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Family’s top concern shielding Shasta

Shasta Groene spent Tuesday afternoon much like any other kid.

“She’s running through the sprinklers and watching cartoons,” said her grandmother, Darlene Torres. “She’s just playing and being a kid. That’s what we want from her. It’s a miracle we have her.”

But after spending seven weeks as the prisoner of a man accused of killing her mother, her mother’s boyfriend and two of her brothers, 8-year-old Shasta is beginning to ask some questions of her own and is making references to her lost brothers and mother, Torres said. She’s joked about how her mother played a prank once by adding extra pepper to vegetable soup, making her sneeze. Or how she and her brother Dylan once sneaked out of the house in winter and jumped into the snow while wearing only their swimsuits.

Torres and other family members say their top concerns now are protecting Shasta’s privacy and shielding her from what will likely be a long onslaught of grisly details of the May 16 killings and abductions. Torres said Shasta was “devastated” Tuesday morning when she was changing the television channel and spotted an image of the man accused of kidnapping her and killing most of her family, Joseph E. Duncan III, a convicted sex offender.

“Her dad told her not to flip the TV changer. She did. She saw this guy and said, ‘There’s Jet!’ ” Torres said, making reference to a nickname used by Duncan. “It was really disturbing. She’s not ready for all that yet.”

Shasta has visited with a counselor, Torres said, and has received heaps of support from her family and relatives. Torres spoke in a park several blocks from her Post Falls home. She had agreed to do a television interview with a national news network Tuesday afternoon, but insisted the camera trucks never appear within sight of the home. Shasta needed to have a fun, uninterrupted afternoon in the sprinklers with her friend and cousin.

Torres said Shasta has been spending time at her house as her father, Steve Groene, makes funeral preparations for Dylan, who was 9. Investigators say Dylan and Shasta were kidnapped from their home May 16 and kept prisoner by Duncan. A public memorial service for Dylan is expected to take place Saturday in Coeur d’Alene, but details have not been set, Torres said.

Now that Dylan’s remains have been identified and Shasta returned home, Torres said the family is trying to move forward. Torres said she hopes to return soon to her job as a cashier at Wal-Mart. She has been away from the job since the slayings took place. But Torres said she is also beginning her efforts to push for tighter oversight of registered sex offenders, including proposed legislation that would create a national database of sex offenders.

In April, Duncan posted a $15,000 bail in Minnesota on unrelated child sexual assault charges. Torres thinks the bond amount was too low for a man who had already committed at least one violent sexual assault against a child, even if the crime occurred in 1980. The judge, Thomas Schroeder, of Detroit Lakes, has been refusing to comment on his reasoning behind the bail. Minnesota officials say Duncan’s criminal history might not have been given to the judge, although the information is available on computer databases accessible by judges.

“This would have never happened if he was doing his job,” Torres said.

Shasta lived on the edge of a forest and a lake and spent much of her free time outdoors with her brother, picking huckleberries, gathering firewood and catching snakes on the banks of a nearby creek, Torres said. That outdoorsy upbringing might have helped keep her alive over past weeks, as well as lead investigators to the remote Bitterroot Mountain campsite where Dylan’s remains where found.

“These kids were all taught to look at markers, know where you are at all times in case you get lost,” Torres said. “We’re talking about a really smart little girl.”

Shasta and her brothers had recently been helping beautify the yard at their home, Torres said. In September, Shasta’s mother was to be married in an outdoor ceremony at the home.

“It’s hard to believe that they robbed her of all that,” Torres said.

Shasta will never again live at the home near Wolf Lodge Bay but already talks about returning to Fernan Elementary School, Torres said. One of Shasta’s favorite teachers visited her in the hospital and children at the school have written volumes of cards and drawings to support the return of Shasta and her brother.

“She wants to go back to Fernan, but I don’t know if that’s possible yet or not,” Torres said. “Those are her friends. That’s all the people she knows.”

Shasta has expressed disbelief at what happened to herself and Dylan, Torres said. “She said, ‘I don’t believe we could have gotten kidnapped. That doesn’t happen around here.’ I just tell her, ‘We will never let this happen to you again.’ “