Joseph E. Duncan III studied the household of Brenda Groene and Mark McKenzie for two or three days before he killed them and Groene’s 13-year-old son, Slade Groene, with a hammer, Kootenai County Sgt. Brad Maskell said in a Tuesday court hearing.
Duncan used night-vision goggles at a distance and peered into the home’s windows at night as he prepared for the killings and kidnapping, according to Maskell’s testimony.
Duncan chose his victims when he was driving past on nearby Interstate 90, glanced over and saw 8-year-old Shasta Groene playing outside in her bathing suit, Maskell told the court.
The testimony of Maskell, the lead investigator in the complex and grisly case, formed the basis for three counts of first-degree murder and three counts of first-degree kidnapping filed Tuesday against Duncan, who continues to be held without bail in the Kootenai County Jail.
Duncan, a 42-year-old registered sex offender from Fargo, N.D., has already been charged with two counts of first-degree kidnapping in the abduction of Shasta and her 9-year-old brother, Dylan Groene.
He’s expected to make a first appearance in court today on the new charges. Prosecutors have until 30 days after Duncan enters a plea in District Court to decide whether to seek the death penalty.
Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas said he intends to drop the original kidnapping charges this week so the U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho can pursue kidnapping charges at a federal level. The new kidnapping charges are based on evidence that Duncan bound the three homicide victims and held them against their will, Douglas said.
Duncan also faces likely federal murder charges in the death of Dylan, whose remains were found July 4 at a remote campsite in Montana’s Lolo National Forest.
“We have agreed that the best course of action would be for the state to prosecute the three deaths in Coeur d’Alene and for my office to prosecute crimes associated with the kidnapping of Shasta and Dylan, their transportation across state lines, and the resulting death of Dylan,” said U.S. Attorney Tom Moss in a press release.
Moss will wait to prosecute Duncan on the federal charges until Kootenai County is finished with its murder and kidnapping case, Douglas said.
“They will be supporting us in the local prosecution and we will be supporting them in theirs,” Douglas said. “It’s been a real seamless investigation, with cooperation from all agencies, and that will continue.”
Tuesday’s probable cause hearing revealed and confirmed many disturbing details about the slayings in the home on East Frontage Road near Wolf Lodge Bay.
Maskell’s testimony was based on evidence found at the home and in the stolen Jeep Duncan was driving. Much of the evidence also came from interviews with Shasta, who was found with Duncan July 2 at the Coeur d’Alene Denny’s restaurant.
Shasta told investigators that she first encountered Duncan when her mother woke her suddenly while she was asleep the night of May 15 and asked her to go with her to the living room. Brenda Groene told Shasta to do whatever Duncan said, according to Maskell.
Shasta referred to Duncan as “Jet,” a nickname used in a Web log Duncan is believed to have authored.
Shasta told investigators that Duncan carried a shoulder-style weapon, her description of which indicated a shotgun, Maskell said. In a search of the Jeep, investigators found a 12-gauge shotgun. They also found shotgun ammunition in the home, Maskell said.
In the living room, Shasta saw McKenzie, Brenda Groene’s boyfriend who was like a stepfather to Shasta, bound by the feet and hands with plastic zip ties and duct tape. She watched Duncan bind her mother’s hands and feet with zip ties, which he reinforced with duct tape, and gag her mother with duct tape wrapped around her head, according to Maskell.
Slade’s hands were bound behind his back with zip ties and duct tape, and he was gagged with duct tape, Maskell said. Unlike the other victims, his feet were not bound, Maskell said.
Detectives found the victims in the house, all bound with 18-inch zip ties, and later found an empty zip tie bag in the Jeep Duncan was driving.
Shasta, drawing with stick figures on a diagram of the house, positioned the bodies of McKenzie and her mother exactly where they were found by police May 16, Maskell said.
While inside the house, Duncan allegedly asked McKenzie if he had any money and McKenzie told him his wallet was on the desk in the living room. Duncan took it and McKenzie’s checkbook, both of which were found in the Jeep, Maskell said.
Duncan also bound Shasta and Dylan and carried them out the back door and laid them in the grass by their swings, according to Maskell’s testimony. The children saw their older brother, Slade, come out of the house after he was attacked, Maskell testified.
“She did describe Slade coming out to the backyard area … bleeding very heavily from an area on his head,” Maskell said. Shasta and Dylan tried to catch his attention, hoping he would free them, but he seemed not to know where they were and wandered away.
“She described him as acting retarded,” Maskell said.
Sometime after Slade wandered off, Shasta heard McKenzie, who was not gagged, “cry out ‘ow, ow’ several times,” Maskell said.
Shasta said “Jet” was the only person responsible for the crimes, Maskell said.
Duncan allegedly carried Shasta and Dylan into a pickup that was parked at the house and drove them to his Jeep, parked at a neighbor’s secluded barn, authorities have said.
The children were placed in the Jeep and driven to Montana, where they were repeatedly sexually assaulted, according to Maskell’s earlier court testimony.
While in Montana, Duncan showed Shasta the weapon, believed to be a FatMax brand hammer, Maskell said. The tool markings on the victims’ skulls are consistent with the kind made by that claw hammer, Maskell said. Authorities have not said whether they recovered the weapon, but Maskell’s testimony indicated they had not.
Shasta said that Duncan wore dark gloves during the crime, and detectives found a pair in the Jeep, Maskell said.
Duncan told Shasta “that he was actually out driving around looking for kids to kidnap … and saw her playing in the yard with her brother and noticed she was wearing her bathing suit,” Maskell testified. “It was at that point that he chose them as a possible kidnap victim.”
He also told Shasta that he studied the habits of the family and the layout of the home, Maskell said.