WASHINGTON, January 23, 2017 — The judges in Sandra Grazzini-Rucki’s criminal and family court case may have previously fixed cases for her ex-husband, raising further doubts about the fairness of their rulings.
On September 8, 2009, David Rucki was arrested by the Lakeville, Minnesota Police Department and charged with disorderly conduct. (Lakeville is in Dakota County, Minnesota.) Rucki currently has two other disorderly conduct convictions, one from a bar fight in 1994 and another from a road rage incident in 2014.
According to a police report provided by the Lakeville Police Department, on September 8, 2009, Rucki threatened his neighbors and swore in front of children younger than three:
“Complainant stated his wife, two children, and six daycare kids ages three and under were in the driveway when suspect approached. He stated the suspect threatened his wife, his son, and called them all assholes while standing in the cul-de-sac in front of their home. While I was speaking with the complainant, he informed me that the suspect drove by as we were speaking and put up his middle finger on his left hand at him. Complainant said that they have had on-going harassment type issues with the suspect and his dogs as a result of operating a home daycare facility. He said suspect’s dogs repeatedly come into his yard when daycare parents and kids arrive, barking and growling and the guests as the children are dropped off. He said they have tried to talk to the suspect in the past to mediate the situation, but that he no longer feels comfortable due to elevated language and behavior.
“I made contact with (victim’s wife) who stated suspect who stated suspect called her a crazy lady and a stupid bitch. She stated she was very upset because of the kids being present and ran into the house to notify her husband. I spoke with juvenile victim (complainant’s daughter), who also cited suspect called her mother a crazy lady and a stupid bitch. In addition, she stated, ‘If any of you assholes ever call the police on me again, I’ll raise holy hell.’ The third victim (complainant’s son) stated suspect said, ‘If you ever come near my property, I will press charges against you for trespassing.’”
When the police officer, Michelle Roberts, attempted to speak to Rucki, Rucki told her to leave his property, according to the police report.
Judge Asphaug’s actions
The case came in front of Judge Karen Asphaug and on December 31, 2009 a preliminary hearing was held.
As a result of the hearing, a trial was scheduled for February 8, 2010. But, on the eve of the trial, the defense filed a motion to dismiss for “lack of probable cause.” That motion was granted without a hearing by Judge Asphaug and the case was thrown out.
This is unusual and inexplicable. A motion to dismiss for lack of probable cause is supposed to be heard during the pre-trial hearing. If a trial date is set, that normally means the probable cause standard has been met. Furthermore, given the number of witnesses to the altercation, dismissing for lack of probable cause is even less appropriate.
A call placed by this writer to Judge Asphaug’s law clerk, Megan Loyas, to request information and clarification was left unreturned. Likewise, a similar email to the Dakota County Prosecutor, James Backstorm, was also left unreturned; and a voicemail and email sent to Monica Jensen, spokesperson for Dakota County Prosecutor’s Office, were also left unreturned.
Continuing down the chain, David Rucki’s attorney for this case was listed as Ryan Wood but a call to his office requesting information and clarification was left unreturned. The prosecutor handling this case was Elliott Knetsch, who is now in private practice, and an email at his work email was left unreturned as well, as was an email sent to the work email address of Lisa Elliott—David Rucki’s current attorney.
The neighbors involved in the above incident received a restraining order shortly after that incident and said in another police report—describing a situation in which David Rucki’s dogs were barking threateningly in their yard—that the incident became so intense, they were forced to install a video camera on top of their home for surveillance and protective purposes.
This incident was not the only time David Rucki appeared before Judge Asphaug on a criminal matter. Rucki also came in front of the judge for violating a restraining order: a restraining order taken out by his ex-wife, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki.
Judge Asphaug’s role in that case was much smaller, as she conducted only one hearing. Yet it’s noteworthy because in that case David Rucki faced a series of different judges, often appearing before a new judge for each hearing. That is the proper way for a criminal matter to proceed.
Yet when his ex-wife, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki, was tried for parental deprivation due to her role in hiding two of their daughters from him, Judge Asphaug took over all elements of the case.
The judge issued a $500,000 bond, which assured Grazzini-Rucki would remain in jail. She also made Grazzini-Rucki appear in court repeatedly shackled, and during the trial forbade nearly all evidence of abuse by David Rucki even though Grazzini-Rucki’s defense was that she hid her daughters because she feared for their safety in his hands.
Although Rucki had appeared before this judge charged with violating a restraining order, however, the jury was never informed of this. That’s because the judge disallowed any mention that anyone ever took out a restraining order against Rucki when, in fact, four separate restraining orders were successfully taken out against Rucki. Ironically, Judge Asphaug also disallowed any mention of Rucki’s long criminal record as well as letters written by the children involved.
Rucki is the subject of police reports in three counties, including incidents of stalking, the aforementioned bar fight, a road rage incident, and an incident during which he chased his daughter, Samantha, down the street, banging on the door of her home until police arrived, even as her thirteenth birthday party was underway. That party was subsequently canceled, with frightened parents picking up their children, afraid of what David Rucki would do next.
Asphaug later allowed Samantha to testify about this incident via Skype at her home with her father in the next room, even though she told Lakeville Police Officer Kelli Coughlin, in a police interview a month prior to trial, that her father was pressuring her to recant earlier allegations of abuse.
Beau Berentsen, spokesperson for the Minnesota courts, declined comment, claiming a restrictive policy which disallows comment on almost everything:
“…court staff cannot speak on behalf of the court as it relates to decisions, orders, judicial decision making, or other actions related to specific cases.”
But Berentsen’s statement contradicts what he’d previously told this reporter. Earlier, he had suggested that he couldn’t comment on active cases, saying
“This case is still active, and the court cannot provide any comment about it.”
In that case, Berentsen was asked about the ruling of Judge David Knutson, in the case of Dennis Michael Roy, who was convicted of sexual abuse of a family member but given a suspended sentence. Roy faced twenty-year of probation, which is why the case was still active.
Berentsen had no further comment when confronted with this contradiction. James Backstrom had also previously told CDN he couldn’t comment on a case because it was open, no such restriction applies here.
Judge Knutson’s role
Judge Knutson, like Judge Asphaug, has played a central role in the Rucki family’s lives.
Upon taking over the Rucki divorce case, Knutson placed himself on the case exclusively as Asphaug had done previously with Rucki family matters. Knutson not only presided over the divorce case but on any related matter which would come in front of the court. He proceeded to issue nearly 4,000 rulings, almost all of them regulating the behavior of Sandra Grazzini-Rucki, and he did all this even though he had previously dismissed criminally related charges against David Rucki.
In other words, just like Judge Asphaug, Judge Knutson presided over a case where David Rucki allegedly violated a restraining order, this one occurring in 2008. That restraining order stemmed from a conversation during which David Rucki threatened to kill an in-law. This incident had occurred at a contentious time when the family was arguing over the disbursement of a will.
“Chris said David Victor Rucki was waiting for him and confronted him the second he got out of his vehicle with his son. Chris said David is his wife’s uncle and is one of the family members that are suing for more money. Chris said David has a son who attends hockey camp at HDC and already dropped him off. Chris said David confronted him by swearing and yelling profanities at him. Chris said David made reference to ‘stealing money’. Chris said he yelled back at David and told his son to go inside. While Chris was talking to me, he was visibly upset. Chris said after his son went inside, David approached him and was nose to nose with him in the parking lot. Chris said David yelled at him, ‘I’m coming after you and you won’t see me coming.’ Chris said David also said, ‘it probably won’t be me (that will get you).’ Chris said he turned to leave and David got in his car and yelled, ‘Let’s go. Let’s go!’ Chris said he is afraid of David and feels David was trying to intimidate him. Chris said he is fearful for his family and feels David will follow through on these threats.”
Rucki was initially charged with 5th degree assault. That charge was later dropped after the complainant filed a restraining order. Judge Knutson gave Rucki no further punishment for violating that restraining order.
During their divorce, Rucki violated another restraining order when he went to his daughter’s school at a time when neither parent was allowed any contact with their children per Judge Knutson’s order. But Judge Knutson also dismissed that charge claiming Rucki did not understand he was not allowed contact with his children.
In the same police interview with Coughlin, Samantha Rucki took Judge Knutson to task, ““I’m not a fan of Judge Knutson, I don’t want to hear about that guy,” she said, “Honestly. He made such bad decisions and it’s not even, he should I don’t care what you guys want to say to that. The decisions made by whoever in the court were so horrendous that they shouldn’t even be allowed to do it anymore. You can’t make a mistake like this and ruin people’s lives and then think it’s ok. Gilbertson [a therapist appointed by Judge Knutson] and Friedrich [the guardian ad litem appointed by Knutson] and him, you don’t just get to screw around with someone’s life to like practice or to just try and test out different theories on you can do this (inaudible) a bunch of test dummies or a bunch of things.”
A series of heavy-handed rulings by Judge Knutson succeeded in turning the Rucki family upside down and apso set the stage for the criminal charges of her mother.
On September 7, 2012, Judge Knutson ordered Sandra Grazzini-Rucki out of her home and for her to have no contact with her children under the threat of jail.
This ruling was based on an unusual telephone conference on September 5, 2012. Neither Sandra Grazzini-Rucki nor her ex-husband attended that conference, which was based on a letter from a recently appointed psychologist in the case, Dr. Paul Reitman.
Reitman said the current situation was so dire Sandra Grazzini-Rucki must be removed from the lives of all her children. He sent this letter despite only having being assigned to the case on August 20, 2012 and having spent less than thirty minutes with Sandra Grazzini-Rucki and her children; despite his letter being the catalyst for the telephone conference; and despite the fact that Dr. Reitman didn’t even attend that conference and was never called to testify and explain his findings in court.
After finding their mother missing on September 7, the children ran away, winding up at the Lakeville Police Department, which sent them to live with their maternal aunt.
On April 19, 2013, over the children’s vociferous objections, Judge Knutson ordered them all to live with their maternal aunt. The two oldest girls were escorted to their new home with armed police. Minutes after the police left the two oldest girls ran away.
According to testimony at Grazzini-Rucki’s trial, the two girls called their mom, telling her that they were running with or without her help. Responding to their call, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki hid her daughters at a horse farm for abused children owned and operated by Doug and Gina Dahlen.
The Dahlens, Grazzini-Rucki and Dede Evavold, who helped coordinate the transfer, have since been convicted of or are facing criminal charges.
Judge Asphaug has exclusively placed herself on each of these cases.
Meanwhile, although Sandra Grazzini-Rucki has less than three months of her sentence to serve, Judge Asphaug is forcing her to serve it over a six-year period, fifteen days at a time, placing her under draconian probation restrictions that include forcing her to follow each of the nearly four thousand court orders issued by Judge Knutson.