Daniel Rassier didn't know that he was being recorded when, in 2009, he told Patty Wetterling that he thought authorities had done a poor job of investigating the abduction of her 11-year-old son Jacob decades earlier.
It was partly retribution for those comments, Rassier alleges in a federal lawsuit, that law enforcement wrongly went after him, digging up his farm to search for human remains and making it evident that he was a "person of interest" in one of the state's most high-profile criminal investigations.
In a 34-page lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, Rassier alleges Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner, former Capt. Pam Jensen, and state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) agent Ken McDonald defamed him and intentionally inflicted emotional distress, among other claims.
The suit alleges that Sanner "had engaged in conduct for years to prevent the crime from being solved and had illegally, and in a conspiratorial, intentional, and/or reckless fashion, with Jensen and McDonald, publicly accused an innocent citizen."
Messages left with the Stearns County sheriff and his office were not returned Wednesday. The Stearns County attorney's office referred questions to attorney Jason Hiveley, who wrote in an e-mail that the county and its employees will file their response in court after they have been properly served with the legal paperwork.
"We will not be commenting further ..." Hiveley wrote, "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."
A BCA spokeswoman said the agency typically does not comment on pending litigation.
Rassier, 61, lived on a farm with his parents near the spot in St. Joseph, Minn., where Jacob Wetterling was abducted. Rassier was home alone that night, his parents on a European vacation.
After nearly 27 years of investigation, the nationally known case came to an abrupt close in September when longtime suspect Danny Heinrich led investigators to Jacob's remains, then confessed in federal court to abducting him the night of Oct. 22, 1989, as the boy, his brother and best friend were riding their bicycles home after renting a movie at a convenience store.
Heinrich, now 54, testified that he wore a mask while he snatched Jacob at gunpoint and told the other two boys to run. He then drove Jacob to a pasture some 30 miles away, where he assaulted the boy, shot him to death and buried him.
The confession was a dramatic ending to a stranger abduction that changed the way parents around Minnesota and the nation watched over their children.
Heinrich, who also confessed to abducting and molesting 12-year-old Jared Scheierl in Cold Spring earlier that year, is serving a 20-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to one count of receiving child pornography. Though he will not be prosecuted for either abduction, he could remain in state custody under Minnesota's civil sex offender commitment.
Pursued wrong suspect
Rassier's lawsuit contends that the FBI was in the process of solving both cases in 1990, but it alleges that conflict between the federal agency, the Sheriff's Office, the BCA and the Stearns County attorney's office thwarted their progress, allowing Heinrich to remain free for decades.
The suit mentions a low crime clearance rate at the Stearns County Sheriff's Office for many years. It also alleges incompetence and interagency jealousy.
Rassier, the suit says, should have been treated as a key witness after he told authorities that he had seen two cars drive onto the farm property and turn around on the day of Jacob's abduction, including a blue car that Heinrich drove that night.
Investigators had long been concentrating on footprints and tire tracks at the scene, believing the perpetrator had driven Wetterling away. But in 2004 a driver told authorities he'd driven to the scene after hearing police scans about the Wetterling abduction.
While that might explain one set of tire tracks, the suit says, it didn't explain another set matching Heinrich's car and prints matching Heinrich's shoes.
The suit alleges that Sanner, Jensen and McDonald became "conspirators" in pursuing Rassier as a suspect "based on a so called abduction-on-foot theory that would lead nowhere."
It called the pursuit of Rassier "the strangest, most embarrassing moment in the annals of Minnesota case criminal investigation."
Sanner, who became sheriff in 2003, "felt compelled to make people think he was on to something big to solve the Wetterling case. This was all a facade," the suit alleges.
In the spotlight
Sanner's statements to a St. Cloud newspaper and the leak of information to a Twin Cities television station thrust Rassier into the spotlight.
The suit alleges that a search warrant was secured "fraudulently and illegally" to dig on the Rassier farm, with authorities failing to tell the judge the parts of Rassier's accounts that would have thrown into question probable cause.
The defendants "had to misstate facts on the warrant application, in McDonald's name, to achieve the goal of convincing the judge they had the right guy," the suit alleges.
The dig, in the summer of 2010, was widely covered by media around the state. Sanner was at the property on the second day of the dig, the suit says, and Rassier "asked him why he was doing this. Sanner responded: 'This is what happens when you talk.' Plaintiff asked Sanner what this meant. Sanner would not clarify."
The suit alleges that it became clear in 2016 that the dig was retribution for Rassier's criticism of law enforcement to Patty Wetterling.
Rassier's attorney, Michael Padden, called law enforcement's actions "chilling."
"They submitted false information to secure a search warrant," he said Wednesday. "This could happen to any citizen."
Rassier contends that law enforcement's actions weren't reasonable and therefore shouldn't be immune from damages. His claims include physical pain, emotional distress, humiliation, loss of reputation and financial injury.
"I think the most frustrating thing for me is that I can't do anything about what's happened," Rassier said in an interview Wednesday. "What they did ... just totally wrecked so many things for me."
People in the community avoided him, he lost friends and his family was devastated, he said. In his career as a music teacher, he said, parents didn't want their children to be alone in a room with him: "I don't blame the parents at all ... because I was made out to be this killer."
Daniel's mother, Rita Rassier, is also listed as a plaintiff. They are seeking more than $2 million in damages.
Staff Writer Paul Walsh contributed to this story.
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102