ST. REGIS, Mont. – The dead end of a nameless, nearly overgrown logging road deep in the backcountry of Western Montana is believed to be the site where investigators found the remains of 9-year-old Dylan Groene.
At the makeshift campsite at the end of the road, there’s a small fire ring, freshly cut brush and a large ponderosa pine tree oozing fresh sap from what appears to be deep cuts from an ax and slash marks from a knife.
The 3½-mile road leading to the scene was guarded by a U.S. Forest Service law officer for much of Tuesday – public access was barred until a team of FBI forensic investigators finished processing evidence in the area. FBI Special Agent in Charge Tim Fuhrman refused to pinpoint the exact location of the site, but a local law officer speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed the crime scene’s location on a topographic map and said the spot was discovered only after an intense weekend-long search that relied on the scant recollections of a traumatized 8-year-old girl.
Accused kidnapper Joseph Edward Duncan III made camps in at least two spots in the Bitterroot Mountains near St. Regis, according to a handwritten affidavit from Kootenai County Sheriff Sgt. Brad Maskell. Investigators Tuesday refused to say how long Duncan camped in the area.
Posters of Dylan and his 8-year-old sister, Shasta, have been hanging throughout St. Regis since the children went missing seven weeks ago. Residents in this town of 300 expressed shock that the children may have been in their midst.
“Everybody feels bad. We may have been able to spot them,” said Marilyn Miller, one of a handful of residents who turned out to observe an afternoon press conference held in a grassy field used as a helicopter landing site during wildfire season. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”
Forest Service employees, as well as the Mineral County Sheriff’s Department, worked with the FBI over the July 4 weekend to locate the remains of Dylan Groene and scour the area for additional evidence of the crimes. “The thoughts and prayers of everyone in Mineral County goes out to the family,” said Sheriff Hugh Hopwood. “We hope that we are able to give them some kind of closure.”
St. Regis is about 100 miles east of the Coeur d’Alene home where the Groene children were abducted May 16. The camping sites being searched by investigators are located in the area of the Little Joe and Two Mile creeks. A labyrinth of logging roads covers the heavily forested drainages and it is not yet known what led law officers to the end of one of the most remote roads in the area.
Forest Service Law enforcement officer Clint McGuffey, whose district includes the forests near St. Regis, said even though the area is remote, years of logging have left behind “more miles of road than a fella could drive in a lifetime.” McGuffey was called in Tuesday morning to help secure the crime scenes.
When journalists from The Spokesman-Review visited the spot where Dylan Groene’s remains were believed to have been found – after FBI agents had finished processing the scene – little was left behind to distinguish the site from any of dozens or hundreds of other makeshift campsites on the 2.2-million-acre Lolo National Forest. Small bits of marking tape hung from several tree branches. A narrow trail had been cut through an alder thicket – the cut branches were so fresh the leaves had not yet wilted in the hot sun. The site was about 500 feet above Two Mile Creek and was accessible only by driving on a primitive road barely wide enough for a vehicle. A shiny metal surveyor’s point had been pounded into the ground directly in front of the ax-scarred pine tree.
Minutes after the journalists arrived at the site, a Ford Explorer pulled up carrying Kootenai County Sheriff’s Sgt. Brad Maskell, the chief investigator on the case. Maskell and his colleagues spent a few moments looking at the tree before driving away. Maskell declined to confirm whether the site was where the body was found. “We’re checking out a lot of different sites,” he said.