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‘To them, I was a murderer.’ Wrongly named ‘person of interest’ in 1989 Wetterling abduction seeks justice.

Witness to 1989 abduction sues sheriff for defamation (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

On the night that 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a masked gunman while riding his bike with friends in St. Joseph, Minn., Daniel Rassier was home alone, organizing his record collection. It was Oct. 22, 1989.

Rassier, an elementary school music teacher, heard his dog, Smokey, bark as two different cars pulled into his driveway, turned around and drove away.

Later that night, he learned a child had been taken from a site near the end of the driveway of the farm home Rassier shared with his parents. He would spend hours helping authorities search the area and would soon become a key witness in the high-profile abduction of the 11-year-old boy. He was questioned, searched and subjected to lie detector tests and hypnosis.

Years passed as the mystery of Jacob’s disappearance went unsolved. Then, in 2004, a new theory prompted the county’s investigators to turn the case on its head. They began to wonder if Rassier, their crucial witness from that night, was responsible for the crime.

Later, they would thrust Rassier into the public eye with three words that would burden him for years: “person of interest.”

The music teacher’s reputation was tarnished, his life consumed by the public connection to one of the most widely known abduction cases in the nation. On Wednesday, Rassier, now 61, filed a federal lawsuit against the county investigators, alleging authorities defamed him, wrongly pursued him in retaliation and used false information to obtain a search warrant to dig up his farm in search of human remains.

“They cut me open,” Rassier said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I became toxic to anybody.”

The story of Jacob Wetterling had become ingrained in the fabric of Minnesota, where many would refer to the boy simply as “Jacob,” and where every year, on the anniversary of the disappearance, Minnesotans kept their porch lights on, holding out hope that he would come home.

Danny Heinrich admits he abducted and killed Jacob Wetterling, ending a 27-year-old mystery

On a national level, the boy’s disappearance was a turning point. Parents began keeping a tighter watch on their children, fearing abduction and remembering the photographs of Jacob and his yellow sweater printed on the missing posters. The national attention from Jacob’s disappearance, along with lobbying efforts from his parents, became driving forces for laws mandating that states keep registries of convicted sex offenders.

In September last year, the 27-year criminal investigation came to a close. One of the first people initially interviewed by investigators, Danny Heinrich, 54, confessed that he abducted, sexually assaulted and killed Jacob, and he led authorities to the boy’s remains. Heinrich is serving a 20-year federal sentence on a separate child pornography charge.

But for Rassier, the “person-of interest” once pursued by investigators, Heinrich’s confession did little to make up for decades living in “in absolute hell, just absolute hell,” he said. The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court Wednesday names as defendants Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner, former captain Pam Jensen, and state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Ken McDonald. It was also brought by Rassier’s mother, Rita, and seeks more than $2 million in damages.

Attorney Jason Hiveley, who is representing the Stearns County defendants, said in a statement “the actions of the Sheriff’s Department Investigators were reasonable and we believe this case will ultimately be resolved in their favor.”

What led investigators to begin pursuing Rassier was a new theory that emerged in 2004 that Jacob was abducted by someone on foot, instead of by car. This meant the abductor had to be somewhere nearby and couldn’t have been driving the car that Rassier saw that night. The three officials did not consult the FBI regarding this theory, the lawsuit alleges, which the complaint called “the strangest, most embarrassing moment in the annals of Minnesota case criminal investigation for the highest profile Minnesota case.”

The lawsuit alleges that investigators did not share with the FBI all the information Rassier had given them about the vehicles he saw, or evidence about other attempted abductions.

In 2004, information about the investigation of Rassier was leaked to a local television reporter, who showed up at Rassier’s farm and elementary school, sticking a mic in his face and broadcasting footage of him. While his face and voice were disguised, and his name withheld, community members easily recognized Rassier by his car, the school and other identifying factors.

Then, in 2009, the lawsuit states, Patty Wetterling, Jacob’s mother, agreed with local authorities to record a conversation with Rassier without telling him. During this conversation, Rassier spoke honestly, telling her he felt authorities were doing a poor job with the investigation. Rassier alleges authorities retaliated against him in part because of these recorded comments.

Authorities showed up months later at Rassier’s 168-acre farm for a massive, widely publicized dig for human remains, a search for which Rassier claims authorities had no probable cause. On the second day of the dig, Sanner, the sheriff, was at the property, and Rassier asked him why he was doing this.

“This is what happens when you talk,” Sanner responded, Rassier says. Soon after, Rassier was publicly named a person-of-interest.

“To the man on the street it means ‘suspect,’” Mike Padden, Rasssier’s attorney, told The Post. “It was the first time in the history of the case anyone had been given any label. They were conveying the impression that the kid’s body was buried somewhere on the farm.”

The term “person of interest” is now widely used by law enforcement in investigations, and has come under fire for tainting reputations of innocent people. The term gained currency in the mid-1990s, as reporter Madeleine Baran pointed out in her American Public Media podcast and investigative series about the Jacob Wetterling case, “In the Dark.”

“The beauty is that nobody knows what it means and that it has no definition,” Paul Rothstein, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, said in the series. “It’s a way for police and prosecutors to disguise that they really have some grounds to suspect that a person played some role in a crime. But they don’t feel they have enough evidence that they want to essentially perhaps defame the person by suggesting to the public that this person has committed a crime or is a full suspect in a crime.”

To Rassier and his parents, the label made them feel incriminated, objects of deep suspicion, in the small Minnesota town where they lived, about 70 miles northwest of Minneapolis. “We respected police like God,” he said.

“It killed my dad, it literally killed him,” said Rassier, whose father died recently. “For this to happen to one of his kids, it was the most stressful thing any parent could probably go through.”

Rassier stopped getting students for his private music lesson business. Parents didn’t trust him alone with their children, he says. He recalls being told by a third-grade girl, who used to always say hello to him in his classroom, that her parents had instructed her not to “come into your room anymore if there’s no other students.”

Rassier said he doesn’t blame parents for wanting to protect their children.

“To them, I was a murderer,” Rassier said. “I was a kidnapper.”

Despite being cleared by local authorities, Rassier still lacks closure. As recently as Thursday night, during a concert he led at his school, he noticed parents were no longer coming up to him to talk.

In the weeks or months ahead, he hopes more facts and answers about the case will emerge as county officials finish redacting and releasing thousands of documents from the case’s investigative file. Authorities plan to release the file in the next month or two, the St. Cloud Times reported.

Rassier said he hopes his lawsuit, and efforts to seek justice, will help others whose reputations have been wrongly scarred by law enforcement. He hopes too that his experience will inspire law enforcement agencies to avoid similar unjustly and unnecessarily drawn-out investigations. In Jacob’s case, a 27-year-long, heart-wrenching saga could have been solved in days, Rassier and his attorney claim, had authorities followed initial leads and conducted the investigation differently.

Perhaps that will lead to answers in other missing children cases, Rassier said.

He knows that “none of this is going to bring Jacob back. That’s what’s sad about it.”

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