tv 2020 ABC April 8, 2016 10:01pm-11:01pm EDT
>> reporter: tonight, on "20/20" -- from home movies to a home mystery. how did these two smiling, carefree girls end up on a missing poster? >> my kids are my life. i don't wish this upon anybody. >> reporter: real-life "gone girls" -- and now "20/20" is on the hunt to find them. following the trail of a secret network of children hidden by a parent. >> i was moving between houses with people i'd never known. >> reporter: like you're in a spy movie. but are they part of it? two kids were the subject of a manhunt and you had to know that. and who put them there? >> lieutenant polinski called me and said, "are you sitting down?" and then i knew that something was coming.
>> reporter: do you sit here and think, how did this happen? footprints in the snow. good evening. i'm elizabeth vargas. david is off tonight. we began this story not knowing what we would find at the end. but after nearly six months on the road, going from big cities to frozen farms, sandy beaches to jail cells, we pieced together a jigsaw puzzle of missing children. but were they? the story begins with footprints in the snow. it is 7:00 p.m. on a 30-degree april evening in the suburbs of minneapolis. a spring snowstorm has blanketed the roads. and while most families are settling in for dinner, one family is about to fracture forever, when two children living at this home vanish. no shoes. no coats. no backpacks. nothing? >> poof. they were gone.
>> reporter: 13-year-old gianna and 14-year-old samantha rucki disappear. the only trace, footprints in the snow. but oddly, there is no manhunt to find the girls, no police press conference. >> how can two children in the state of minnesota be gone, and no one knows where they are? >> reporter: their parents are embroiled in an ugly divorce and custody dispute but they insist they are united in their desperation for the girls. >> i'm concerned, i am worried, i don't know what to think. >> you don't sleep. you drive around at night. you're always looking. >> reporter: where did they go? who are they with? and why does our journey begin by asking questions to their mother inside the ramsey county jail? did you have anything to do with your two daughters running away? >> no. >> reporter: do you sit here and think, how did this happen? >> clean record, never had a problem. >> reporter: clean record and here you are in jail on a million dollars' bail? what's going on? >> i have no idea.
this shouldn't be what happens in a divorce. >> reporter: this divorce is more like guerrilla warfare than a legal proceeding. exhibit a, these 24 boxes crammed with reams of motions, appeals, and rulings. appeals, and rulings. >> divorce on steroids, that would be a good word for this. >> reporter: but for every documented grievance in this harrowing tale, there is documentation too of the good times. >> look at this. >> reporter: 20 years' worth of home movies featuring both the ruckis in starring roles as an affectionate, feisty couple. and doting, loving parents to their five children, nico, samantha, gianna, nia, and gino. that sounds like a busy home. >> they were wonderful. it was my dream. i loved being a mom. >> reporter: they make their home in lakeville, minnesota, a suburb of minneapolis. david ran a multi-million dollar trucking business. sandra worked as a flight attendant and eventually
competed in local beauty pageants using her nickname sam. >> good evening and welcome. proudly representing lakeville, i'm sam rucki. >> in her spare time she likes cooking italian, flying airplanes and staying fit. >> reporter: but david agrees that family came first for sandra, a loving, energetic mom. >> there it is. >> she was a great mom. very attentive to her kids. >> reporter: their oldest son nico loves hockey and theater. >> he was my first, you know, so of course he was spoiled. >> hi, mama. >> hi, nico. >> reporter: the two oldest daughters, samantha and gianna, are close and take care of their younger brother and sister. >> samantha. she's beautiful. she's smart, she's outgoing. gianna's very artistic. loves, like, animals. >> reporter: but this story is about what sandra claims is not
captured on home video. she says despite those smiling faces, there was a shocking, ugly secret in the family. years of emotional and physical abuse by david. >> throw things, hammers at me if he got mad, um, there was black eyes, there was broken ribs. we'd lock ourselves in the bedroom because we were scared. we just didn't know how his behavior was going to be from one day to the next. >> reporter: during all those years during the marriage, did you ever take any photos? ever seek medical help? >> yes. we had photos, and we have police reports that prove it. >> reporter: and she claims david didn't just target her. but went after the children too. how often did that happen? >> once is more than enough. it happened a lot. >> reporter: after 20 years of marriage, sandra says she reaches her breaking point and finally files for divorce. she says, frightened for her life, she also gets an order of protection against david. and then she calls police on him at least 20 times, claiming he continuously violates it.
>> he broke into the house, came running up the stairs, jumped onto the bed that i was at, started choking me and then took a pillow and started suffocating me. >> reporter: the children, now ages 8 to 14, remain in sandra's custody and refuse to even see david, rebuffing all of his attempts to connect. >> it's your dad. call me. i would like you to call me back. call me. >> reporter: with his children ignoring him, his frustration mounts. he leaves this message after finding out his oldest son nico dropped out of his longtime sport. >> do yourself a favor. get your ass back in hockey. >> reporter: the family court judge david knutson appoints an advocate for the children and several therapists, trying to facilitate a relationship with their father. but the children say they don't want one. david's oldest son nico takes to facebook writing, "my dad is a bad person. he is abusive, verbally and physically." >> reporter: gianna and samantha make audio recordings to support what their mother says.
this is gianna rucki's voice. >> being in the same house as my dad, things were really bad. he was abusive, he had anger issues, he'd always be screaming and yelling. >> reporter: her sister samantha goes even further. >> he just choked, slapped and hit her and verbally abused my mother throughout their marriage. and he's lost it on us kids a number of times. >> reporter: sandra says the children even beg the judge directly to remain with their mother. but the judge determines thus far there has been no evidence of abuse and based on the findings from a psychologist he appointed, that it is sandra who is the real problem here. that the children are showing signs of parental alienation syndrome, meaning the reason the children are adamantly opposed to seeing david is not because he's abused them or their mother but because sandra has brainwashed them. >> i've never done anything but be there for my children. my kids are my life. >> reporter: this is when the judge takes a drastic, and for
sandra, devastating step. he orders sandra out of the house and all five of her children removed from her custody. >> that's when everything happened. i lost everything. my whole life ended then. i had no money, no car, no -- no children. i had nothing. >> reporter: how is this possible, sandra? >> i don't know. all i'm told is it's a judge's order. there was no findings that i ever hurt the children, that i ever abused them, that i ever neglected them, that i ever did anything to them. >> reporter: david's sister tammy becomes the children's temporary guardian. she moves into the rucki home to take care of them. but the two oldest girls, samantha and gianna, are having none of it. >> they came in, they were looking at the house, and then they went upstairs. >> and when they went upstairs, i heard a ringtone, a music ringtone. and i thought, okay, maybe they have a phone. >> reporter: tammy goes downstairs to the basement thinking nothing of that call or who might be on the other end. just 20 minutes later the girls are gone. >> then i called 911.
>> reporter: next -- where did they go? who was on the phone? did you think where might my two daughters have gone? could they have entered a hidden world, a network operating outside the court system for vigilante parents taking the law into their own hands? and what does their father have to say about all this? stay with us. just gotta get the check. almost there. i can't reach it. if you have alligator arms, you avoid picking up the check. what? it's what you do. i got this. thanks, dennis! if you want to save fifteen percent or more on car insurance, you switch to geico. growwwlph. it's what you do. oh that is good crispy duck. they sato make a sunscreenle... you can apply to wet skin. a wrinkle cream that works in one week.
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>> reporter: normally two teenage girls vanishing into thin air would be the top story on the local news, but that's not the case here in minneapolis. there is no amber alert, no search parties combing the woods. sandra, separated from her children by court order, says she finds out her daughters were missing from her attorney. what was your reaction? >> what any mother's reaction would be. i'm concerned, i am worried. everything was going through my mind. >> reporter: when sandra's ex-husband david finds out his daughters have disappeared, he is terrified. what was your biggest fear? >> i mean, these are young girls. you don't want them hitchhiking. we live by a truck stop. we don't -- you think of all these terrible scenarios. >> reporter: david says he becomes consumed with bringing his daughters home. that he would never abuse them and that all of sandra's
allegations against him are completely false. have you ever raised a hand against sandra or your children? >> no. >> reporter: have you ever struck them? have you ever physically abused them in any way? >> no. i'm a big guy. i kind of come across aggressive, but i never push myself upon her. i never did a thing to my children. >> reporter: do you have a problem with anger? >> it's not anger, it's frustration. >> reporter: is it possible that there was something in your body language, or the way you were speaking that scared sandra or the children? >> you know -- >> reporter: do the fights get out of control? >> no. i'm going to yell, you're going to feel pinned, but as far as abusive, no. >> reporter: but if there wasn't any physical abuse, how is it possible that the rucki children would tell such frightening stories? lisa elliot is david's attorney. >> they are parroting what their mom is saying. >> reporter: but they're not young children, why would they do this? >> i think she had them so afraid of what would happen if
they went with their dad, that she said, "you have to say this, or you're going to end up with your dad." >> reporter: and david begins to suspect that sandra knows more than she's saying about their missing daughters. you and sandra had been involved by this point in a lengthy and bitter -- >> we -- >> reporter: custody fight. >> we -- >> reporter: did you think she might have something to do with this? >> oh, yeah. >> reporter: as the weeks pass with no sign of samantha or gianna, david says he spends his nights driving the streets searching. he begins tailing sandra to see if she might lead him to the girls and even hires a private investigator. >> you can't get rid of that pain. it never goes away. my mother mostly would say, "you know, prepare yourself." >> reporter: prepare yourself for what? >> "if you never find the girls." how? i couldn't stop looking. >> reporter: the same cannot be said for sandra, who appears to go back to life as usual,
hop-scotching around the world as a flight attendant. popping up on facebook at an nhl finals game and lounging on a boat with friends. did you call the police? >> i had an order not to contact the police. >> reporter: you have a right to contact the police if you're a victim of a crime or if you're in danger. >> that i am not to contact the police. >> reporter: but this court order directly contradicts that specifically stating that sandra should report any information she has about the girls' whereabouts to authorities. so you did nothing when you found out they were missing then? >> okay, i guess if you're in that situation where you've been stripped of everything related to your children, you don't know what to do. >> reporter: if one of my children went missing, i'd be out there with a sandwich board saying find my child. >> the courts had completely tied my hands. >> reporter: one month after the girls' disappearance, there is a bizarre twist in the story. they show up, but in a place no one expects. the rucki girls say they want to be heard. on local television.
they met with us at a hotel. we don't know who brought them here. the local fox 9 station airs this story and right there sitting in front of the reporter are the two missing rucki sisters. >> i'm just really scared it's going to end really badly. >> reporter: and once again they back up what sandra has been saying. >> he was abusive. >> really. >> in what way? >> emotionally, verbally. >> i mean, our mom was always our protector, but now there's no one there to protect us. >> i was glad to see my girls. but, you know, what i was hearing coming out of their mouths was hard. >> reporter: and as quickly as you can change the channel, the girls are gone again, vanishing back into the night. months pass, their faces appear on the missing and exploited children's website and on thousands of plastic bags distributed in northern minnesota. and while the search continues for the rucki girls, their parents' epic divorce drags on until the judge finally makes his ruling in a painstaking 60-page order.
he drops a bombshell awarding full custody of all five children to david, writing of sandra's allegations of abuse that, "the court has not received any evidence to support" her "very serious allegations." he went on to say that sandra "refused to cooperate with any of the professionals appointed in this case." for david, it is total vindication. 17-year-old nico, 13-year-old nia, and 10-year-old gino return to their father's care. and while david works to mend his fractured relationship with them, his two missing daughters are no closer to being found. how were the three children reacting to the absence of their sisters? were they worried? >> this was a big-time white elephant in the room. it was always something that was just there. >> reporter: the secret of what
really happened to the rucki girls holds for two alarming long years. until someone who knew that secret, someone who kept it, finally speaks up. you knew sandra was lying. >> i thought she was, yeah. >> reporter: well, you knew she was. and a secret underground network willing to defy court orders and hide children. >> we sort of pass messages. we use a lot of burner phones. >> reporter: could this group hold the key to finding the rucki girls? stay with us. we're in the mide of potty-training. which means that most nights, this is the potty. these robot sheets, they needed more than detergent could handle. they needed a rescue. otherwise, we might have had to say bye-bye to our favorite robots ya. so we added tide rescue to the wash. it cleans super deep down where detergent just doesn't. daddy, i've got to go potty! progress! go, go, go! eww stinky. introducing tide rescue. eliminates tough odors at the source. find it in the stain remover aisle.
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>> reporter: you never encouraged any of your children. >> how can i encourage my children to run away? i've had no contact. >> reporter: police suspected that not only did sandra have contact with her girls, she also had help hiding them from a secret underground network of people willing to defy court orders and conceal children. damon dumas knows all about defying court orders. he went into hiding when he was 14 years-old. using a loosely organized group of safe houses to escape life with a father, he says, was abusive. >> my mom actually made sure that she wouldn't know where i was going. she handed me off so someone she trusted, who handed me off to someone else that she trusted. >> reporter: who was taking care of you? >> whoever i was with was taking care of me. >> reporter: were they strangers? >> they were all strangers, yeah. i was moving between houses with people who i'd never known. it'll be someone who, maybe hears about me and says, "hey, well if damon ever needs someone to stay with, he can stay with
me." and we sort of pass messages. we use a lot of burner phones. >> reporter: burner phones? >> yeah. >> reporter: you sound like you're in a spy movie. >> well, in a lot of ways that's what it felt like. >> reporter: so how often do you come out to the beach now? while on the run damon says he lived in around ten different homes, never staying anywhere long. during that time, he made videos and posted them on the internet. >> i'm turning 16 tomorrow but instead of a birthday party with my friends i'm in hiding. >> reporter: but this life in shadows came at a steep price. did you go to school? >> actually, i did not and that's something that i sort of regret because i ended up, when i got out of hiding, i had to go back a year in high school. >> reporter: what did you do with your days? >> i played video games. honestly, it was, i had no one to talk to. >> reporter: were you homesick? >> absolutely. absolutely, every day. >> reporter: those days turned into months, and instead of
getting easier for damon, life got more difficult. >> i called my mom, and i said, "i don't know how much longer i'm going to make it." because i was considering suicide at that point. it had been very long in hiding. >> reporter: in those videos damon discussed the abuse he says he suffered. >> i told police about this, i told psychologists. i even told the judge and yet somehow it was all covered up in lies. >> reporter: today damon is an activist working with an organization called the women's coalition. he blames the court for forcing him into his life on the run, even though damon's father strenuously denies ever abusing his son and a judge agreed there was no credible evidence to prove it happened. >> he said that whether or not i was being abused, my mom had to stop talking about abuse and that i was going to be reunified with my father. >> reporter: why would a judge do that if he really thought you were being abused? >> because what people don't understand is that this is not something that is a one-time case. this is not something that happened to me. this is systemic.
>> reporter: and the internet is teeming with videos of mothers who say they too have been victimized by family courts after they reported their allegations of abuse. >> as a mother you try to protect your son and that was the biggest mistake of my life. >> they said i cried wolf when i called 911. >> i am seeking justice. >> it is okay to protect our children. >> if you're a mother and you alleged child abuse your odds of losing custody are extremely high. >> reporter: joan meier is a law professor at george washington university who studies family courts. her research has turned up some surprising, and in her mind troubling results. >> if you raise abuse, especially child abuse, you've got to make a very strong case. if you can't nail it, not only will you lose custody, you may lose all access because the assumption will be that you have poisoned your child's brain with these ideas. >> reporter: sandra says this is exactly what happened to her. so did her daughters run away to protest a family court ruling, like damon dumas? that's what brandon stahl, a
reporter at the "minneapolis star tribune" wanted to find out. on the two-year anniversary of the girls disappearance, he decides to write a story. >> i wanted to know if the girls are okay and if i could find them. >> reporter: he didn't find the girls but he did find this man. dale nathan, a diminutive 81-year-old who has spent years working as an attorney in custody cases. dale had his legal license suspended after he refused to reveal where one of his clients was in hiding with her child. he is a fervent supporter of sandra. >> dale is somebody who believes to the bone that the family courts in minnesota are corrupt. >> reporter: the story dale tells is a doozy. he says he was with sandra on the night her daughters ran away. he says sandra and he were driving around in sandra's car when she took him to this field just blocks away from the rucki family home. we drove with dale to that spot. >> this is about the area, right back here, where sandra stopped.
>> reporter: he showed us where they pulled over. so you stopped. you parked. you waited. >> and after about 20 minutes, the two girls came running across that little field. they got into the car. and then sandra started driving. >> reporter: the four of them drove around back roads for more than two hours. >> she kept saying, "oh, the lakeville police, they're going to find us." so -- and she kept telling the kids, "get down. get down in the backseat." >> reporter: during the ride dale says sandra was frantically making phone calls. >> apparently, there was no plan. and she was making plans on the run. >> reporter: dale says he knew that the children had already been taken out of sandra's custody. and that by driving off with them she was breaking the law. >> sandra was busy telling the police she had no idea where the girls had gone. and you knew sandra was lying. >> i thought she was, yeah. >> reporter: well, you knew she was. because you were in the car with her. >> that's true.
>> reporter: right. >> you're right. >> reporter: so if you knew she was lying about that, why didn't you go to police and say, "i know what really happened"? >> i think sandra was trying to protect her children. i wasn't going to betray that. >> reporter: dale insists he couldn't help even if he wanted to. he doesn't know where sandra ended up taking the girls. after hours of driving around with him, she dropped dale off at a truck stop and drove away with the girls still in the car. last april the "star tribune" published brandon stahl's story. and one reader in particular was riveted. what did you think when you read the account of dale nathan? >> dumbfounded. and we were like, "this completely validates --" >> reporter: everything you suspected. >> everything. well, at that point we knew sandy was involved. >> reporter: and now police know too. they arrest sandra and charge her with three felony counts of deprivation of parental rights. she's thrown in jail on $1 million bond. but the mystery remains. where are the girls?
one month after sandra's arrest, there is stunning news. >> lieutenant polinski called me and said, "are you sitting down?" and then i knew that something was coming. >> reporter: next, the rucki girls, found at last. but where have they been? who took them in? we're on our way to find out. and you may be surprised by what we find behind this door. stay with us. was active. i was energetic. then the chronic, widespread pain drained my energy. my doctor said moving more helps ease fibromyalgia pain. he also prescribed lyrica. fibromyalgia is thought to be the result of overactive nerves. lyrica is believed to calm these nerves. for some, lyrica can significantly relieve fibromyalgia pain and improve function, so i feel better. lyrica may cause serious allergic reactions or suicidal thoughts or actions. tell your doctor right away if you have these, new or worsening depression, or unusual changes in mood or behavior. or swelling, trouble breathing,
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i approve this message. >> reporter: where can two teenage girls hide in plain sight? deep in the snow-swept fields of minnesota's north country, amid miles and miles of desolate, untouched land, this speck of property, a farm called the white horse ranch, holds the secret of the missing rucki daughters. what led police here? the trail begins with one of sandra's staunchest supporters.
dede evavold, an activist friend, vocal about her belief there is corruption in the family courts. detectives search her home and find a cell phone photo of one of the girls on a farm. they trace that photo back to the white horse ranch. and with that, bingo. police discover this is where the girls have been the entire two and a half years of their disappearance. we took a trip to find out how they ended up here and how they went under the radar for so long. behind this door are the people law enforcement believes broke the law by housing the girls. >> welcome! >> reporter: they are an unlikely pair of alleged criminals. gina and doug dahlen own the ranch which offers 90-minute therapy sessions with their animals. 22 horses, 3 donkeys, and 2 alpacas. they help children who've been abused. >> our mission is to reach
children and families, and to bring healing and wholeness through the animals. >> reporter: hundreds of children have made day trips to the ranch, but samantha and gianna rucki were not their typical guests. >> we received a phone call. >> reporter: from? >> dede evavold. >> reporter: dede evavold not only knew sandra, she knew the dahlens and respected their work on the ranch. >> i knew that these are good, honest, salt of the earth people that really are just about doing the right thing. >> she just said that they needed a temporary place and that they were working through a court case. >> reporter: so you thought they were coming for three days? >> that is correct. three days isn't a big deal. >> reporter: the dahlens say it was sandra, along with dede, who dropped the girls off at the ranch one night, with no more than the clothes on their back. then sandra left and never returned. days turned into months, and then, astonishingly, years. i don't understand how three days turns into two and a half
years. >> i don't know if i can even answer that question. >> reporter: this is where the dahlens' attorney, travis keil, steps in, because the dahlens, along with dede evavold and sandra, are now facing felony criminal charges for their role in the girls' disappearance. >> at this point there's certain information we just can't disclose. >> reporter: but they can say that in that long period of time, the dahlens never saw sandra again. they spoke to her by phone only a handful of times. >> and it was always from a track phone so there was never a way of connecting with her. >> reporter: and then would speak to the girls? >> no. >> reporter: no? >> she, she didn't, she didn't want to. i mean, she was very concerned about them and tell them that i love them. i almost feel like she knew that they were safe here. >> reporter: don't you think that's a little weird? >> mm-hmm. >> we run into a lot of weird stuff here. >> reporter: while the rucki girls are away from everyone and everything they know, communing with the alpacas, three hours south, their father scoured the earth for any sign of them.
why did you keep them here despite the fact that you knew a parent was looking? >> i wouldn't say that we kept them here. we allowed them to stay. they could have left at any time. they didn't want to leave. >> reporter: but didn't you know that people were looking for these children? >> i can't answer that. >> not at this point. >> not at this time. our choices were to put them out on the street or give them a place to live and we did not want them out on the street. >> reporter: they told you they would continue to run away if forced to return to their father? >> they were not going back there. >> reporter: did you try and reason with them? they're girls, they're minors. >> yes we did. >> reporter: they're not allowed by law to decide where i get to live and what's best for me. >> yes, we did. a number of times. and it was a lot of fear. >> i've never seen anybody that scared before. >> reporter: did they ever sound coached to you? >> no. >> i believed them 100%. >> reporter: at the ranch the girls made a new life for themselves with the dahlens. they were homeschooled. their daily activities included helping with the animals.
>> everybody has to do chores. >> anything from cleaning pens to feeding the animals to brushing them. >> reporter: the nearest town is herman, population 437. was it a secret that the girls were here? >> no. >> no, it was not. >> reporter: so you didn't like say, okay, go hide in the back bedroom when somebody's pulling up? >> everybody knew they were here. >> reporter: you made no effort to conceal them. >> no. no, they, they had been in public, they had been out shopping, they were in, the hair salon. >> they went to church with us. >> reporter: and they went by their first names, samantha and gianna? >> yes. >> reporter: the dahlens say they were only helping the girls. they, along with dede evavold and sandra, have all pleaded not guilty to the charges against them. but what about that so-called underground network that helped children like damon dumas flee court orders? are you part of this underground network? >> no. >> no. >> we were asked the question and i asked, my question back was, what is that?
>> reporter: last november, doug looks out the window and sees lakeville police and county deputies sitting out front. police are simply following the trail from dede evavold's cell phone photo, not realizing the girls are actually there. >> i walked out and they told me that they were looking for the girls and wanted to know if i knew anything about them or their whereabouts and i told them yes, they're in the house. they were quite frankly shocked. >> reporter: the dahlens say the girls were devastated. is that the last time you saw them? >> yes. it was hard. >> reporter: so what would you say to them if they were watching this? >> we pray for them every day, we love them, and we want what's best for them, truly. >> reporter: but did they do what was best for them? david rucki's attorney lisa elliot says absolutely not. is it possible they were just good samaritans trying to help? >> when the mother drops them off and doesn't come back for them ever? >> reporter: for two and a half years. >> for two and a half years? i would think most people would,
at some point, say, we need to look into this. >> reporter: so what happens when the police take the girls from the farm? how does a broken family get pieced back together? when david finally sees the girls for the first time, it is not the reunion he imagined. were you nervous? >> i ran out of the room. i start crying. i didn't recognize them because you know, you know your children. you remember what they sound like and you remember how they looked. i didn't recognize my daughters. >> reporter: the hard work begins of building trust with two girls who still fear their father. samantha and gianna said a lot of devastatingly terrible things about you, publicly. >> yeah. but again, they are in a fragile state. >> reporter: do they still believe those things? >> i don't know. we don't get deep into things, along that lines. we're moving forward. >> reporter: while the girls may not be recanting their
accusations against their father, their big brother is. coming up -- >> i'm done playing a pawn. >> reporter: sandra's own son is turning on her, and now that her supporters are revealing her role in the girls' disappearance, what will she say when we confront her? you sat right here and spent half an hour telling me you hadn't seen or spoken to your daughters. if you were lying to me about that, what else might you be lying to me about? stay with us.
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surprised you're still here? >> yeah, very surprised. >> reporter: when we first spoke to sandra, she told us she wasn't involved in the disappearance of her daughters. did you have anything to do with your two daughters running away? >> no. >> reporter: you didn't know where they were these last two years? >> no. >> reporter: after nearly six months of our "20/20" investigation, we've explored that loosely organized underground network of activists hiding the children in nasty divorce cases. and tracked down every key player in the rucki case, the dahlens, dede evavold, dale nathan, all supporters of sandra's who say they weren't part of any network, but who authorities say helped her hide her daughters for two and a half years. dale nathan said that he was with you when your two daughters jumped in the back seat without shoes or coats and then you drove off. is that true? >> this is related to the
trial, preliminary. >> yeah, this, that'll all be talked about at the trial, upcoming trial. >> i can't comment on anything related to the trial, you know that. >> reporter: well, all i'm telling you is you sat right here and spent half an hour telling me you hadn't seen or spoken to your daughters. and i've now spoken to three people who tell us in fact that's a lie. so if you were lying to me about that, what else might you be lying to me about? >> i can't discuss anything regarding the trial. i just can't. >> reporter: while sandra is now suddenly not talking about her case, her attorney, michelle mcdonald, hints at a possible defense, saying if sandra truly believed her children were in danger, she was free to break the law to protect them. >> they have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she didn't have a reasonable belief that her children needed protection. >> reporter: which makes those allegations of physical abuse during the marriage, so important. if those claims are true, then perhaps a jury could forgive sandra for what she did. and from the very beginning she has assured us that there is
there, scouring thousands of documents, and in more 20 boxes we didn't find a single piece of paper or photo to prove that any physical abuse ever happened. so we reached out to the lakeville police department and they have no record of ever being contacted by sandra about abuse during her marriage. >> sandra certainly has never been afraid to call the police, ever. if there were instances of david being violent or threatening, there would be police reports of it. there are none. >> reporter: sandra's strongest proof was always the testimony of her children, but today, one of those children has recanted his story. oldest son nico, that little boy from the home videos and the same son who later posted that damning facebook message accusing his father of physical abuse. he now says all of that was a lie, and that it was his mother who pressed him into believing it was true. >> she started to say like,
"your dad's this bad guy. your dad like hurt you when you were younger." i was like, "what? what are you talking about? i don't remember any of this." "well, it happened to you." at the time i believed it because you listen to your mom. >> reporter: he says he was 15 years old and he couldn't understand why she didn't want him to see his father. >> i felt really close to my dad and i was still confused about what was going on. why wasn't i seeing my dad? >> reporter: nico now says he never saw his father physically abuse his mother or his brother and sisters. as for that facebook post, nico says sandra stood over him while he typed, coaching him on exactly what to say. >> when i look at my writing then and what i wrote then. that doesn't sound like me. and i feel really bad. >> reporter: he continues to tell us that you brainwashed them into thinking they were abused. >> and you don't find that questionable? >> reporter: well, what do you think? you're his mom. >> i haven't seen nico for a long time. i'm -- it's sad that, that he's saying that, but when my son hadn't been around his father,
he has a completely different story than he has now. >> reporter: did you somehow convince your own kids -- >> no. >> reporter: -- that their dad was abusing them? >> no, no. >> reporter: to this day, she says she stands by every decision she has made, every battle line she's drawn, every consequence she and her children have suffered. the two daughters, they spent two years working on a horse farm. they didn't go to school. >> you don't think i think about all these things? i know what these kids have been put through, but it wasn't me who put these through. this was the system that put them kids through this. >> reporter: david and his attorney lisa elliot say this was never about keeping her children safe. sandra, they say, wanted revenge. >> she was out to destroy him for whatever reason, and i don't think she cared what she destroyed in, in the meantime. >> reporter: do you think you will ever be reunited with your children? >> yes. >> reporter: you do?
>> yes. i believe this will be turned around. >> reporter: perhaps but it will take more than a court order to do that. it is painful clear as you watch her son, nico, struggles with the simple question, does he still love his mother? >> i want to say no, but she's my mom. she just doesn't feel like a mom. >> reporter: next, how are the girls adjusting to their new lives in their old home with their father? headache? motrin helps you be an unstoppable, let's-rock-this-concert- like-it's-1999 kind of mom. back pain? motrin helps you be the side-planking, keeping-up-with- your-girlfriend- even-though-you'll-feel-it- later kind of woman you are. body pain? motrin helps you be an unstoppable, i-can-totally-do-this- all-in-one-trip kind of woman.
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my babies. >> sandra, are you making any comment today? >> reporter: sandra is now out of jail. she was released in february after 130 days behind bars. >> i do appreciate the air and the sun. i will say that. >> reporter: but she says there was no cause for celebration. >> well, i'm in a prison without the bars. um, is what i'm in now. >> reporter: because as part of her release sandra is not permitted to have any contact with samantha and gianna. she is allowed to see her other children with conditions. as for the girls, david says they are happy to be home and doing well. they rang in the new year, and a new life together, on their first family vacation in years. david asked us to obscure the children's faces to give them privacy. samantha and gianna are back in their high school and are getting good grades. samantha has her driver's permit. and it might surprise you to hear how david sees his family's future.
will you fight her ability to see the children? >> this is my children's mother. it's important that they have a mother. sandra is slated to go on trial in july. let us know what you think about her claims, and what they did at that farm, online. use #abc2020. domestic violence is a serious issue, and many need help. if you know of someone who does, go to our website for a list of resources. from all of us at abc news and "20/20," have a great weekend. coming up on "action news" tonight a local police officer is honored for saving three lives within days of each
other. former navy seal credited with credited with killing osama bin laden is arrested. we will need more than a spring jacket tomorrow. it will be snowing all day long. and no need to check your calendar, it really is, april. friday night, jim's off, i'm monica malpass. the big story on "action news"