Judge allowing some claims by man wrongfully accused in Wetterling case to proceed

Daniel Rassier speaks at a press conference.
Dan Rassier recounts some of his interactions with the Stearns County Sherriff's Office during a press conference on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2016 in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Sam Harper | MPR News 2016

A federal judge is allowing some claims to proceed in a lawsuit filed by a man wrongfully accused of involvement in the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling.

Dan Rassier sued Stearns County, former Sheriff John Sanner and two investigators, claiming his rights were violated when Sanner named him as a person of interest in the Wetterling case.

Rassier, a neighbor of the Wetterlings, was eventually cleared when Danny Heinrich confessed to kidnapping and killing 11-year-old Jacob, whose remains were found buried on a Paynesville farm in September 2016. Heinrich is serving a 20-year prison sentence on child pornography charges as part of a plea agreement.

Rassier argued that Sanner and other investigators defamed him, ignored evidence pointing to Heinrich, retaliated against him for criticizing the sheriff's office and violated his constitutional rights when they searched his home and family's property in 2010.

The defendants asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that they didn't violate his rights or harm him and Rassier waited too long to file the lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank ruled Thursday that since Rassier wasn't aware of the evidence against Heinrich until his arrest last year, the lawsuit meets the statute of limitations.

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Frank dismissed Rassier's claims of unlawful search and seizure, since there was reason to believe there might be evidence of the crime on property owned by Rassier's family. He also dismissed claims against Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Ken McDonald.

But Frank let stand Rassier's claims that Sanner defamed him and intentionally inflicted emotional distress.

Rassier's attorney, Mike Padden, said he was happy with the judge's ruling.

"In a case like this, you always plead really everything that you think is applicable," Padden said. "And even though in good faith we felt that all of our claims were applicable, it's not surprising when a court decides that some of them may not apply."

An email to the attorney representing Stearns County and Sanner seeking comment was not immediately returned.

The next step in the case is a scheduling hearing in January. Padden said gathering records will be a challenge, since Stearns County still has not released the Wetterling investigative file.

Separately, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, Jacob's parents, have sued Stearns County to prevent the release of some information they say is personal.