In at least one respect, Shasta and Dylan Groene were fortunate.
They had two father figures who loved them very much.
But a month ago, their mother’s boyfriend, Mark McKenzie, was killed in their home near Wolf Lodge Bay, along with their mother, Brenda Groene, and older brother Slade Groene.
And as this Father’s Day approached, their biological father, Steve Groene, continued to wait by the phone for some word on the whereabouts of Shasta and Dylan, who were missing when Sheriff’s deputies discovered the bloody crime scene.
“That’s pretty much all I do, is I sit and wait for that phone call,” Steve Groene said Thursday, the one-month anniversary of the three killings and children’s disappearance.
Groene was hoping for the ultimate Father’s Day gift – the safe return of his children. But he won’t be surprised if he’s disappointed.
“I was pretty confident the first couple of weeks that we were going to find these kids, and they were going to be OK,” Groene said. “Then the next couple of weeks, every day that they weren’t found, it kind of hit that there’s the possibility that they may never be found.”
More than 40 investigators from the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department, the Idaho State Police and FBI continue to work on the case from Coeur d’Alene, according to Sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger.
They’ve conducted more than 700 interviews, received more than 1,800 tips, and continue to get results back from the FBI’s forensic laboratory in Quantico, Va. The sheriff’s Emergency Operations Center was initially set up to receive the hundreds of calls to the tip line, but it now serves as a nerve center of sorts for detectives working the case.
Forensic experts from the FBI, ISP and Department of Justice have developed positive leads in the case, which are among several “viable leads” that are being exhaustively pursued, according to Sheriff Rocky Watson. Still, authorities have not announced a break in the case, nor have they named any suspect.
But Ralph McKenzie, Mark’s father, said he’s not frustrated with the wait or the lack of news from the investigators.
“They gotta have all their ducks in a row to win ‘cause when they go to court, I want them to win,” he said.
Authorities never named Steve Groene as a suspect, but he thinks he was considered as one initially.
“Unfortunately, there are people out there that do this kind of thing to their family,” he said. “I would think they weren’t doing their job if they didn’t consider me a suspect.”
Speculation about his involvement was fueled also when Groene made a plea to the kidnappers to let his children go because “they had nothing to do with any of this.”
All he meant by that, Groene said, was that Shasta and Dylan, ages 8 and 9 respectively, couldn’t be involved in anything dangerous enough to result in the killings.
“They were innocent victims in this, as I’m sure Slade was also,” he said.
Groene said he knows no more than anyone else outside the investigation as to what triggered the heinous crimes against his family.
“It wasn’t a domestic abuse situation because Mark and Brenda were both there,” he said. “So far none of the family members can come up with anything as far as owing anybody anything or drugs in such a volume that would” result in such a bloody retribution.
Watson also has said as much and discounted rumors that the household may have housed a methamphetamine lab. Besides, he said, people who run meth labs don’t mow their lawn and plant flowers. He described Brenda Groene and Mark McKenzie’s drug use as “recreational.”
Brenda Groene was putting in a vegetable garden and planted flowers in makeshift tire planters around the yard. The lawn was mowed, the fence recently painted, and she had plans for more fixing up, said Mark McKenzie’s family members.
Now the grass is tall, and crime scene tape still surrounds the property, which is guarded by a Sheriff’s deputy. A cluster of plush teddy bears, deflated balloons and flowers – some now wilted or dead – surround the mailbox on Frontage Road.
Nearby, friends and family of McKenzie erected a banner in tribute to him.
“Mark did not say the wedding vows, he lived the wedding vows, dying with his family … ” it reads in part.
McKenzie was the family’s provider, holding down a steady job, bringing fresh venison home for the freezer, and cutting firewood to heat their home. He took the kids fishing and to Wolf Lodge Creek to catch crawdads, and he was teaching Slade how to hunt, according to his brothers.
“They did a lot of things together,” said Steve McKenzie, Mark’s brother. “It was a really nice place for kids to play, catch snakes and catch frogs, walk up and down the creek and play.”
This time of year Steve McKenzie and his son spent a lot of time at Mark and Brenda’s house, Steve McKenzie said. Steve, Mark and their father all have birthdays in June. Reminders of the tragedy are constant, he said.
“It’s like you’re hurt again day after day. You can’t stop thinking about it. It makes it difficult to move on,” he said. “But as far as the work the investigators are doing, fantastic. They are working so hard, I can’t be frustrated with them.”
Brenda and Steve Groene, who had five children together, moved to the house out in Wolf Lodge in 1994. They later divorced due to “irreconcilable differences,” Steve Groene said.
They had joint custody of the children, but Steve Groene didn’t get to see his kids that often. He worked all week at a Spokane Valley recycling center and often was playing gigs on the weekends with his blues band, Blue Tattoo.
The last time he saw Shasta and Dylan – and Slade alive – was about three weeks before the killings, he said. The three kids spent the weekend with him. Dylan and Slade liked to play games on a Playstation 2.
“Shasta would cuddle on the couch with me and we’d watch TV,” he said.
Steve Groene is on a leave of absence from work and sleeps sporadically. He’s not playing with his band, but instead stays home most of the time, waiting for the phone to ring, he said.
A personal tip line he set up, with the promise of a $10,000 reward and his 1997 Harley Davidson custom motorcycle for information leading to the return of his children, hasn’t brought in any helpful tips.
Even though he didn’t see his children very often, he misses them terribly.
“I need Shasta and Dylan,” he said, “and they need me.”