Trish Van Pilsum and missing children: how one reporter failed

On Thursday evening, news broke that 13-year old Jayme Closs had been found alive 88 days after she vanished from her home after her parents were murdered.

For 88 days, people wondered if Closs would ever be seen alive again. On the 88th day, the prayers of many were answered when Closs was found alive. A suspect in the kidnapping of Closs and the murder of her parents was also arrested.

We celebrate the return of Jayme Closs to her family and we pray for their healing and peace, as well as justice for those involved in the murder of her parents and in keeping Jayme hidden for 88 days.

The morning after Jayme was found, law enforcement had a press conference to provide updates to the public on the miraculous news. In his remarks, Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald thanked the media for their role in helping the public remember that a 13-year-old girl was missing.

The case against Trish Van Pilsum

In our new best-selling true crime book, The Girls Are Gone, we discuss how one reporter in Minnesota – Trish Van Pilsum – withheld critical information which could have helped reunite two missing sisters – Samantha and Gianna Rucki – with their family and friends within days of the children disappearing.

Van Pilsum’s unethical conduct as a journalist also broke the Rucki’s family trust with the media. This lack of trust contributed greatly to a lack of any substantive media coverage about the disappearance of Samantha and Gianna Rucki for nearly two years. Reviewing Van Pilsum’s reporting about the Rucki case in contrast with the work done by journalists about the disappearance of Jayme Closs shows how one reporter can complicate an investigation into missing children and sadly prolong their disappearance and the long-term damage done to the family.

On Friday, April 19, 2013, Samantha and Gianna Rucki were abducted by their mother, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki during a custody dispute. 944 days later – on November 18, 2015 – the girls were found by the Lakeville Police Department on a ranch in Herman, Minnesota.

But three days after they disappeared – on April 22, 2013 – Samantha and Gianna Rucki were interviewed by Van Pilsum for a story that would be broadcast the following month. The details of how and why the interview was conducted still haunt the members of the Rucki family – including the children that were interviewed and exploited by Van Pilsum.

As we detail in our book, the Rucki sisters were driven to St. Cloud, Minnesota home of Dede Evavold after they were abducted by their mother. For the next two days, they were hidden at Evavold’s home and then driven to Herman, Minnesota where they would be held at the home of Doug and Gina Dahlen.

It was during the 48 hours after they were abducted that an interview with the Rucki sisters and Van Pilsum was set up by the small group of conspirators that were assisting in keeping the abducted children hidden from their families and friends.

On the morning of Monday, April 22, 2013, Samantha and Gianna Rucki were driven by Doug and Gina Dahlen to Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Instead of being in their classrooms in Lakeville, Samantha and Gianna were left in a McDonald’s parking lot with specific instructions to walk into a nearby AmericInn for their interview.

Inside the hotel, they were greeted by three strangers: Van Pilsum, a photojournalist, and another person who had helped coordinate the interview. The missing sisters, who were both around the same age as Jayme Closs, were then peppered with questions by Van Pilsum. After the interview was over, the missing children left the hotel and returned to a Dahlens’ waiting vehicle.

The Rucki sisters were driven away by the Dahlens and wouldn’t be seen for another 941 days by their family and friends. Doug and Gina Dahlen would later plead guilty for their role in the disappearance of Samantha and Gianna Rucki – a crime which played out in front of Van Pilsum.

According to police reports, Van Pilsum left her interview with the Rucki children in Sauk Centre and she traveled to St. Cloud to interview Grazzini-Rucki, who was accompanied by Evavold.

For 941 days, Van Pilsum was the last person outside of the small group of conspirators that had seen the missing Rucki children alive.

On the day of the interview, multiple police reports had been filed related to the disappearance of the Rucki sisters. Law enforcement was attempting to locate their mother, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki, as she was the prime suspect in their disappearance.

Immediately after her disgraceful interview with the Rucki children, Van Pilsum interviewed Grazzini-Rucki. In the interview that was later aired by FOX 9, Van Pilsum never asked Grazzini-Rucki if she knew the location of her missing children or if she was involved in their disappearance. Grazzini-Rucki was later found guilty of six felonies for her role in the disappearance of daughters.

Van Pilum’s full story which featured the missing Rucki sisters has been removed from FOX 9’s website. As noted in our book, the story has been repurposed by supporters of Grazzini-Rucki who have posted it on YouTube. They understand the propaganda value in Van Pilsum’s story, which with the benefit of hindsight is best described as exploitative garbage, with a limited basis in fact, and lacking even a shred of journalistic standards.

In the weeks and months after David Rucki was reunited with his children, he decided not to pursue legal action against FOX 9 or Van Pilsum for their decision to withhold information which could have been helpful in the investigation into the disappearance of his daughters. In our book, we describe how van Pilsum showed up to David Rucki’s home to interview him for her story. Only after Van Pilsum recorded her interview with David did she tell him the devastating news that she had interviewed his missing daughters. He was left in a state of shock, as Van Pilsum refused to provide him with any information about his missing daughters.

Lisa Elliott, David Rucki’s attorney, directly asked Van Pilsum for any information about where she interviewed the missing Rucki sisters. According to Elliott, Van Pilsum said the interview was conducted in “southern Minnesota” and that the sisters were “safe.” Neither pieces of information were true. The Rucki sisters were later found at a ranch in northwestern Minnesota and not “southern Minnesota.” The Rucki children were also denied any medical treatment and were anything but “safe.”

The Lakeville Police Department attempted to gather any information they could from FOX 9 about the disappearance of the Rucki sisters but were rebuffed by lawyers for FOX 9.

Van Pilsum’s story even caught the attention of the judge who was involved in the contentious divorce that was the basis for Van Pilsum conducting the interview with the missing Rucki children.

On June 12, 2013, a court hearing was scheduled to hear a motion to hold Grazzini-Rucki in contempt for violating a court order which prohibited her from having contact with her children. Van Pilsum’s story was cited by Elliott as one of the examples of how Grazzini-Rucki had violated the order from the court.

Surprisingly, neither FOX 9 nor Van Pilsum reported on how their story had led to a contempt hearing. We don’t know if Van Pilsum or anyone from FOX 9 was in the courtroom that day. If they were present, they would have heard Judge David Knutson call their decision to interview the missing Rucki children as “appalling…”

Judge Knutson said:

And quite honestly, I find it appalling that in the midst of the turmoil in this family someone would want to expose these children through a TV interview to the world to explain their challenging relationships with their mother and their fathers.

Judge Knuston went even farther in his criticism of FOX 9 in the courtroom that day.

What’s even more appalling is that a reputable news organization would allow themselves to be used by parties in this contentious, litigious divorce, where one side had already been represented by at least five attorneys, risking further harm to the children and contributing to the erosion of any chance we have of attempting to reestablish healthy relationships that they once had with their mother and their father.

After her story aired with the missing Rucki children, Van Pilsum never did another story about this case.

The children she interviewed have said the allegations made against their father were not true. In an interview for our book, Samantha Rucki said they were told their faces would be blurred out and they wouldn’t be shown on television. But when they watch the show with their captors in May 2013, their faces were not obscured. “I didn’t like it. I wanted to take it back,” said Samantha.

Sandra Grazzini-Rucki, Dede Evavold, Doug Dahlen, and Gina Dahlen were either convicted or plead guilty for their roles in the disappearance of Samantha and Gianna Rucki.

David Rucki was reunited with his daughters days after they were found in Herman, Minnesota and they live with him at the family’s home in Lakeville.

The whereabouts of Trish Van Pilsum are currently unknown.

For a more in-depth look at Van Pilsum’s interaction with the Rucki family, please buy The Girls Are Gone which is available for sale through numerous retailers in both paperback and ebook.

Allison Mann contributed to this story.

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