In arguments before the Eighth Circuit, a man who critiqued law enforcement’s handling of Jacob Wetterling’s infamous kidnapping case says he could only bring retaliation claims after the murderer confessed.
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (CN) — Attorneys for a man who says he was subjected to retaliatory law enforcement scrutiny for speaking publicly about the infamous Jacob Wetterling abduction told an Eighth Circuit panel Tuesday that his claims should be heard.
Daniel Rassier brought his claims against former Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner in 2017, alleging that Sanner had declared him a person of interest in the Wetterling case seven years earlier in retaliation for speaking to local media about Sanner’s handling of the investigation. Senior U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, a Bill Clinton appointee, dismissed Rassier’s claims early last year as untimely.
Rassier appealed, and on Tuesday attorney Michael Padden argued that Frank should have started tolling statutes of limitations on his claims in 2016 when new evidence came to light conclusively clearing Rassier of the crime.
Wetterling’s 1989 abduction, rape and murder by Danny Heinrich drew nationwide attention, sparking a push for the nation’s first-ever law requiring states to maintain sex offender registries. The case stayed cold for decades until Heinrich confessed to the murder, along with the kidnapping and sexual assault of another boy around the same time, in part because of renewed interest in the case spurred by Heinrich’s other known victim.
Wetterling disappeared from the end of Rassier’s driveway while Rassier was home alone, making him a recurring figure in the 27-year investigation. He was an early witness in the case, reporting that he had seen a car turn around in his driveway around the time Wetterling was abducted. In 2004, he criticized the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office in local media for failing to thoroughly search his property.
Around the same time, according to Sanner, investigators were exploring the possibility that Wetterling had been abducted on foot after they identified a driver who turned around in the driveway. Rassier again came under scrutiny, investigators said, leading to a 2009 wired conversation between Rassier and Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, during which he again criticized law enforcement. Rassier publicly supported searches of his property in 2010.
The searches led to a story in the St. Cloud Times in which Rassier detailed his involvement in the investigation and Sanner described him as a “person of interest.” Sanner later testified that he meant the phrase to mean “someone investigators were looking at, but not necessarily as a perpetrator,” according to Frank’s order.
The story led Rassier to believe he was being retaliated against, he said, but he waited to bring claims until after Danny Heinrich confessed to the murder.
Heinrich was never charged for Wetterling’s abduction, assault or murder, but is serving a 20-year sentence for a child pornography charge as part of a plea agreement. He loomed large over Tuesday’s arguments because his confession led to the release of previously confidential case files.
Padden argued that Rassier did not have the information necessary to press his claims until Heinrich came forward. “No lawyer, I think, can ethically commence a case based on suspicion alone. And all Mr. Rassier had at that time was suspicion,” he said.
“They weren’t going to give up that casefile until they had a conviction,” he added. “In fact, we commenced this lawsuit in 2017, and we weren’t able to access that casefile until 2018.”
Padden argued Rassier’s case before a three-judge panel consisting of U.S. Circuit Judges Steven Colloton and Duane Benton, both George W. Bush appointees, and James Loken, appointed by George H.W. Bush.
One judge on the panel asked what standard should govern the case and said it “sounds like your case starts in July 2010.”
Jason Hively, representing Sanner, then-Sheriff’s Captain Pam Jensen and Stearns County, concurred, pointing to Rassier’s testimony before Frank. “He was asked ‘can you point to any specific dates when you were certain you were being retaliated against?’ and he said “July 1, 2010,” Hively said.
“We’re specifically looking at when the injury was. And this injury was, as the district court made clear, the injury in this case occurred when he claims he was labeled a person of interest in retaliation for speaking to media,” he continued.
Speaking Wednesday morning, Padden acknowledged that he’d been grilled by the judges but said he felt good about the arguments.
“Tremendous respect to the federal judge who was assigned the case, but we’re hopeful that the Eighth Circuit will correct what we believe was a wrong decision,” he said.
“I believe that the concept of equitable tolling should apply to this case,” he added. “Rassier was in the unenviable position, in 2010, of not having access to the case file. If he had started a lawsuit in 2010, it would have been dismissed.”
Heinrich was on the sheriff’s radar as a known pedophile as early as 2002, Padden said, making law enforcement actions against Rassier even more egregious.
“They threw somebody under the bus because Sanner wanted to make it appear that he was making progress on the case,” he said of the sheriff’s office. “And there were people up there who were thinking Dan was the perpetrator.”