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Victims in CdA homicide were bludgeoned

Steve Groene, father of victim Slade Groene and missing children Dylan and Shasta Groene, pleads for his children's safe return. 
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Steve Groene, father of victim Slade Groene and missing children Dylan and Shasta Groene, pleads for his children's safe return. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Investigators still had no explanation Thursday for why three people were murdered earlier this week in a house near Lake Coeur d’Alene or who may have done it, but the Kootenai County Coroner’s Office revealed what killed them.

Brenda Groene, her teenage son and her boyfriend suffered fatal injuries from blows to the head, according to a coroner’s report released Thursday.

Groene’s two youngest children were still missing Thursday. As searchers scoured the forested hillsides and ponds near the house for any trace of the 9-year-old boy and 8-year-old girl, their father – Brenda Groene’s ex-husband – came forward to plead with anyone holding the children to set them free.

Steve Groene was surrounded by extended family as he made his statement before national television cameras in a quiet, hoarse voice.

“Please, please release my children safely,” Groene said, as his eldest son, 20-year-old Vance Groene, held his shoulders from behind. “They had nothing to do with any of this.

“Release them in a safe area where law enforcement can find them. Call the help line. Let them know where they can be found.”

Kootenai County Sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger said he didn’t know what Steve Groene meant by his reference to “any of this.” Groene would not take questions from reporters.

Brenda Groene, 40, Mark McKenzie, 37, and Slade Groene, 13, were bound inside the house along Frontage Road in the Wolf Lodge Bay area and were killed either Sunday night or Monday following a Sunday evening barbecue, according to the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department.

Preliminary autopsy findings released Thursday showed that the three died from “blunt trauma to the head.” All three victims suffered skull fractures and contusions of the brain, the report said.

Information on the time of their death is still pending, and the county coroner and sheriff are not releasing any information or speculation on the weapon or weapons used, or how the victims were bound.

Meanwhile, following a seven-hour interview Wednesday night with Robert R. Lutner, detectives ruled out the 33-year-old family friend as a possible suspect in the killings or disappearance of the children, 8-year-old Shasta Groene and 9-year-old Dylan Groene.

Lutner took a polygraph test during the interview and told investigators that he had nothing to do with the death scene or the missing children, Wolfinger said.

He’s currently being held at the Kootenai County Jail on a probation violation. He turned himself in to his probation officer Wednesday after the media reported he was a “person of interest” in the case.

Lutner did tell investigators that there was a gathering at the home Sunday evening involving an undetermined number of people, Wolfinger said. The family, including the two youngest children, were home during the party, Lutner told police.

“We need anybody who was at the house to contact the sheriff’s office,” Wolfinger said.

Investigators processing the murder scene have collected numerous prints. Some may belong to visitors at the home who had nothing to do with the murder, Wolfinger said.

“We need to talk to these folks and we need to get their elimination prints so we can figure out who was here legitimately and who may be involved in this crime,” he said.

It’s still uncertain whether the murder was the work of one person or more, but Sheriff Rocky Watson is speculating that it was more than one, because all three victims were bound.

Wolfinger said on Thursday that it hadn’t been established whether the killer, or killers, knew the victims. There was no sign of forced entry at the house, Wolfinger said.

Watson said he’s assuming the children are still alive.

“I’ve got to believe they’re alive, I need to,” he said. “I’m putting all of it on the fact, why would (they) kill five people to throw two bodies in a car and leave?”

Watson has requested the help of surrounding counties in Idaho and Montana to send their search and rescue teams to conduct a shoulder-to-shoulder search of the area around the house, which is marked by brush and fields, marshy areas and wooded hillsides.

He’s asked them to imagine a 60-pound boy has run off to hide – somebody who doesn’t want to be found – and possibly dies in that hiding place.

The children, he said, “know every rock, every crevice, and with that crime scene, we have no idea if those kids are injured or not.”

Kootenai County’s dive team also was on the scene Thursday, searching nearby streams and ponds.

“We’re looking for anything right now, whether it be the children, the children’s bodies or evidence – a scrap of clothing, anything like that,” Wolfinger said.

Thursday evening, 75 miles north of the murder scene, authorities launched a search for a van carrying a man and two children who may have fit the description of Shasta and Dylan Groene. A Bonners Ferry shopkeeper called Boundary County officers when the trio came into Roundheels Sports, where the man asked directions to Libby, Mont.

Law officers searched the highway and side roads between Bonners Ferry and Libby, but did not find the van, which had Washington license plates, the Boundary County Sheriff’s Office reported. Complicating the search was the fact that various people who had been in the store gave contradicting descriptions of the van and the driver.

“Every tip that comes in is going to be investigated,” said Coeur d’Alene Police Sgt. Christie Wood, who is helping with the massive effort. “At this point, nothing’s come of that” Bonners Ferry tip.

It’s still unclear what the killer’s motive could be, according to authorities. Watson said the house was not a methamphetamine lab and he didn’t see evidence of drugs when he walked through the crime scene.

“We’ve busted a lot of drug labs,” he said. “They don’t mow their lawns and plant flowers, and she did.”

Gang involvement is another possibility, and Watson had the Spokane County gang unit visit the murder scene to see if there were any trademarks of a gang-related crime. “They left without telling me yes,” he said.

Anything’s possible, Wolfinger said.

“We’re not ruling out anything at this time,” he said. “There’s no door closed on anything except Mr. Lutner” as a suspect.

The mystery of the brutal triple murder and the two missing children from the rural, Idaho setting has captured the nation’s interest.

Seven satellite television production trucks, about a dozen cameras, as well as wire service, newspaper and radio reporters seemingly outnumber sheriff’s deputies and detectives at the crime scene.

Watson, Wolfinger and Vance Groene have arisen before 3 a.m. to appear on national morning broadcast news shows. “A Current Affair,” MSNBC and “America’s Most Wanted” are all at the scene and chasing leads along with the detectives on the case.

“America’s Most Wanted” is airing a segment on the case Saturday, and authorities are hoping the publicity will help generate leads to solve it.

The Sheriff’s Department also has received pledges of more than $70,000 in reward money and is establishing a process through the Secret Witness program in Spokane to offer rewards for useful information and tips, Wolfinger said.