The Girls are Gone by Michael Brodkorb and Allison Mann tells the story of Samantha and Gianna Rucki, two teenage sisters, who vanished on April 19, 2013 while their parents Sandra Grazzini-Rucki and David Rucki battled each other in court over custody and other elements of their divorce. I announced the release of the book here.
On July 28, 2016, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki was found guilty on six counts of deprivation of parental rights involving the disappearance of her daughters. Three other people were convicted for their involvement in this case.
The font used is uncomfortably small and the endless quotes from the trial records and newspaper articles are even more uncomfortable.
There is no table of contents, no cross-referenced index, no timeline despite the complicated nature of the cases and the various lawsuits involved, and worse, no listing of cited works, court documents, newspaper clippings sorted by date, etc.
The book states that for full court documents you need to visit their website Missing in Minnesota however, the archives there refer to blog posts, the tab “analysis” does not list any reports by the various experts involved, and there is no detailed timeline where you can click on all dates to get court documents, etc. Links to court documents only start from June 14, 2018 (at the day of writing) while the entire divorce-sage started in April 2011.
There are no summaries, no listings of important events by bullet points, and no eye-friendly interface. The reprints of newspaper articles are often redundant as they were written by the authors. Not one came from another journalist. There are typos in the book too.
The book doesn’t shy away from surprises either. As this is true crime, they bother me. Here are a few examples:
On page 12, Sandra tells David, who doesn’t understand the divorce was real, to call his friend Dave because “he knows.” David’s response is rightfully shocked. Why does he need to call a friend to learn what is going on? It remains unexplained in the book.
On page 17, non-marital property is introduced and remains unexplained.
On page 63, we suddenly learn that David has been reunited successfully with Nico, his oldest son. This is huge from the point of child psychology and parental alienation. I do not understand how this could have been mentioned only as an aside. Throughout the book we do not hear a lot about the reunification progress made between David and the youngest two children. The impact on them off having their older sisters missing is not touched on.
The book’s audience
The book is about true crime, parental alienation, divorce, emotional manipulation, custody hearings, reunification therapy, and child psychology. It involves various child experts and guardians ad litem, victimology, offender analysis, traumatized children, and in the background we deal with financial swindling based on trust funds. If the aim was to bring this story to the general public the authors succeeded and deserve our compliments.
However, every time you publish a true crime book you can expect your audience to include academics/professionals. Criminologists and behaviour analysts will be interested to read about victimology, the offender’s state of mind, the time of onset the offender showed signs of a mental breakdown, the effects the parents had on the children, the children’s’ state of mind and emotional development, attachment issues after reunification and detachment issues with those who had temporary custody, loss of trust after the parental separation, and anger management are just a few issues they would be interested in. Child psychologists and guardians ad litem will be keen to explore the book as this is their daily work. I wonder about their reactions to this book.
What ultimately motivated Sandra to do what she did? Don’t say that she did it for the money because it isn’t that easy. We do not know what Sandra did after high school. We just learn that she worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines.
Sandra is portrait as the villain and from page one we are to believe she masterminded a divorce, a trust fund scheme, relocated two of her five children (it is unexplained if she ever planned to move the other three too), and obstructed justice during various trials. Why?
Sandra does not come across as a mastermind who could have had the idea, worked out all the details, and then executed the plan flawlessly. She comes across as not too intelligent, easy to manipulate, and eager to trust people in a position of status/power or, those who proclaim to adore her. Throughout all proceedings you see the influence of Sandra’s attorney Michelle MacDonald. She is clearly coaching without Sandra fully understanding what the consequences are of these obstructive games.
What was Sandra trying to achieve? Financial independence? On page 21 it is explained that Sandra had 2.3 mio in an “ILET” from her dad. That is wrong, a huge typo that I need to point out. Sandra had an ILIT, an irrevocable life insurance trust set up by her father through an appointed trustee who manages the trust. The beneficiaries of the trust receive the assets when the founder dies. So someone is watching over the money.
Was she trying to get David out of her life? Minnesota is a “no-fault” divorce state. If you or your spouse believe the marriage is irretrievably broken e.g. so badly damaged that it cannot be saved, and the judge agrees, the court will issue a divorce order.
Was she trying to hide her trust money from David? It doesn’t become clear if they had a prenuptial or were married in community of goods. It is not explained why she didn’t consult her father’s trustee. Her father was a very rich man according to the book. He and his wife had a trust fund for every child, all 21 grandchildren, and all 8 great-grandchildren.
Every breakdown has a shattering at its core. Were Sandra and David really always soul mates? Did one dominate the other? Did nobody ever noticed any emotional instability in the other? If they did, what kind of action was taken to help the other partner?
If she showed signs of a mental breakdown did she ever talk about this with a general practitioner? This remains unexplained throughout the book. Did Sandra ever take prescription medication to help her mental stability? Did she ever show changes in her characters that were noticed by other people such as neighbors? What was the impression her colleagues had of her? There is no mention of any of this in the book.
When was the onset of these changes and what was the trigger point, the catalyst moment? People usually don’t snap like this. There is something simmering in the background, something is wrong. The perceived wrong keeps growing into rationalization unless it is countered by an objective person who present a reality check based on the will to help this person and not to exploit her.
At the end of the book, Sandra’s first born Nico tells us more about her. She apparently was more often drunk than sober. This is an awful memory to have of your mom as a child. Sadly we do not learn from what age on Nico remembers this so we cannot make a timeline of Sandra’s mental decline.
He also said she smoked around the house, had boyfriends, had given up on being a mother, fought massive imaginary battles, and didn’t cook or clean. He also hinted at how she managed to manipulate everyone into thinking there was abuse in the family. By talking constantly but very casually about abuse with the children she reminded them of instances of abuse at this and that time. And then followed with “Don’t you remember?” Pretty manipulative especially on young minds who still have unconditional trust in their parents and are still in a very impressionable phase of their life.
Samantha and Nia later confirmed to the authors that they were fed information by Sandra. None of the children confirmed their father abused them, used drugs, had a gun or, threatened to kill them.
We learn a lot about Sandra and the wrong crowd she attracted but we do not learn half as much about David, the father. He is the victim from page one, the one who did no wrong. In the beginning of the book we learn he bought his father’s company but the book doesn’t explain what type of company it is. It matters. How business-savvy was this man?
We know he was predominantly home with the children before everything went wrong as he had his office in the house. At the start we do not learn whether he saw small changes in his wife’s behaviour, a woman he knew since high school.
We slowly see that David wasn’t the cleverest person on the planet. In 2013, he agrees to an interview with a Fox reporter who just showed up at the door. He invites her in and tells all. No hesitation, no call to a lawyer first, no request to see credentials, nothing. And if that isn’t enough he speaks unfavorably of Sandra possibly violating a court order. Who in their right mind discusses parental alienation with a reporter without having at least one neutral witness in the room?
On page 10, we learn there is something not right in the marriage. David looks over bank statements, sees his children’s trust funds are empty, and what does he do? Does he talk to Sandra? No. He contacts her sister Nancy. Why would you do that? Did David know Sandra’s reaction would not be a good one? What did he suspect? What did he know?
Another example is that this business man signs documents for a “divorce on paper” at a bank and not at a law office. Since when do banks handle divorces? Also, he didn’t read the papers. He signed two pieces of paper. How can two sheets of paper settle asset distributions? He later claims he blindly trusted his wife yet he contacted his sister-in-law Nancy first to talk about the empty trust funds.
We also do not learn how it is possible that Sandra can slip away in mental instability without David ever raising a red flag. More about this below.
What role did the parents of Sandra and David play? When they visited did they ever experience or sensed changes in their children’s relationship? Did their grandchildren ever drop remarks about mom and dad acting weird?
During the first court hearings, David’s parents Vicki and Fred explain their part in the financial situation. They were financing David and Sandra for $457’999 (page 22). However, we do not read anything about Sandra’s parents. Either they didn’t come to court or their information was left out of the book. I wanted to know so I went online and found out that by the time the trials started, Albert J. Grazzini (Dec 17, 1921 – Feb 7, 2010) and Nina V. Grazzini (Sept 6, 1921 – Aug 20, 2008) had sadly passed away. It would however, have been possible to call upon a trustee or lawyer representing the Grazzini trusts.
At one point, Dr. Tammy Love (David’s sister) is given physical and legal temporary custody of all five children. The children’s experts involved would handle the transition. It was done in such a cold, child-unfriendly way that you doubt their qualifications to work with children.
Instead of facilitating the move for Samantha and Gianna from their Aunt Nancy’s house to their own where they would live with Aunt Tammy, the experts involved did more emotional damage to these two already scarred children.
How would you feel if you were 12, 13 years old and you are taken to the police department where you sit in a minimally furnished conference room devoid of warmth and comfort, to be addressed over the telephone intercom by an expert who tells you:
- that without prior warning you will not go back home with Aunt Nancy
- that you will immediately go back to the old parental house you left a long time ago to live there with Aunt Tammy
- that you cannot pack your own bags and collect your belongings at Aunt Nancy’s implying that someone will go through your personal affairs and therefore violate your privacy, to pack it all up and deliver it to Aunt Tammy
- that your other three sibling will come to live with Aunt Tammy as well (even though we do not know whether the five siblings had interacted successfully in reunification therapy together) and
- that the father you have not seen in a very long time would move in too in a few days.
That’s not what I call facilitating a transition. The book does nothing to criticize this or to even question the logic behind this. In all the therapy sessions discussed we learn how fragile these kids are and BAM, there’s the transition. They basically get the “we need to talk” call and are expected to be ok with that. And the book continues as if this isn’t a red flag that helped set the disappearance of these two young teens into motion.
Sandra’s break down
I have to point out a huge mistake that diminishes the book’s integrity. On page 122, David describes Sandra while on the stand e.g. under oath. I quote:
“Sandra was a good mother when the kids were young. A lot of things have transpired since then. We have been having problems in our family –her family particularly since 2006 when there’s been a slow deterioration of Sandy. You know, the drama. You know, I don’t know –when her mother died in 2008 something changed with her, and it’s been getting worse.”
- What happened in the Grazzini family in 2006 that caused all the drama?
- David was well aware what caused at least part of his wife’s instability: her mother died. Did she get counselling after that? Did she take medications? How well did David help her cope with grief? He saw deterioration and also noticed it got worse.
- Instead of analyzing the significance of this piece of information, the authors waltz right over it to talk about everything David did to comply with court orders and recommendations to better himself as a parent. Even on cross David confirms that Sandra “was a loving mom, a caring mom, you know, years ago.” This is on page 123. This is bias.
We do have a partial explanation for Sandra’s mental health situation: grief. This woman lost her mother. The book does not describe this event in her life at all. We don’t know how close Sandra was to her parents. Her father died in 2010. His death isn’t mentioned either though both deaths occur before the “divorce on paper” idea. The entire issue of being orphaned is left out of the book. It cannot explain all of Sandra’s criminal behaviour and actions but it might point us in the right direction.
We now have a solid indication that David may not have been as squeaky clean a loving husband as the authors want us to believe:
- He knew about Sandra’s family troubles. We don’t know exactly what went on as the 2006 issues are not on the website’s timeline or in the book. However, Nico years later sheds a light on it: money tore the Grazzini family apart. He remembers extended family members having massive arguments (page 313).
- David had an indication about his wife’s deteriorating mental health since at least 2006. He testified so. What did he do about it at the time?
- At the sentencing hearing he again refers to her sudden change and places it five years ago so in 2011. “I wish I could go back in time and get Sandy the help she needs.” This is on page 251.
- On page 46, we learn from the guardian ad litem that the house was in bad shape and in significant disrepair. We later learn this to include garbage bags everywhere, with urine-soak furniture, and graffiti on the walls. Nobody saw?
- If David saw the deterioration in Sandra then others must have too. Nothing about that in the book. No word that the kids knew how grandma’s death (and grandpa’s) had affected their mom. I would have loved to hear from a Grazzini family member what Sandra’s relationship with her parents was like. Maybe they didn’t want to be interviewed but then at least, that should be mentioned to complete the story’s facts.
The people who knew
As you get near the end the authors list people they suspect knew all along what was going on with the Rucki sisters. All in varying degrees but none can claim complete innocence: Michael Rhedin, Angela Young, John Auld, Kim and Jay Bukstein, Linda Senst, and Michelle MacDonald. These pages are exceptional reading as it shows you the web of lies and the poisonous network of people around Sandra who had no problem exploiting her, using her, and feeding her more false information on which they knew she would act.
The authors did a good job bringing the story of the Rucki sisters to our attention. They just didn’t give us the entire story and what we got was not objective.
Without a proper listing of resources, the questions not asked, and the bias, the book loses credibility. The inclusion of redundant quotes from court documents and newspaper articles written by the authors themselves slow down the reading pace considerably. The authors are talented enough to relate situations in their own words. That would have been a much stronger story-telling point of view especially if you back it up with lists of resources or included a newspaper article written by someone else for further reading.
From the beginning, the book poses Sandra as bad without explaining her behavioral changes. People do not just become bad. They evolve. But they also need a push in that direction. I am not saying that her mom’s death explains everything but it is an aspect to consider as grief can cause depression and disillusions. Untreated, spiraling is possible. None of that is explained in the book or even offered as a possibility.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not defending Sandra’s actions. But I will always encourage everyone to study and explore alternative explanations for the facts as presented and to not accept a one-sided story with only a few select facts given. Who or what else pushed Sandra into her mental abyss?
Because of all this, I cannot tell you that this is the best book to read about the Rucki case. However, it is definitely one to explore.
Note: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. My other book reviews are here.