Investigators gave up the search in the woods near Wolf Lodge Bay on Friday for two children missing since three bloody homicides earlier this week.
Now they’re sifting through a mountain of information – tips, sightings, rumors and even psychic visions – in their efforts to find Dylan and Shasta Groene. The siblings haven’t been seen in the week since their 13-year-old brother, mother and her boyfriend were found bound and beaten to death Monday in their home in the forested area near Lake Coeur d’Alene.
“There’s always the case you hear about, read about where the kid comes out alive a year later,” Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson said Friday. “I just need to believe we can find these kids.”
Answers remain scarce in the investigation into the triple homicide that has drawn national attention.
The Kootenai County coroner, Dr. Robert West, added one piece of information Friday, reporting that preliminary screenings showed the presence of illegal drugs in the systems of two of the victims – 40-year-old Brenda Groene and 37-year-old Mark McKenzie.
Forty people, including investigators from the Sheriff’s Department, the Idaho State Police and the FBI, are constructing a timeline and sorting nearly 500 tips that have come in to a call center set up for the case. Watson said they had spoken to friends, people who attended a party at the white cinderblock home Sunday, and “psychics, devil worshippers and dreamers.”
They say any information is valuable and “everything gets followed up.” Volunteers manning the phones and taking tips pass the information along to investigators with “certain themes of leads going back to the same investigator,” Watson said.
Evidence gathered at the crime scene will be shipped Monday to the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., Watson said. Processing will take at least 72 hours. Profilers from the FBI are aiding local investigators.
A tip that the children may have been spotted at a Bonners Ferry pawnshop late Thursday has been ruled out, Watson said. He said the descriptions the shop’s owner gave to investigators didn’t match those of 9-year-old Dylan and 8-year-old Shasta.
The shop’s owner told police a man with two young children came in and asked for directions to Libby, Mont. Authorities in North Idaho, Canada and Montana scrambled to find the dusty van the man was reportedly driving.
Though the tip didn’t pan out, Watson said he didn’t want people to be discouraged from passing on tips to law enforcement. “We’d rather chase down endless unfounded leads than risk those children getting past us and someone not reporting it,” Watson said. The department is asking people with information to call its tip lines, (208) 446-2292 or (208) 446-2293.
Hours after the pawnshop tip was discounted, sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger announced that land searchers were “100 percent confident” that the two children were not anywhere near the Wolf Lodge property. On Thursday, about 200 volunteer searchers combed the hills, woods and fields around the home for clues to the triple homicide, and for any sign of the missing children.
Divers double-checked a stretch of Wolf Lodge Creek and searched two small ponds Friday, but Watson said the search turned up nothing.
Late Friday, Watson said the Coast Guard Auxiliary was searching the shoreline of Lake Coeur d’Alene near Wolf Lodge and Blue Creek bays. With the massive ground search completed, Watson said the department has more resources to turn attention to other areas. “We’re just eliminating all options,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Department has yet to name suspects in the homicides or identify a motive in the brutal slayings. On Thursday, investigators ruled out 33-year-old Robert Roy Lutner as a suspect in the disappearance of the children or the killings.
Lutner told authorities he had been at the house Sunday for a barbecue. Watson said detectives told him that everyone at the barbecue has been contacted or had called the Sheriff’s Department by Friday afternoon.
Authorities wouldn’t release specifics on the nature of the gathering or say how many people – or who – attended.
West announced the results of the preliminary screening, which showed “drugs of abuse” in the systems of Brenda Groene and McKenzie. Both tested negative for alcohol, he said. A more thorough, quantitative test will be completed for the autopsy, which will take weeks. The preliminary drug results do not indicate how long ago the drugs were taken, he said. West said no drugs were detected in the body of the 13-year-old victim, Slade Groene.
The children’s father, Steven Vincent Groene, made another emotional public appeal on television Friday.
“I love them, and I need them back,” he said. “Everybody’s praying for them, and all I can tell them is, please hang in there.”
Steven Groene did not answer questions and couldn’t be reached Friday for comment. He plays in a regional blues band, Blue Tattoo, that’s been together a few years with changing lineups and has organized an annual benefit for Project Safe Place in Coeur d’Alene, said Ted Todd, who hosts a radio blues show and edits Inside Blues for the Inland Northwest Blues Society.
The TV show “America’s Most Wanted” will devote a segment to the case at 9 tonight on the Fox network.
A private service for McKenzie has been arranged through Yates Funeral Chapel, but details were not released. English Funeral Chapel is handling arrangements for Brenda and Slade Groene, but the funeral home said services had not been scheduled.
Outside Lakes Middle School, a farewell message was posted on the message board: “We will miss you Slade.” A memorial was set up in the hallway with many pictures of Slade, Superintendent Harry Amend said.
Hundreds of red and blue ribbons were tied to the fence surrounding the playground and to the trees lining the street at Fernan Elementary, the missing children’s school. “Dylan & Shasta we hope you come home safely,” the sign read there. “There’s a lot of prayer and a lot of pain,” Amend said.
Amend said Fernan staff clung to the hope of Dylan and Shasta being found safe and alive, but Amend said the teachers are also stung by the death of the children’s older brother, whom they once taught.
“As the details of the investigation come out, it’s harder to deal with what the outcome might be,” Amend said. He said he attended a Rotary meeting Friday and was overwhelmed by the support in the community.
“It’s a small enough town to hurt together, to cry together and to support each other,” Amend said. “The whole town is pulling together, like a family around the kitchen table grieves and supports one another. The schools are like little families, and even the city of Coeur d’Alene is, too.”
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