Minnesota Sheriff Must Face Libel Claim Over Abduction Probe

Jacob Wetterling, a Minnesota boy who was abducted and killed in 1989.

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – A federal judge ruled Thursday that a former person of interest in the mysterious 1989 abduction of a Minnesota boy can pursue retaliation and defamation claims against county officials.

Daniel Rassier and his mother Rita Rassier sued Stearns County and its sheriff John Sanner in Minnesota federal court in March, seeking $2 million in damages for investigators naming him a person of interest in the kidnapping and killing of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling without evidence connecting him to the crime.

On Oct. 22, 1989, Wetterling was kidnapped near the Rassiers’ long driveway in St. Joseph, Minn., court records show. Rassier says the crime became the highest profile criminal case investigation in state history.

In addition to Stearns County and Sheriff Sanner, Rassier sued Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigators Pam Jensen and Ken McDonald.

In his lawsuit, Rassier claimed Sanner, Jensen and McDonald illegally obtained a search warrant from a Stearns County judge to conduct a “high profile excavation” of his property and home.

The investigation of Rassier as a suspect began in 2004, according to his lawsuit, despite the fact that he was initially eliminated as a suspect by investigators soon after Wetterling’s abduction due in part to Rassier’s credible identification of two cars he witnessed operated by a driver on the farm property where he lived.

Rassier alleges the renewed investigation of him was done to deceive the public that the crime had in essence been solved but that law enforcement had not had any “luck” in locating Jacob’s body, and to help Sheriff Sanner get re-elected.

The case of Wetterling’s mysterious abduction was solved last year, when the FBI named Paynesville resident Daniel James Heinrich as the perpetrator. Heinrich confessed to the crime.

In his lawsuit against the county and sheriff, Rassier asserted claims of unlawful entry and search, unlawful destruction of property, conversion, free-speech retaliation, infliction of emotional distress, defamation and violation of due process rights.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Donovan W. Frank dismissed Rassier’s due process claim and others related to a 2010 search and seizure of his property, but ruled that he can pursue claims of First Amendment retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation stemming from being labeled a person of interest.

According to the ruling, Stearns County investigators focused on Rassier because he had been critical about the investigation and the sheriff’s office.

“For instance, during the 2010 search, Dan Rassier allegedly asked Sheriff Sanner why he was searching the Rassier property. Sanner allegedly responded, ‘This is what happens when you talk,’” the ruling states.

Rassier was the only person labeled a person of interest until Heinrich’s home was searched in 2015. According to the ruling, in an interview for a nine-part podcast about the Wetterling case, Sanner said he named Rassier a person of interest after Rassier talked about the case with The St. Cloud Times.

Judge Frank ruled that Rassier adequately alleged a claim for retaliation.

“Dan Rassier engaged in protected speech, after which the government actors labeled him a person of interest in a heinous crime. Being labeled a person of interest in a heinous crime is likely to chill protected activity,” the judge wrote in a 19-page opinion. “Moreover, the Stearns County defendants have made no specific arguments about Plaintiffs’ retaliation claim.”

Frank also allowed Rassier’s intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation claims over the person-of-interest label to proceed, but dismissed those claims as they related to the 2010 search, finding that the search warrants were based on probable cause.

Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator McDonald was dismissed as a defendant in the case because Rassier’s remaining claims do not make any allegations against him.

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