On a day that should have been filled with presents and bike rides, a grieving family and community laid Dylan James Groene to rest. It would have been his 10th birthday.
Saturday – July 16 – found nearly 800 friends, family and community members gathered at Real Life Ministries in Post Falls to pay tribute to an adventurous boy who loved sports and cars.
As mourners filled the huge auditorium, a thunderstorm swept overhead with such a vengeance the rooftop echoed.
“I think you got a sense today – in person – about how God feels about this situation. I believe he wept for you to see his heart today,” pastor Jim Putman told the crowd.
He tried to explain the unexplainable – the killing of four people, two of them children.
Dylan Groene’s remains were found at Montana’s Lolo National Forest after an investigation involving more than 100 law enforcement officers and community volunteers.
The boy and his sister, Shasta Groene, 8, were missing for seven weeks after their mother, Brenda Groene, her boyfriend, Mark McKenzie, and older brother, Slade Groene, 13, were found bludgeoned in their Wolf Lodge-area home.
Shasta was rescued at a Denny’s restaurant in Coeur d’Alene after customers and employees spotted her with a man.
Joseph E. Duncan III is a 42-year-old registered sex offender on parole from Fargo, N.D. Duncan is being held without bail in Kootenai County Jail, charged with multiple counts of murder and kidnapping.
“I think that Duncan should have been put in a steel cage and put in the back of this (service). Let him see what he really did to a lot of people,” said Larry Alho, 51, of Blue Creek Bay. He brought his two grandchildren, who were Dylan’s schoolmates, to the memorial.
Mourners ranged from street-hardened bikers who’d found God to young boys clad in dress shirts and gray-haired ladies in lavender. Muffled sobs accompanied a video presentation featuring photos of Dylan’s life.
A newborn Dylan in a tiny knit cap grew into a smiling preschooler in a red Santa hat. Later, he and Shasta and Slade perched on the back of a pickup, grinning broadly during a family trip. There was Dylan with his dad, Steve Groene, wearing helmets and sitting on a Harley-Davidson.
Teachers from Fernan Elementary School, which Dylan and Shasta attended since kindergarten, filled several rows of seats.
“The kids become one of yours. You’re losing somebody who’s close to you,” said Tim Marks, 35, Dylan’s third-grade teacher last school year.
Fernan Elementary School Principal Lana Hamilton took the stage to share the staff’s memories.
Known for his huge smile, which occasionally doubled as an “impish grin,” Dylan hugged his teachers, even when he was “hanging out with friends and being cool,” Hamilton said.
Dylan loved music and proudly told his music teacher that his father performed in a band. Dylan played Hot Wheels cars with school staff, and with the help of the librarian, combed every library shelf looking for books on motorcycles, trucks and cars.
When Steve Groene visited the school for lunch, Hamilton said the kids stayed close to their dad.
As he matured, Dylan grew out of the nickname Dilly Bar to become D.J. He emulated Marks, his teacher, by arriving at school with his hair slicked back and wearing aftershave.
“He walked like he was 6 feet tall that day. He even carried his cologne to reading class,” Hamilton said.
Putman had as tough a job as any minister in trying to explain how God could sit idly by as Dylan and his family were killed.
When God gave man free will, a battle between good and evil ensued that impacts every man, woman and child on the planet, Putman said. He urged people to honor Dylan’s memory by fighting off anger.
“This can drive us to fight for the right causes and do the right things,” the minister said.
He recommended forgiveness – not for the killer’s sake – but because it’s good for the forgiver’s soul and allows loved ones to move forward without a hurtful bitterness.
“There is a God who will judge, and he will judge rightfully. He will not be fooled by any lawyer,” Putman said.
Putman read a statement from the Groenes thanking the community and the police for their support. They expressed gratitude for Shasta’s return and asked for continued prayers for her. The Groenes requested that people refrain from questioning Shasta about the ordeal and making her a celebrity.
Local police and FBI agents attended the service. When asked if the men got teary, Capt. Wayne Longo of the Idaho State Police replied, “Actually, a lot of us have shed a lot of tears over the eight weeks we’ve been working this. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions. You feel so vulnerable.”
Longo praised the many people who have helped the Groenes. “To see the way the community has embraced the family, it breaks and warms your heart.”
Outside, the weather eased up as mourners gathered to release red and blue balloons in Dylan’s memory. Schoolmate Josh McNeil, 11, remembered his buddy.
“Dylan was a pretty cool kid. Me and him had a club by this tree, and we always used to sneak up behind the girls,” Josh said.
After scaring the girls, the boys might hurl a couple snowballs or slide down an icy hill. “He was a great friend.”