How the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling helped find the Rucki sisters

Like many of you, I was saddened to learn the news yesterday that Patty Wetterling had confirmed the body of her long-lost son, 11-year Jacob Wetterling, had been recovered.

According to media reports, Danny Heinrich, who has been labeled a “person of interest” by law enforcement in the disappearance of Jacob, led authorities to the remains of his body.

The Stearns County Sheriff’s Office confirmed last evening that Jacob’s body has been recovered, but it was Patty Wetterling’s statement earlier in the day which ended the search for her son, a search which began over 26 years ago.

Since October 1989, Patty Wetterling has become the leading advocate on protecting children from abductions and abuse, and she is a board member for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

From the horrific experience of having their child being abducted, Patty Wetterling and her husband Jerry, have been instrumental in ensuring new laws have been enacted to protect children.

Throughout my reporting on the disappearance of two sisters from Lakeville, the story of Jacob Wetterling was always on my mind, helping to focus my attention on the children who were missing.

Two children vanish in Minnesota

Samantha and Gianna Rucki disappeared on April 19, 2013, during a custody and divorce dispute involving their parents – Sandra Grazzzini-Rucki and David Rucki.

Unlike the circumstances involving Jacob Wetterling, who was abducted by a stranger while riding his bicycle near his home, the Rucki sisters were taken by their mother and vanished in the night.

It was the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (again – where Patty Wetterling is a board member), which issued the iconic poster featuring David Rucki’s missing children.

Grazzini-Rucki was found guilty in July of six felony counts of deprivation of parental rights involving the disappearance of her daughters. Grazzini-Rucki will be sentenced for her crimes on September 21, 2016.

Three additional people have been criminally charged with felonies related to the disappearance of the girls: Dede (Deirdre) Evavold, Douglas Dahlen and his wife, Gina Dahlen.

Evavold’s criminal trial is scheduled to begin on September 26, 2016. A trial date has not been set for the Dahlens.

The Wetterlings were always focused on finding their son

After I spoke with Grazzini-Rucki on the phone in April 2015, I was convinced she was involved in the disappearance of her daughters – she acted nothing like Patty or Jerry Wetterling.

Grazzini-Rucki claimed she didn’t have her own phone number when we spoke, making a follow-up interview likely difficult to arrange.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling. Source: Dave Schwarz, Associated Press

The Wetterlings never changed their home phone number after Jacob disappeared, as the wanted their lost son to be able to call his family, day or night.

During the time her daughters were missing, Grazzini-Rucki was focused on fighting with the courts and law enforcement than cooperating in the investigation into her missing daughters.

Like the Wetterlings, the girls’ father David Rucki was hyper-focused on the whereabouts of his children and their wellbeing

I had seen Patty and Jerry Wetterling speak about their lost son in countless interviews with the media. David had a similar sullen look and you could see the pain and sadness as he spoke about his missing daughters.

When I first met David, I was so overcome with emotion I had to excuse myself from our table at a restaurant in Minneapolis. I went to the restroom, splashed cold water on my face and took a moment to compose myself.

I kept hearing the despair in David’s voice, but I also could see his resolve to reunite with his children.

Watching over 26 years of interviews with the Wetterlings, I saw the pain in their faces, and heard their voices tremble as they struggled to talk about their missing son.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but I could see that David was in unimaginable pain, which was in contrast with the behavior of Grazzini-Rucki, who was focused on everything else but her missing daughters.

For the girls’ father, David Rucki, he spent 944 days not knowing where his daughters were living and having to face the reality that they may not be alive.

Like Jacob’s parents, David Rucki, tirelessly searched for his missing children, but ended many days without finding his daughters.

A different ending for the Rucki family

Sadly, the biggest difference between the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling and Samantha and Gianna Rucki is the painful reality that Jacob was not found alive.

Rucki was reunited with his daughters days after they were found by law enforcement on a ranch in northern Minnesota and they live with him at the family’s home in Lakeville.

It was a “person of interest” in the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling who led law enforcement to his remains.

Grazzini-Rucki’s family court attorney, Michelle MacDonald, has been labeled as a “person of interest” by the Lakeville Police Department in the disappearance of Samantha and Gianna Rucki – a label which remains affixed to MacDonald today.

As in the case of Jacob Wetterling, the focus of this case remains on children who were taken by adults and hidden from the people who loved them.

The disappearance of Jacob Wetterling and how his parents responded helped find Samantha and Gianna Rucki.

My thoughts and prayers are with the Wetterling family. Jacob was their child, their son, and their brother.

Jacob Wetterling disappeared over 26 years ago and nearly 10,000 days later, he has been found. The love of his family and hope that he would be found never faded.




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