MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – A Minnesota man labeled a person of interest in the mysterious 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling brought a defamation lawsuit against state law enforcement agencies, claiming the recently solved case could have been cracked decades ago.
Daniel A. Rassier and his mother Rita Rassier sued Stearns County and its sheriff John Sanner in Minnesota federal court on Wednesday. Investigator Pam Jensen and Ken McDonald of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension are also named as defendants.
Rassier seeks $2 million in damages for investigators naming him a person of interest, claiming no evidence supported the notion that he was responsible for the abduction and killing of Jacob Wetterling 27 years ago.
On Oct. 22, 1989, 11-year-old 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.”
According to the complaint, Rassier 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 says his descriptions were similar to vehicles used by a perpetrator of a sexual assault that happened about nine months before Wetterling's disappearance, and also matched cars used in attempted abductions of boys before and after Wetterling’s kidnapping, one right in the same St. Joseph neighborhood where Wetterling was abducted.
But beginning in 2004, Rassier says Sanner, Jensen and McDonald began to pursue him as a suspect "based on a so called abduction-on-foot theory." Rassier refers to the investigators as "conspirators" and says they did not consult with the FBI about their theory.
From 2004 to 2010, Sanner, Jensen and McDonald presented no evidence to support the notion that Rassier was responsible for the Wetterling crime, according to the complaint, but they still illegally secured a search warrant from a Stearns County judge to conduct a "high profile excavation" of his property, home and surrounding buildings.
Investigators named Rassier a person of interest in the Wetterling case, and he claims they kept “details of how the warrant was obtained secret from the eyes of the public, the media, and plaintiffs.”
Rassier alleges the purpose of the bogus investigation of him was 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.
Another reason for the investigation was to help Sanner get re-elected as sheriff of Stearns County, Rassier says.
According to the complaint, Sanner did not involve any outside agency such as the FBI and did nothing to solve the Wetterling crime.
"When information was publicized recommencing in 2004 of the connection between the January, 1989 Cold Spring sexual assault and the Wetterling abduction, Sanner engaged in a concerted effort with media, publicly and otherwise, and internally within SCSO, to deny the connection because he knew the Cold Spring victim had already made clear that plaintiff was not his abductor – and that plaintiff had a lock solid alibi for the evening of 1/13/89,” the complaint states. “This was just one example of how Sanner manipulated the media for years beginning in 2004 after he became the Sheriff in 2003. Sanner, additionally in 2004, leaked to media the fact that SCSO was now going after plaintiff.”
From 2014 to 2016, the FBI worked on both the Cold Spring sexual assault and the Wetterling abduction and solved both cases, naming Paynesville resident Daniel James Heinrich as the perpetrator of both crimes. Heinrich confessed to both crimes in September.
Rassier says the FBI could have solved both cases in 1990 but for the incompetence, interference and lack of cooperation from the Stearns County Sherriff's Office, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Stearns County District Attorney's Office.
The lawsuit also refers to a 2012 case in which a Cold Spring police officer was murdered. According to the complaint, Sanner, McDonald and Jensen engaged in similar conduct and charged an innocent man with the murder.
"The actual perpetrator hanged himself in early 2013, left a suicide note confessing the crime, and the murder weapon, a shotgun, was determined to be owned by the perpetrator and was found on a property that he had access to," the complaint states.
Sanner has yet to close the 2012 Cold Spring murder case, which prevents the public from seeing those investigation details, according to the complaint.
Despite the Wetterling case being solved in September, Rassier says Sanner has yet to publicly release the investigation materials, hampering his ability to bring legal action and revealing a lack of transparency by the Stearns County Sheriff's Office for both 1989 cases.
"To date, not one of the conspirators have publicly apologized or publicly stated that plaintiff had nothing to do with Jared's assault or Jacob's abduction and murder. In fact, as of November, over two months after Heinrich confessed, Sanner had not returned to plaintiffs the seized items of personal property or the truckloads of soil [he took],” the lawsuit states.
The Rassiers seeks $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages for 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. They are represented by Michael Padden in Lake Elmo, Minn.
Jason Hiveley, an attorney representing the the Stearns County Sheriff's Office, said in a statement that the county and its employees will file an answer once they've been served with the complaint.
"We will not be commenting further on this pending litigation except to say the actions of the Sheriff’s Department investigators were reasonable and we believe this case will ultimately be resolved in their favor," he said.
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