The last time Jesse Groene talked to his mom, she had just taken in a stray dog found near their Wolf Lodge Bay home because she couldn’t stand to see it lonely, cold and hungry.
Brenda Groene was that way with everyone, her son said.
That’s why he can’t imagine who would have murdered his mother, her boyfriend and Jesse’s 13-year-old brother, and perhaps abducted his two youngest siblings.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better family,” Jesse Groene said Thursday morning from the Kootenai County Jail, where the 18-year-old has been for three months for allegedly shoplifting a shirt from Wal-Mart and stealing a Jeep. He also was wanted on a warrant for charges of battery and assault.
Brenda Groene, 40, her son Slade Vincent Groene and Mark McKenzie, 37, were found dead in their cinderblock house about nine miles east of Coeur d’Alene on Monday evening. An Amber Alert was issued for Shasta Kay Groene, 8, and Dylan James Groene, 9, who remain missing.
Jesse Groene described his family, especially his mother, as loving, supportive and caring, even though they had problems with money, drugs and alcohol.
During an hour-long interview, Groene was calm but often shook his clean-shaven head in disbelief as he talked about the murders and his missing siblings, with whom he spent lots of time before being jailed. Jesse Groene said his mother always took in him and his oldest brother, Vance Groene, when they struggled with methamphetamine addiction. She would sometimes track the boys down, load them in the truck and take them home.
“She would never cast us out for the way we did,” Jesse Groene said.
But he doesn’t think drugs are a motive for the murders and disappearance of his only sister and youngest brother. Jesse Groene said his mother has had brushes with the law and alcohol abuse, but that wasn’t a part of their family life.
At the time of her death, Brenda Groene was on probation for possession of drug paraphernalia, and she had served time in jail for her conviction. She was ordered to get drug and alcohol counseling. Court records indicate she was having trouble complying with the order because she lacked the money to pay for counseling.
Jesse Groene said his mother used to own a house-cleaning business but in the last few years had been a stay-at-home mom who could cook a meal to feed 15 people even if the cupboards were bare and the refrigerator empty.
Brenda Groene also liked to garden, evident by the rototiller sitting in the bare garden spot outside her small home. Empty planter tubs border the large lawn that is partly mowed.
When Jesse Groene went to jail in February, his girlfriend stayed close with Brenda Groene and often stayed at the Wolf Lodge Bay home.
In fact, Corina Tosh said she spent Friday afternoon with Brenda Groene. The two women sunbathed and visited with friends. She said that Brenda Groene seemed unbothered that day.
“They took me into the house when Jesse was in jail and they never asked me for money,” said Tosh, who considered Brenda Groene and Mark McKenzie a second set of parents.
She said the family has had rough times but things were looking up.
“They liked to have fun and they had gotten in trouble for it,” Tosh said. “But that was in their past and it was so much better lately.”
McKenzie had been dating Brenda Groene for about six years – since soon after she separated from husband Steven Groene, the father of her five children. Jesse Groene considered McKenzie a stepfather, even though the couple weren’t married.
He said McKenzie treated his mother and siblings well and was the main source of income for the family. McKenzie owned the house on East Frontage Road, which originally belonged to one of Brenda Groene’s relatives.
McKenzie’s father, Ralph McKenzie of nearby Kingston, Idaho, said his son had worked for Spokane Stainless Products for about 15 years and was promoted to management.
A spokesperson for the company didn’t return phone calls.
Ralph McKenzie said his son loved to hunt – anything in season – and that they often set up camp near the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.
Mark McKenzie was teaching Slade Groene to hunt and planned to take Dylan when he got older.
“He was a typical guy,” Ralph McKenzie said of his son.
McKenzie confirmed that his son and Brenda Groene were cousins but it remained unclear if the couple were first cousins.
Jesse Groene said Mark McKenzie had been a family friend for years, even when his parents were married. McKenzie was good friends with Brenda’s father, Post Falls resident Doug Matthews, Jesse Groene said.
Brenda and Steven Groene were married in Big Bear, Calif., in 1986 and divorced in 2001, according to court records.
Jesse Groene said his parents often fought and probably got divorced because they were “sick of each other” but that they remained civil. He said his dad always paid child support and that he would have the younger kids every other weekend.
Steve Groene, who lives in Coeur d’Alene, wouldn’t comment Thursday except to say he was talking with other family members about making a plea for the safe return of Dylan and Shasta.
Other relatives also declined to comment. But Jesse Groene was happy to talk about his siblings. Slade Groene was on the honor roll at Lakes Middle School and liked music, playing the violin, guitar and drums. Jesse Groene said he taught both Slade and Dylan to play guitar.
Slade had lots of friends and liked his Spanish class, Jesse Groene said.
Tosh said Slade was the quiet one in the Groene family and that he liked to hunt, fish and hike.
Dylan Groene is a typical little boy whom Jesse Groene described as “goofy and silly.” Groene said that Dylan looks up to him and even got his blond hair shaved in a similar crew cut. Besides playing guitar, Dylan likes sports – especially football.
“He always wanted to cuddle, kiss and hug,” Jesse Groene said about his brother. “I just love that little kid.”
Jesse Groene said his sister Shasta is a “girly-girl” who loves to style her waist-length brown hair, paint her nails and listen to pop star Britney Spears. She plays with dolls and loves being pampered by her older brothers.
“She was cool being the only girl because she didn’t have to share her stuff,” Jesse Groene said.
Jesse Groene talked to his mom on the phone six days before the murders. She mentioned the stray dog, said that McKenzie had just painted the fence and that she was in the middle of writing Jesse a letter.
“I guess I’m never going to get that letter,” Jesse Groene said.