Joseph E. Duncan III sat mute throughout his first court appearance on three first-degree murder and three first-degree kidnapping charges Wednesday.
He was mostly stone-faced during the short proceeding, except when he appeared to cry as the individual charges were read by Kootenai County Magistrate Judge Benjamin Simpson.
Duncan’s public defender, Lynn Nelson, answered the judge’s questions for his client.
Duncan, a 42-year-old registered sex offender from Fargo, N.D., is suspected of using a hammer to beat to death 13-year-old Slade Groene, the boy’s 40-year-old mother, Brenda Groene, and her 37-year-old boyfriend, Mark McKenzie, the night of May 15. He is accused of first threatening them with a shotgun.
As Duncan made his court appearance from the Kootenai County Jail, where he’s being held without bail, the Groene family was making funeral preparations for Dylan Groene, the 9-year-old son of Brenda Groene who is believed to be Duncan’s fourth slaying victim.
Plans for holding the service Saturday – it would have been Dylan’s 10th birthday – were up in the air because of a medical emergency involving a family member in Tacoma, said Steve Groene, Dylan’s father and Brenda’s ex-husband.
Dylan Groene’s remains were found at a remote campsite in Montana’s Lolo National Forest on July 4, seven weeks after he disappeared from his home near Wolf Lodge Bay, where the bloody killings took place.
The Groenes’ youngest child, 8-year-old Shasta Groene, was rescued on July 2, when she appeared about 1:30 a.m. at the Coeur d’Alene Denny’s restaurant and was recognized by customers and staff.
Duncan was with her and was arrested at Denny’s without incident after police responded to 911 calls regarding the sighting.
Shasta, who is now with her father, has provided key evidence to investigators in the murder and kidnapping cases.
She told investigators that Duncan bound her family members with zip ties and duct tape, carried her and Dylan outside the home, and drove them off to be sexually molested over a period of weeks at primitive campsites in Montana, according to authorities.
Duncan showed Shasta the weapon, a FatMax hammer, and told her how he chose her and her brother as kidnap victims as he was driving by on Interstate 90 and saw them playing outside their house, according to court records.
Authorities have released no details about how Dylan was killed, nor have they confirmed unofficial reports that his remains were found burned or cremated. The U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho is expected to file federal kidnapping charges and another murder charge against Duncan for the abduction of the children across state lines and the resulting death of Dylan.
But federal authorities have agreed to delay their prosecution of Duncan until Kootenai County is finished with its court proceedings.
Kootenai County initially filed two first-degree kidnapping charges against Duncan following his arrest. Simpson dismissed those charges Wednesday, however, in deference to the pending federal charges.
The three new kidnapping charges are based on the fact that the killer bound the victims and held them against their will.
Federal statutes are superior to state statutes when it comes to kidnapping, Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas explained, in part because federal laws are explicit against transporting children across state lines for purposes of sexual exploitation.
Another advantage of federal court, said U.S. Attorney spokeswoman Jean McNeil, is there is no parole in the federal prison system.
With convictions in both state and federal court, it’s possible, she said, to “virtually eliminate the possibility that he could ever get out” even if Duncan does not get the death penalty.
Also on Wednesday, Steve Groene appeared in court to ask 1st District Judge John Mitchell to grant his 18-year-old son, Jesse Groene, a furlough from jail to attend Dylan’s funeral.
Jesse Groene has been sentenced to six months in a prison “rider” program for burglary and injury to the jail. He’s in the Shoshone County Jail awaiting transport to a state Department of Corrections facility in Cottonwood, Idaho.
Mitchell granted Jesse Groene an afternoon furlough in May to attend the funeral of his mother and brother Slade. At the time, detectives had no suspect but plenty of theories as to who could have killed Slade and Brenda Groene and Mark McKenzie.
At that first furlough, Mitchell expressed concern for the safety of Jesse Groene, and even suggested that the church hire a security firm.
Now that the murder suspect is behind bars, Mitchell on Wednesday granted the furlough, on the condition that the memorial service is held soon and transportation arrangements could be made between the Shoshone and Kootenai County jails.
“I don’t see those (security concerns) as being issues at this point in time,” Mitchell said.