in the Rucki divorce after he came on the case in 2011 and also presided over hearings for orders for protection filed by Sandra Grazzini-Rucki.
All of this was done at Knutson’s request. “The above referenced matter has been assigned to the Honorable David Knutson,” a letter written by Dakota County Clerk Susan Reichenbach to Sandra Grazzini-Rucki’s then attorney Kathryn Graves in 2011 stated. “All future hearings shall be scheduled before Judge David Knutson.”
MacDonald argued unsuccessfully all the way to the United States Supreme Court that this violated her client’s due process, as judges were supposed to be selected at random.
“He thereafter proceeded to issue over 3400 directives to regulate this family,” MacDonald stated in a brief to the Supreme Court of the damage caused by Knutson.
But in this matter it was David Rucki’s attorney who requested that Knutson hear her client’s contempt of court motion.
“I appreciate your help in scheduling the pre-trial in front of Judge Knutson relating to citation number 191100001160 involving our client David V Rucki,” a letter written by Rita Martin paralegal for Lisa Elliott, David Rucki’s attorney, to the District Court Administrator.
Lisa Elliott did not respond to a number of emails for comment for this story.
Meanwhile, Knutson gave Gilbertson, who had been on the case only since September 2012, wide-sweeping power to facilitate parenting time.
“Following a review hearing on November 5, 2012, the Court issued an order stating that the parties shall cooperate with and follow all instructions of Dr. Gilbertson regarding contact and parenting time,” Knutson stated in an order. “Following another review hearing on December 12, 2012, the Court issued an order further specifying the steps were to take to facilitate the children’s therapy with Dr. Gilbertson and stating that the parties shall have contact with the children at all times as directed by Dr. Gilbertson.”
Gilbertson decided to force the children into reunifying with their father despite their fears.
“At this time, it is my opinion that we need an assertive stance from the court to order these children to order these children to attend face-to-face sessions with their father.” Gilbertson wrote in a letter from Feb. 6, 2013. “The children are of the belief and will state it openly that no one can force them to see their father if that is their choice.
“There are two prevailing emotional themes that these children speak to: One is fear of being in the presence of their father given what they allege to he being an angry and violent person. A second theme is the anger they have over his alleged mistreatment and a corollary of this, a belief that their father is morally flawed, i.e. womanizer, drinks too much, and is hiding money.”
Gilbertson forced this therapy despite the children reporting disturbing behavior on Gilberton’s part.
“He kept rubbing me and I told him to stop. I’m like ‘can you please stop?’” Sami Rucki said in the same audio tape posted on You Tube, “Then he put his hand on my back almost like what couples do. It’s disgusting and I’ve told him to stop numerous times when he puts his hands on my shoulder and this is not just in the last even when it happens with him…But this time was different; there was a bulge in his pants this time.”
Gilbertson did not respond to an email for comment, and Beau Berentson, public affairs officer for the Minnesota courts, also did not respond to a number of emails for comment for this story.
Sandra Grazzini-Rucki was allowed two more visits with her children in January 2013, an hour supervised by Gilbertson at a local Chuck-E Cheese and another, in February 2013 and also supervised by Gilbertson, at the Mall of America in Minnesota.
Only four of Sandra Grazzini-Rucki’s children showed to the Chuck-E Cheese outing. Nico did not attend, and refused to speak to his mother or even come near her, during the second visit, according to Grazzini-Rucki.
On Feb. 26, 2013, the first hearing with Sandra Grazzini-Rucki’s new lawyer, Michelle MacDonald, was held. At that hearing, MacDonald asked Knutson to vacate all his rulings and restore the family to the arrangement they had prior to Sept. 7, 2012.
Rather than ruling on her motion, Knutson held what he referred to as a “listening session” in which each of the five children addressed him.
“(T)he children reported to him (Knutson) that they wanted to go back to their mother. They did not know what was going on. They reported to him what they had witnessed, abuse of themselves and abuse of their mother by their father,” MacDonald said in an argument in front of the U.S. District Court on Jan, 10, 2014. “And in that listening session, it can only be described as a Judge- as he spoke to each child, he got more and more coercive. And he said, you will follow any order I might make.”
Each of the children, except for Nico, asked the judge to allow them to live with their mother. Nico was more balanced, saying that, if neither was allowed to see the children, they must have done something wrong.
Nancy Olsen also informed the court at that hearing that she was no longer capable of taking care of the four children who were in her care.
The next day, MacDonald ordered transcripts of the “listening session” from the court and following the request, Knutson ordered those transcripts sealed.
Knutson quietly ruled against MacDonald’s motion after the girls went missing.
On the morning of April 19, 2013, the children were taken to the local police station.
“I was taking to the police dept. on Friday April 19th; I was told there was some kind of meeting when I went into the room it was Tammy, Nancy, Jay and an officer they had Gilbertson on a speaker phone he stated that we were all going to Tammy’s she had 100 percent custody and Gilbertson said and I quote ‘this was the plan from the beginning,'” Sam Rucki said in a letter she sent after disappearing.
Then Knutson issued a ruling forcing the children to live with David’s aunt, Tammy Love.
Sami Rucki wrote in a letter after disappearing, “We fought back begging them not to l put us in care of Tammy that we were afraid for our lives and told them that Tammy and my father had abused us but they didn’t care they put us into tammy car and then we had a police escort to the Ireland place house, the police made us go into the house once the police put (us) into the house he left, we repeated over and over again that we did not want to go that we were afraid for our lives we wanted to go our mothers.”
Sam Rucki, in the same letter, said her aunt was also abusive. “I’m in fear for my life to live or to even be in the Ireland place home with Tammy Love. She has physical emotionally, verberelly (sic) abuse. I have told every one of my fears and begged them not to put me with her but they will not listen. I’m so afraid. I have told everyone about the abuse that I have suffered from my father and his sister Tammy. I was also have seen my father physical attacked my mother. 5 years ago my father’s mother (Vicki Rucki) slapped me across the face and said I was a “little f###king bitch”, she did this because when we were with my father one day and my mom was at the store my father’s parents showed up and said they were taking us to Arizona I told her my mom had said no that she could not take us and she said I didn’t have a choice she grabbed the 3 little ones Gianna, Nia, Gino my dad and both his parents grabbed the kids put them in the car and his parents left with them I locked myself in the bathroom and called my mom. My dad would not say how to get a hold of them. It was 5 days till we found that his parents had taken them to Arizona. My mom went to get them from PHX (Phoenix). Because they had taken them without her permission they only gave one of them back and it took more day till they would return the other ones. I have watched my dad beat my mom,”
Within a half hour of the police leaving, the oldest daughters, Sami and Gianna, disappeared.