FARGO, N.D. – Joseph E. Duncan III lived a quiet life in this quiet High Plains town.
Those who knew him say he was intelligent, courteous and a loner. The few acquaintances aware of his past as a violent sex offender seemed willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – the crime happened nearly a quarter century ago in a city two time zones away.
By all accounts, Duncan seemed to be the poster boy for an ex-convict on the mend.
“In many ways, he was almost a model offender, in terms of his time here,” said Fargo Police Chief Chris Magnus.
This might help explain the intense feelings of shock, outrage and embarrassment in Fargo following revelations last week that Duncan was charged with kidnapping two Coeur d’Alene children and linked to the bludgeoning deaths of three other people at their home.
“My antennae never went off,” said Carole Huber, receptionist in the computer science department at North Dakota State University, where Duncan was only weeks away from graduating with honors.
Huber’s colleagues say she has an uncanny ability as a character judge. A sixth sense. Of all people, Huber should have been able to sense that something was wrong with Duncan. He never attended the department’s Christmas parties, but computer science majors have a reputation for being happier at a keyboard than a cocktail party. All Huber can recall is Duncan’s smile and polite demeanor.
“It’s very troublesome, very troublesome,” Huber said.
The news of Duncan’s alleged crimes surfaced just over a year after Dru Sjodin, a young woman living in nearby Grand Forks, N.D., was kidnapped and murdered by a twice-convicted sex offender. People in Fargo have reached their limit, said Joel Heitkamp, a state senator who hosts a popular talk show on KFGO-AM radio.
“We’ve had it,” Heitkamp said in an off-air interview. “The area’s had it up to their eyeballs.”
The area’s reputation for being polite almost to a fault – lampooned in the critically acclaimed and locally scorned movie “Fargo” – usually carries over to the airwaves, Heitkamp said. Not with Duncan.
“I’ve heard everything from castration to mutilation to painting the sucker red,” Heitkamp said. “I’ve been struggling all week. What the hell do you call him? Do you call him mister? I don’t. Parasite’s been a word I use a lot. Or leech.”
Duncan moved to town five years ago. Unlike his experience in Kansas City, Mo., where Duncan was arrested in 1997 and sent back to prison for failing to register as a convicted sex offender, Duncan checked in with Fargo police four days after he arrived in the city. A much-publicized community meeting was held – believed to be the first in Fargo – to notify citizens of his presence, said Magnus, the police chief.
Magnus has made monitoring sex offenders a priority. Fargo police officers are required to check each of the city’s roughly 150 sex offenders every three months. The officers take photos of the sex offenders and update the records if the offenders grow a mustache, dye their hair or otherwise change appearance. The officers also make sure the offenders are not being harassed and check to see if they might need additional treatment.
Duncan never raised the suspicions of Fargo police. On his Internet diary, however, Duncan complained of the constant police scrutiny. Magnus shrugged off the criticism. “I don’t feel good about any of it, but the fact that he elected not to offend – in our knowledge – in Fargo would suggest to me the level of community awareness and the level of police checks could have played some role,” Magnus said.
Duncan’s 1980 conviction for sexually assaulting and torturing a 14-year-old boy in Tacoma was also known to police and administrators at North Dakota State University. His record was reviewed before he was admitted to the university, said Virgil Mueller, campus police chief. Duncan was not on probation and it was noted that he had followed all the sex offender registration rules when he moved to the city. Duncan was admitted to the university, but barred from living on campus. Mueller said he and others on campus always hope that the university experience can help serve as a powerful tool for self-improvement for all students, including ex-convicts.
“Theoretically, they paid their debt to society and are entitled to the civil rights of other citizens, which includes the pursuit of education. Philosophically, I support that,” Mueller said.
Still, officers kept a close eye on Duncan, as well as three other level-III sex offenders at the university. Duncan was an “exemplary student,” who seemed to be focused only on his studies, Mueller said.
The computer science department is not known for being easy. Students take courses in subjects ranging from artificial intelligence to programming to designing complicated databases. Duncan stood out among the estimated 200 undergraduates in the program and was good enough to be hired by the department to do programming work, said Kendall Nygard, professor and department chairman. A pre-employment background check revealed Duncan’s criminal past, but faculty decided to judge him on his current actions, Nygard said. “I figured he was just getting his life back together. He seemed to be under control. He seemed normal.”
This spring, the day before a small story was published in the Detroit Lakes, Minn. newspaper about the allegations of Duncan molesting two young boys in July 2004, Duncan appeared in Nygard’s office. “He didn’t say anything to me about that,” Nygard said. Duncan simply asked if Nygard had spotted his missing cell phone.
That was the last time Duncan was seen on campus. It seemed odd that such a promising student would disappear weeks before graduation, but no one was prepared for the shocking story that appeared July 2, after Duncan had been arrested and accused of kidnapping and assaulting 8-year-old Shasta Groene and her 9-year-old brother, Dylan. Days later, Duncan was identified as the only suspect in the beating deaths of the children’s mother, brother and their mother’s boyfriend. He is now being held without bond in the Kootenai County Jail and has refused to speak to investigators.
“We were stunned,” Nygard said.
After Duncan was paroled from prison in Washington in 1997, he was encouraged to come to Fargo by Dr. Richard Wacksman, a local critical care physician. The two had met in a San Francisco coffeeshop, according to the Fargo Forum newspaper. Wacksman offered to support Duncan and let him stay at his home about three miles north of Fargo but prison officials objected, saying Duncan posed a threat to Wacksman’s children, the newspaper reported.
Police are now investigating Wacksman, Magnus said, declining to comment on the nature of the investigation. Magnus did, however, summarize the thoughts of many in his town on why a physician was associated with a dangerous sex offender: “It certainly is a peculiar relationship.”
Wacksman, who now works at a hospital in Florida, was unavailable for comment last week.
In the past week, the normally quiet street in front of Duncan’s lavender apartment house has witnessed a steady stream of cars. The vehicles drive slowly and passengers crane their necks to stare a bit longer at what has become perhaps the most notorious home in North Dakota. Even with Duncan in jail, those living in his neighborhood say they’ve lost their sense of safety, said E.A. Thompson, who lives two doors down from Duncan’s apartment.
“Now when I see kids I look to see if there’s an adult with them,” she said. “Good grief! I used to see kids out here all the time riding their bikes. I could take a walk out here at midnight. I never dreamed that some of this was going on. … That kind of behavior keeps a whole community hostage.”
Like others who saw or spoke to Duncan, Thompson said she still has trouble believing that a man who seemed so quiet and non-threatening could be accused of something so horrible. She even remembers him carrying groceries for an elderly neighbor.
Brett Person, who lived in the apartment below Duncan, said he now has trouble sleeping at night. Person often saw Duncan. The two would occasionally make small talk, usually about their shared interest in computers. Person shook his head and seemed at a loss for words when asked about Duncan.
“He deserves to die for this,” Person said, standing on the lawn in front of the apartment. “I just feel so bad for the (Groene) family. Nobody has any answers. He snapped.”
Fans whirred in the windows of the apartment, battling the humidity and lingering heat of the prairie evening.
Neighbor Julie Olsen had more questions than answers when asked about Duncan. “Does Idaho got the death penalty?” she asked, sitting on a brick step about 75 feet from Duncan’s front door.
In an alley behind Duncan’s apartment house, Vern Derosier was polishing his new car. Derosier, a mall maintenance man only months from retirement, kept a close eye on his grandchildren when they visited, but otherwise never gave much of a thought to Duncan.
“I knew he wouldn’t come after me,” he said.
Country music drifted from Derosier’s garage. Not far away, a sparrow pecked at a bug on the roof of Duncan’s building. For the first time in a long time, Derosier said he has been thinking about the death penalty, which Duncan now faces.
“I’m usually against that, but this time they should just do it in a hurry,” he said.