Thirty more investigators from the FBI are joining the biggest criminal investigation in Kootenai County history, as a team that sometimes numbers in the hundreds assists with the search for two missing North Idaho siblings and whoever killed three of their loved ones.
Along with the manpower, the FBI is offering up to $100,000 in reward money for information that leads to the safe return of the children or helps authorities capture their abductors, FBI special agent Timothy J. Fuhrman announced Monday during a press conference with county Sheriff Rocky Watson.
“This is just another tool in our bag to generate that information and give us what we hope is a happy resolution,” Fuhrman said.
Among the experts provided by the FBI are evidence response teams, agents who specialize in child abduction cases, technicians at the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., – which stayed opened Sunday just to start processing evidence collected throughout the week from the murder scene – and a team of profilers, who examined the murder scene and evidence to develop a psychological profile of the killer or killers.
The FBI is a partner in the homicide investigation with the Idaho State Police and the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office, said sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger. Between those agencies, and the FBI agents who were already on the case, about 40 investigators have been working to solve the crimes, he said.
About 150 people now are working on the case, including investigators, volunteers, administrators, media experts, technicians and assistants, among others, Wolfinger said.
“When we did the ground search the other day,” Wolfinger said, referring to a shoulder-to-shoulder search of 400 acres near the family’s home, “we had 200 trained professional searchers come out. People want to come help in this case … It’s been pretty incredible.”
“It’s an ever-expanding thing,” Wolfinger said, noting that more than 900 calls had come in to tip lines as of Monday afternoon.
Shasta Groene, 8, and Dylan Groene, 9, were missing a week ago, when sheriff’s deputies found the bound and bludgeoned bodies of their mother, brother and mother’s boyfriend in their home near Wolf Lodge Bay.
A public memorial service for Brenda K. Groene, 40, and her 13-year-old son, Slade, is scheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday at Real Life Ministries in Post Falls. A private ceremony was planned for Mark McKenzie, 37, who lived with Groene and her three children in the white cinderblock home on Frontage Road.
Despite an inch-by-inch examination of the home, hundreds of tips and an exhaustive search of Wolf Lodge’s ponds, streams, forests and fields, authorities have no suspect. A concrete worker named as a person of interest last week was ruled out after a seven-hour interview with investigators.
He told authorities that he last saw the family during a party at the house, the evening of Sunday, May 15. The victims – bound and bludgeoned to death – were found the next day by deputies making a welfare check.
The house showed no sign of forced entry. Toxicology results from the autopsy showed that Brenda Groene and McKenzie had recently used illicit drugs, but authorities have not said exactly what substances they found.
Wolfinger said Monday that investigators believe they have contacted all the people who attended the party, but none has been detained as a suspect or “person of interest.”
On Sunday evening, Fox News Channel’s Geraldo Rivera interviewed the biological father of the missing children on national television. Steve Groene, who divorced Brenda Groene and had joint custody of their minor children, told Rivera that the FBI told him he had failed portions of a lie-detector test.
But Wolfinger reiterated Monday that Steve Groene is not a suspect, even if he didn’t pass all portions of the polygraph test, which measures a person’s physical response to stress.
“Is he emotional already? Yeah. Is he stressed? Yeah. Is he beside himself with grief? Yeah,” Wolfinger said. But, “there is no evidence to substantiate Steve Groene as a suspect or a person of interest.”
Friends and acquaintances said they consider Groene above suspicion.
“He would never do that,” said Sonya M. Schy, a close friend of Brenda Groene. “He’s a basket case right now. I think he’s thinking the worst right now. A lot of us are.”
Schy said she has been interviewed twice by the FBI or ISP – she doesn’t remember which – but says she was not at the party the night of the murder, and doesn’t know what happened. She said she suspects it took more than one killer because McKenzie and Brenda Groene were tough “hillbilly folks and proud of it.”
“This is a senseless tragedy as far as I can tell,” she said. “But you know, I just don’t know, I don’t know. One minute I think I’ve got it figured out in my head, the next minute I think, it could be something else.”
Like her murdered friend, Schy lives in a rural area with few neighbors. She keeps her doors locked now, and gets nervous when she sees strange cars on the road leading to her house.
“My life has changed,” she said. “I’m never going to live it the same.”
In addition to the FBI reward, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office and Secret Witness out of Spokane have $7,500 so far in reward money for information that leads to an arrest in the triple-murder and missing children case.
Anonymous tips that lead to an arrest are eligible for the reward offered by Secret Witness, but the FBI requires identification for anyone to qualify for the $100,000 reward.