-- It was a bitter cold evening in April 2013 when sisters Samantha and Gianna Rucki ran away from their Lakeville, Minnesota, home. They left without their shoes or coats and disappeared into the night.
The girls were found almost three years later, alive, healthy and living at a therapeutic horse farm less than three hours away from their family home.
Now their mother, who denies having any involvement in their disappearance, is facing felony charges, and the circumstances of how and why these two teen girls vanished is a mystery beginning to unfold.
At the time of their disappearance, the girls and their three other siblings, Nico, Nia and Gino, were at the center of the bitter divorce and custody dispute between their parents, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki and David Rucki.
Grazzini-Rucki, 50, claimed Rucki, 53, was physically abusive to both her and their five children.
"[He would] throw things, hammers at me if he got mad, there was black eyes, there was broken ribs," Grazzini-Rucki told "20/20." "We'd lock ourselves in the bedroom because we're scared…. We just didn't know how his behavior was going to be from one day to the next."
The couple's two daughters Samantha and Gianna were also vocal about their father's alleged abuse. David Rucki has always denied abusing his ex-wife or any of his children.
After 20 years of marriage, Grazzini-Rucki said she reached her breaking point and filed for divorce in 2011 and got a protection order against Rucki. Since filing, she said she called the police on him at least 20 times and claimed he continued to violate the order.
As the divorce proceedings started, the family court judge appointed an advocate for the children and several therapists to try to facilitate a relationship with their father, but the children told the judge they didn't want one.
But the judge determined, based on evidence from a psychologist he appointed, that their mother Sandra Grazzini-Rucki was engaging in "parental alienation," meaning that the reason the children are adamantly opposed to seeing their father was not because he abused them or their mother but because Grazzini-Rucki had brainwashed them, which she denies.
"I've never done anything but be there for my children," Grazzini-Rucki said. "My kids are my life."
While the court investigated the allegations, the five children were placed in the custody of two aunts, Grazzini-Rucki's sister Nancy Olson and Rucki's sister Tammy Love.
"All I'm told is it's a judge's order," Grazzini-Rucki said. "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."
When Olson decides she could no longer care for the children, Love agreed to take them full-time at the Rucki home. On April 19, 2013, police had just dropped off Samantha, then 14, and Gianna, then 13, with Love. The girls vanished 20 minutes later.
"They came in, they were looking at the house, and then they went upstairs," Love told "20/20." "And when they went upstairs, I heard a ringtone, a music ringtone, and I thought, 'OK, maybe they have a phone.' And I get upstairs, and I don't see them. … I see their shoes and their backpacks, so I'm thinking, 'They've got to be here.'
The girls' mother said she found out her daughters were missing from her attorney.
"I don't know what to think," Grazzini-Rucki said. "Everything was going through my mind."
When their father, David Rucki, who owned a multi-million dollar trucking business, found out his girls had disappeared, he said he was terrified.
"These are young girls," Rucki said. "You don't want them hitchhiking. We live by a truck stop…. You think of all these terrible scenarios."
But he said he immediately thought his ex-wife might have had something to do with their disappearance.
A month went by without a single sighting of the girls until suddenly they appeared on a local FOX 9 TV report alleging their father had threatened to shoot their siblings and their mother, which he denied.
"What I was hearing coming out of their mouths was hard," David Rucki said. "I didn't believe it…. I'm a big guy. I kind of come across aggressive, but I never push myself upon her [Sandra]. I never did a thing to my children."
After the story aired, the girls disappeared again.
"I watched [the report], them pleading their hearts out, telling, asking for help," Sandra Grazzini-Rucki said. "That's what I saw, is two children begging for help again … and they didn't get it."
After he saw the girls on TV, David Rucki said he made weekly calls to the police and spent countless hours searching on his own, but got nowhere.
"It's like a little pin sticking … in your heart and you can't get rid of that little pain," he said. "It never goes away … my mother mostly would -- they'll say, 'You know, prepare yourself … if you never find the girls.'"
Meanwhile, Grazzini-Rucki, a flight attendant, appeared to go back to her life as usual, traveling the world for her job. When asked if she called the police about her missing daughters during this time, Grazzini-Rucki claimed she had a court order from the judge not to contact the police.
"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," she said. "When I called Missing and Exploited Children… They told me that I did not have any legal rights to the children … the courts had completely tied my hands."
But in fact, the court order, which was obtained by "20/20," specifically stated that Grazzini-Rucki should report any information she has about the girls' whereabouts to authorities.
As her divorce from David Rucki dragged on, their other three children were still living with their aunt Tammy Love, but Grazzini-Rucki made no attempt to visit them. She said it was because the visits were "heavily supervised" and it wouldn't have been good for the children.
Two and a half years into the Rucki divorce, the judge awarded full custody of all five children to David Rucki in November 2013, dismissing Sandra Grazzini-Rucki's allegations of abuse. Their two daughters Samantha and Gianna were still missing.
Grazzini-Rucki maintains that she did not tell any of her children to run away, but at this point, police suspected that not only did Grazzini-Rucki have contact with the two missing girls, but also that she had help hiding them.
Joan Meier, a law professor at George Washington University and founder of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project (DV LEAP), said when mothers claim abuse their chances of losing custody are "extremely high."
"If you raise abuse, especially child abuse, you've got to make a very strong case," Meier said. "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."
Grazzini-Rucki claims that's exactly what happened to her. There are dozens of videos online of other mothers claiming they had been victimized by the family court system for claiming abuse and many have supporters willing to help them get their children back.
On the two-year anniversary of the girls' disappearance, Brandon Stahl, a reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, decided to write a story about the case. Through his reporting, he found a man named Dale Nathan, an 81-year-old retired attorney who worked on custody cases and who had advised Grazzini-Rucki on her case.
When Stahl interviewed him, Nathan began telling him this story of how he was in the car with Grazzini-Rucki on the day her daughters went missing.
Nathan also spoke to "20/20" and said on that day, Grazzini-Rucki had parked the car next to a field a few blocks away from the family home and within 20 minutes the two girls came running across the field and got in the car. He said Grazzini-Rucki then drove them around back roads for over two hours.
"She kept saying, 'Oh, the Lakeville Police, they're going to find us," Nathan told "20/20."
"And she kept telling the kids, 'Get down. Get down in the backseat.'"
During the ride, Nathan said Grazzini-Rucki kept frantically making phone calls.
"Apparently, there was no plan, and she was making plans on the run," he said.
Nathan said he knew the children had already been taken out of Grazzini-Rucki's custody and that by driving off with them, she was breaking the law, but he didn't call the police. Nathan insisted he couldn't have helped because he didn't know where Grazzini-Rucki had ended up taking them. After several hours, he said she dropped him off at a truck stop and drove off with the girls.
When the Star Tribune published Nathan's story, David Rucki said he was "dumbfounded."
"Well, at that point we knew Sandy was involved," he said.
In October 2015, police arrested Sandra Grazzini-Rucki and charged her with three felony counts of deprivation of parental rights.
The following month, police discovered Samantha and Gianna at the White Horse Ranch in Herman, Minnesota, where they had been living with owners Gina and Doug Dahlen for two and a half years. Police had traced a photo of Samantha hugging a donkey on the farm on the cell phone of a woman named Dede Evavold, one of Grazzini-Rucki's supporters.
The Dahlens told "20/20" Grazzini-Rucki had dropped the girls off at the farm and never came back. They said they were helping the girls out of good intentions because they said Samantha and Gianna told them their father was abusive. Like Grazzini-Rucki, the Dahlens and Evavold are also facing felony criminal charges connected to harboring the girls. All have pleaded not guilty.
Immediately after being taken from the Dahlens' horse ranch, Samantha, now 17, and Gianna, now 16, were placed into foster care. They were then sent to a special therapeutic program to help reunify them with their father and three siblings.
David Rucki finally saw his two daughters shortly after they were found.
"I ran out of the room. I started crying. I didn't recognize 'em … because you know, you know your children. You remember what they sound like, and you remember how they looked," Rucki said. "I didn't recognize my daughters."
Sandra Grazzini-Rucki was held on a $1 million bond at Ramsey County Jail in St. Paul, Minnesota, and released in February. She is awaiting trial and declined to discuss any details directly related it.
Grazzini-Rucki's strongest proof that her husband was abusive was always the testimony of her children, but her oldest son Nico, who once also claimed his father was abusive, now says that after his parents split his mother began subtly poisoning him against his father.
"She started to say like, 'Your dad's this bad guy, your dad, like, hurt you when you were younger,'" Nico Rucki said. "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."
Law professor Joan Meier won't comment on this case but says in messy divorces it's imperative that highly qualified specialists be appointed to sort out fact from fiction when it comes to allegations of abuse.
"I do believe that some parents do fabricate allegations in order to get back at their ex, but … it can't negate the many thousands of other cases where parents are genuinely trying to protect children who are genuinely at risk," she said.
Grazzini-Rucki told "20/20" she too was just trying to protect her children and she believes she will be reunited with them.
"I know what these kids have been put through, but it wasn't me who put these through," she said. "This was the system that put them kids through this…. I believe this will be turned around."