Daniel Rassier at the time told law enforcement that the person possibly responsible for Minnesota’s most heinous crime, the 1989 abduction and murder of Jacob Wetterling, had been on his parents’ property near the time that Jacob had been abducted. Jacob’s kidnapping went unsolved until 2016 when Daniel Heinrich — the person who had been on the property — confessed after a federal investigation.
A civil complaint filed by Rassier states that in October 2009, at the request of the investigators, Jacob’s mother, Patti Wetterling, pretended to accidentally bump into Rassier and asked to speak to him alone. Rassier met with her for an hour. He didn’t know that officials had installed a recording device on her. The fact of the concealed recording and its content was not made public until September 2016 when search warrant documents were unsealed.
Plaintiff told Patti Wetterling that he had nothing to do with Jacob’s abduction and that in his opinion, Stearns County Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension had conducted a poor investigation. “This investigation tactic did nothing to assist law enforcement with solving the crime, but it did anger the conspirators [investigators] to the point that they sought retribution,” the complaint states.
It also states that a “massive cloud of suspicion” descended on the Rassier family. That was because, the complaint states, that in 2010, law enforcement called Rassier a “person of interest” in the crime. Allegedly, Sheriff John Sanner told him “this is what happens when you talk.” Sanner also allegedly gave Rassier’s name to the press, it says.
Rassier and his wife sued Sanner, Officer Pam Jensen and Stearns County for claims including First Amendment retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation. A claim against a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent was dismissed earlier in the case.
On March 6, U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank dismissed the case, holding it was barred by the applicable statutes of limitations. The judge noted in his order that “[I]t is truly unfortunate that Dan Rassier and his family suffered negative impacts after Dan Rassier was named a person of interest, particularly in light of the fact that the case was unsolved for so many years.”
A six-year statute of limitations applies to the plaintiffs’ Sec. 1983–First Amendment retaliation claim. The state law claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation are governed by a two-year statute.
Frank said that Rassier’s claims, which all relate to him being named a person of interest, accrued in 2010 when he was so named. He had a complete and present cause of action and could file suit and obtain relief, the court said. But he did not file suit until 2017.
Frank rejected Rassier’s argument that his claim did not accrue until 2016 when Heinrich confessed to the crime, because without that information he could not prove his innocence or provide evidence of another perpetrator.
The court had previously found that Rassier had adequately pleaded that the statute was tolled under the doctrine of equitable tolling, which requires a showing that the litigant had been pursuing his rights diligently and that some extraordinary circumstance stood in the way of a timely finding.
But the court determined after the results of discovery that equitable tolling does not apply and that the evidence clearly showed that by July 2010, Rassier believed he was being retaliated against.
“Unfortunately, the record also demonstrates that Rassier and his family were negatively impacted by his being labeled a person of interest. Further, that Rassier believed as early as July 2010 that he was being retaliated against is supported by the numerous times that he reiterated this belief,” Frank said.
He also said that Rassier did not establish that his claims depended on the discovery of Heinrich’s guilt or on the discovery of certain previously sealed search warrants that supported his argument.
“The central issue here is whether Rassier was labeled a person of interest in retaliation for making comments critical of the investigation. This issue did not hinge on the information in the search warrants or the identity of the true perpetrator,” Frank said. Rassier could have filed suit in 2010 and no reasonable juror, on the record before the court, could conclude that Rassier had been pursuing his rights diligently or that some extraordinary circumstance stood in his way of filing his claims sooner, Frank concluded.
Attorneys for the parties could not be reached for comment prior to deadline.