More than 20 years ago, someone murdered Paul Prety’s little sister.
In the decades since, both he and Coeur d’Alene police have had a pretty good idea who killed 15-year-old Debra Prety.
But they have not been able to prove it, and their last chance may have come Tuesday night.
They suspect Duncan McKenzie Jr., who was scheduled for execution at midnight for an unrelated killing.
McKenzie had been on death row for murdering a Montana schoolteacher in 1974. Legal appeals have delayed his death by lethal injection for two decades.
Paul Prety Jr. hoped McKenzie would admit killing his sister before the poison took hold.
“That would really put an end to all these years of not knowing,” Prety said.
Authorities long have considered McKenzie the primary suspect in the girl’s murder, said Coeur d’Alene Police Chief Dave Scates.
But they’ve never had enough evidence to file charges.
Hoping for a last-minute confession, Coeur d’Alene police Capt. Carl Bergh has been in Deer Lodge, Mont., this week talking to authorities. He requested an interview with McKenzie, but McKenzie’s lawyer refused.
However, Bergh was allowed to submit a letter to McKenzie, asking questions about Debra Prety’s murder.
In 1970, McKenzie severely beat a woman in Blaine County, Mont. The woman, clad only in a blouse, was found crawling alongside a roadway.
McKenzie was sentenced to three years in prison. He was paroled two years later in 1972.
McKenzie, his wife and three children, then moved to Coeur d’Alene in March of 1973, Bergh said.
He lived only a few blocks from Debra Prety, who was was murdered eight months after he came to town.
On the night of Oct. 26, 1973, she and a friend were walking home from a junior high school dance. With only one block to go, Debra left her friend to walk the rest of the way alone.
She never made it home.
After a night of desperate searching, Paul Prety found his sister’s body the next morning in a yard across the street. She had been raped and strangled.
McKenzie left Coeur d’Alene about a month later, Bergh said. He moved to Conrad, Mont., where he killed 23-year-old schoolteacher Lana Harding.
Her body was found on Jan. 23, 1974, in the area of a seed company McKenzie had been working at. She had been raped, beaten and choked by a rope that was still tied around her neck.
Similarities between the two murders are part of the reason police suspect McKenzie killed Debra Prety.
Paul Prety said his sister’s murder had been a mystery until a neighbor saw an article about McKenzie being arrested for the Montana murder. The woman pointed out to police that McKenzie had also lived in their neighborhood.
Capt. Bergh said other clues also pointed police toward McKenzie. He would not discuss the details.
“There’s just too many things that match; it’s just too much of a coincidence,” Paul Prety said from his Athol home Tuesday.
Still without a confession or conviction, the doubts linger.
Coeur d’Alene police have tried several times over the years to interview McKenzie. He refused.
For the Prety family, McKenzie’s death could bring either relief or more pain.
They know McKenzie may refuse to answer their decades-old question. Or the convicted killer may not give them the answer they’re hoping for. “We’re just up in the air, waiting for something to happen,” Paul Prety said.