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Archie Ingersoll, Published February 16 2014

Cash Wise employs shopping bags for missing persons

FARGO – If you’ve gone grocery shopping at Cash Wise in recent months, you’ve probably noticed the smiling faces of two teenage sisters on every plastic bag. And above them is a somber designation in bold lettering: “MISSING (Endangered Runaway).”

The sisters – Samantha Rucki, 15, and Gianna Rucki, 13 – left their home in Lakeville, Minn., a Twin Cities suburb, in April amid a bitter custody battle. Almost 10 months later, their whereabouts is still unknown.

“They just went missing. Gone. Poof,” their mother’s attorney said. “You’d think there’d be some leads or something.”

For several months, the Rucki sisters, and only the Rucki sisters, have been featured on millions of plastic bags used in the 45 Cash Wise and Coborn’s grocery stores that dot the Upper Midwest.

This extensive publicity effort, which has included the Cash Wise stores in Fargo and Moorhead, offers a window into how the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has moved beyond the milk-carton era to use various platforms to circulate images of missing kids and generate tips for investigators.

Like with all cases, NCMEC decided to put the Rucki sisters on the bags here because of where they may be and the level of danger they may face, said Robert Lowery, senior executive director of the center’s missing children division.

“Other children will be featured,” Lowery said. “We distribute images on all our missing children regardless of the circumstance.”

According to NCMEC’s website, 22 Minnesota children are missing, including the Rucki sisters. There are four from North Dakota. Some of these disappearances occurred as early as the 1980s.

The center believes all missing children are inherently in danger, regardless of whether they ran away or were abducted by a parent.

“An awful lot of our runaway children are victimized violently, especially the longer they’re gone,” Lowery said. “We also know a lot of our runaway children also sadly get sexually trafficked.

“When these kids are out on their own, they don’t have money, they don’t have ways of supporting themselves, they’re easy prey for those who will take advantage of them.”

Truckloads of bags

The bags that carry the Rucki sisters’ photos were made by Advanced Polybag, a Texas corporation, which absorbs the price of printing the images of missing children.

“We cover the cost of the plate and ink. That’s our contribution to the community,” sales director Bill Ebeck said.

Ebeck said the company works hard to manage its inventory of bags in case a child is found, alive or dead. If either situation arises, the bags would be pulled from Cash Wise and Coborn’s stores, said Rebecca Kurowski, a spokeswoman for Coborn’s, the St. Cloud, Minn.-based parent company of Cash Wise.

Kurowski said truckloads of bags with the Rucki sisters’ faces on them were printed during the last three months of 2013, and the bags in stores now are from that round of printing. Once those bags are used, another missing child case will be highlighted, she said.

Since 2008, 27 of the children who appeared on Cash Wise or Coborn’s bags have been found, but whether the bags had a direct role in solving any of those cases is not clear, Ebeck said.

There are no Fargo connections to the Rucki case, and police here have not received any credible tips as a result of the bags, said Lt. Joel Vettel of the Fargo Police Department.

The last case with local ties that Vettel could recall, in which extensive advertising led to the recovery of a missing child, was in 2005 when diners in a Denny’s restaurant in Idaho spotted Joseph Duncan and a missing girl, whose family had been slain weeks earlier. Duncan, a convicted serial killer and sex offender, had lived in Fargo.

The breakfast table

In the early 1980s, a few Midwestern dairies began placing photos of missing children on the sides of milk cartons. The practice spread across the country, and it became one of the more memorable aspects of the effort to find missing kids.

But in the late 1980s, these faces stopped showing up at the breakfast table. Advocacy groups realized the messages were reaching children but not adults, who are more likely to report a sighting of a missing child, Lowery said.

Instead of milk cartons, NCMEC these days posts images of missing children wherever they can grab someone’s attention. Aside from plastic bags, faces appear on semis, billboards, lottery machines, newspaper inserts and in the digital realm.

“The Internet has been a huge boost for our work,” Lowery said.

When a child goes missing, NCMEC can immediately send messages to smartphone users, and it can post online ads that target Internet surfers in a specific region, he said.

Since the center was founded in 1984, it has helped find more than 191,000 missing children. Its recovery rate has risen from 62 percent in 1990 to 97 percent in 2014.

“We’ve come a long way in 30 years, and we’ve still got to get better,” Lowery said. “We need to find all the kids.”

‘They’ve lost contact’

The Lakeville Police Department has been investigating the disappearance of the Rucki girls, who ran away the evening of April 19. Because they’ve been gone so long, they’re now classified as endangered runaways, Capt. Kevin Manias said.

“We are in regular contact with the family, and we do follow up on any tips or information that we receive,” Manias said, declining comment further because the investigation is still open.

Lisa Elliott, the attorney for the girls’ father, said the two teens disappeared less than an hour after they were transferred from the custody of their mother’s sister to their father’s sister. A truck picked them up in front of the house where they grew up, Elliott said.

“We just know it was a red truck. One of the neighbors caught it on their surveillance,” she said.

Days after the girls fled, they met a Fox TV news crew from the Twin Cities at a hotel to discuss the custody case. The girls, who appeared to be in good health, told the interviewer they wanted to live with their mother because their father was verbally abusive. A court-appointed psychologist alleged the mother brainwashed the girls into thinking this way.

Elliott said the girls’ father, David Rucki, a broker for a trucking firm, contacted NCMEC about the case after his daughters disappeared, and he’s been pushing police to look for them.

“The fact that the mom isn’t even attempting to find the girls, to me, means she knows where they are,” Elliott said.

The girls’ mother, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki, is a flight attendant. Her attorney, Michelle MacDonald, said Grazzini-Rucki had nothing to do with the girls’ disappearance.

When they ran away, Grazzini-Rucki was under orders to have no contact with her children, even through third parties. The order remains in place, and Grazzini-Rucki is following it, MacDonald said.

“She is completely cut off, or she will be incarcerated,” MacDonald said.

In November, a judge awarded custody of the girls and their three siblings to their father. MacDonald said she’s appealing the case on constitutional grounds.

Despite their differences, both sides of this dispute agree that the Rucki sisters need to be found.

“I can’t imagine what they’re going through,” Elliott said of the girls. “They’ve lost contact with family, with friends, with everything that they knew.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734