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Lakeville police Lt. Jason Polinski assumed that as his agency searched for missing teenagers Gianna and Samantha Rucki, the people who saw them last would be willing to help.

Instead, he said, those people have resisted in hopes that the girls stay missing.

"Every person we've talked to had the same anti-government, 'family court sucks' attitude," Polinski said.

Polinski was referring to a vocal, passionate group, both in Minnesota and nationwide, that is sometimes called the "Protective Parent" movement. Those in the movement believe that family courts are broken and judges in custody disputes are ordering children to live with abusive parents. Some in the group say the noncustodial parent in these cases has no choice but to hide kids in a loosely organized underground network.

"There are networks, little pockets throughout the country of abuse survivors … who have dug in their heels and are forming ad hoc shelter, refuge for children," said Amy Neustein, a sociologist in New Jersey who has studied the underground and became a critic of family courts after losing custody of her daughter.

People in the underground naturally stay silent about their involvement. It's not known who operates the homes, how many children they take in or if they are as prominent as they were three decades ago, when its leader gained national notoriety. Still, Polinski suspects it's this network that is hiding the girls, who were 13 and 14 when they ran away from their Lakeville home on April 19, 2013. So far, Lakeville police have searched three homes of people believed to have helped the girls disappear.

"There's no way you hide two people that long by yourself," Polinski said. "The act of keeping actual human beings missing is too hard to do."

Before their disappearance, the sisters told the judge in their parents' divorce case that they were being abused by their father, David Rucki. After they ran away, they appeared on a local news station to repeat those claims, and said they wanted to live with their mother, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki.

However, a psychologist said the girls needed to be "deprogrammed" after describing the girls as being brainwashed by their mother to hate their father. In November 2013 a family court judge granted full custody to the father after finding there was no credible evidence that he abused his daughters, and Rucki denies ever mistreating his children.

Grazzini-Rucki herself had been missing since August, when she was charged with three felony counts of deprivation of parental rights and a warrant issued for her arrest. U.S. marshals found her Oct. 18 at an Orlando-area resort. She has agreed to be extradited to Minnesota.

Polinski said she has not provided authorities with any information that would help find the girls.

Grazzini-Rucki's attorney, Michelle MacDonald, said her client had nothing to do with their disappearance and does not know where they are now.

Still, MacDonald said her client does not want police to find the girls, fearing they will be forced into unwanted therapy and eventually have to live with their father.

"What are they coming back to? What protection will they have?" MacDonald said. "They're free right now."

New lives

The underground came to public attention in the 1980s, when Faye Yager became the face of the movement while running it from her Atlanta home. Years earlier, Yager was thrown in jail after she accused a former husband of molesting their daughter. She was one of the few people willing to speak publicly about the underground, giving interviews to the media and appearing on talk shows.

That publicity led to Yager being charged with kidnapping in 1992. Though Yager was acquitted, Neustein said those charges effectively silenced anyone who knew about the underground and for a time all but dissolved it. But she said the network remained active, and is now accessed by parents through social media, women's shelters and churches.

Yager now runs a bed-and-breakfast in Brevard, N.C., but she told the Star Tribune last week that she is still involved in the underground and has helped to hide "hundreds" of children.

She said before children go into hiding, they often work with planners months in advance. Once they run, they are often given new names and identification cards. They're then relocated to what Yager said were hundreds of sympathetic families both in and out of the country.

As for how two teenagers can be kept off social media, Yager said it's not difficult.

"You tell them how the real world is. I tell them, you're welcome to do those things," Yager said. "But there are consequences."

Of the Rucki girls, she said, "I hope they go on missing." Asked if she knew about anything about their case, she replied, "If I did, I wouldn't tell you."

In an interview with the Star Tribune in April, Grazzini-Rucki said she had no idea where Samantha and Gianna were.

Neustein said that's likely true.

"If a mother really wants to protect her children, and she doesn't want anyone to know where they are, she'd be crazy to make a phone call," said Neustein.

Wouldn't a mother want to know how her children were doing while underground?

"What happened to the children in the Holocaust when they were hidden?" Neustein replied. "Did the Jewish parents have contact with their children in the Holocaust? Or were they concerned that if they made contact, the Germans would find their children?"

'Do not turn them in!'

When her teenage son went into the underground in 2011 after accusing his father of abuse, Cindy Dumas of San Diego said she didn't want to know where he was. Her son, now 19, is no longer in hiding. She said she knew he was safe with other parents she could trust because they also lost custody of their children.

"These are the parents we trust the most," Dumas said.

In a Facebook post about the Rucki sisters in April, Dumas advised "Sisters Still Underground: If You See Them DO NOT Turn Them In!"

Dumas told the Star Tribune she has "reliable sources" who have told her that the girls are underground and safe, but denied any involvement in hiding them.

"The kids that I know that have been fortunate enough to get into hiding are being taken care of very well," she said. "They're not like kids out on the streets."

Police have no idea how the girls are doing, Polinski said, last seeing them when they appeared on the May 2013 news broadcast.

Polinski suspects it was initially a local network that arranged that interview and hid the Rucki girls. Since August, Lakeville police have served search warrants on three people they have called "people of interest" in the case — Michael Rhedin, a friend of Grazzini-Rucki's; Dale Nathan, a suspended attorney and critic of family courts; and Dede Evavold, a campaign manager for Michelle MacDonald and supporter of the Protective Parent movement.

Those searches have uncovered evidence suggesting the girls are now being hidden by a national network, Polinski said.

Nathan said he was with Grazzini-Rucki when the girls ran from their home and into her car, but denies helping to hide them. In an interview Monday, Evavold denied any involvement in the girls' disappearance. Rhedin could not be reached for this story.

MacDonald, who has also been named by Lakeville police as person of interest in the case, called the search warrants "tyranny" and a "form of terrorism."

Regarding the whereabouts of the girls, she said it's "possible" they are underground.

"The girls have to be somewhere. My hope is that the girls are safe and Sandra's hope is that the girls are safe," she said. "But we don't know. We're all operating on speculation and innuendo."

Brandon Stahl • 612-673-4626