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Search gains new hope

Fri., May 27, 2005

Investigators have renewed hope that two children missing from the scene of a triple homicide last week could still be alive, authorities said, after getting initial DNA results from the FBI’s forensic laboratory.

Preliminary DNA testing of blood spatter at the homicide scene shows that none of the blood samples belonged to either Shasta Groene, 8, or her brother Dylan “D.J.” Groene, 9, said Capt. Ben Wolfinger, of the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department.

Wolfinger said that all the blood tested so far belongs to the three victims: Brenda Groene, 40; her 37-year-old boyfriend, Mark McKenzie; and her 13-year-old son, Slade Groene. He noted that not all the blood evidence at the scene has been analyzed.

The three homicide victims were found bound and bludgeoned to death May 16, after a neighbor called authorities and requested a welfare check at the white cinderblock home in the Wolf Lodge Bay area.

“We still believe the children are alive,” Wolfinger said during Thursday morning’s press briefing. “We always had that assumption, but this just bolsters that.”

For family members following the progress of the massive investigation, the DNA news was a source of some relief.

“It’s been good news after two weeks of bad news,” said Steve McKenzie, brother of Mark McKenzie.

The search for clues, meanwhile, shifted Thursday to the Kootenai County Fighting Creek Landfill, where an FBI evidence recovery team started sifting through tons of garbage from the Wolf Lodge district and surrounding area.

Investigators were looking for bloody clothing, tools or any other evidence that could help find the missing children or solve the homicides. They are expected to spend five to 10 days searching a half-acre of the landfill, Wolfinger said.

Investigators have not said whether they have the weapon used to kill the three victims or what that weapon is.

The Dumpsters near the homicide scene on Frontage Road near Wolf Lodge Bay were empty when investigators looked in them the morning of May 17, the day after the bodies were found. The Dumpsters are emptied daily, according to the Kootenai County Solid Waste Department.

Evidence from the scene could have wound up with 40 tons of garbage from around the neighborhood, so sheriff’s officials asked the landfill to isolate the garbage from the Wolf Lodge sanitation route for closer examination, if needed.

With the children still missing, and no suspect in custody, that need has arrived. Wolfinger emphasized that investigators aren’t looking for bodies, but clues.

According to a study by the Washington state Attorney General’s Office, murders of abducted children are rare. Of every 10,000 reports of a missing child, one is abducted and killed, according to the study. The largest category of missing children, however, is runaways, followed by family abductions, according to the National Center for Kids Overcoming Crisis.

Another study, conducted for the U.S. Department of Justice, found that in 1999, 115 children were victims of a kidnapping by a stranger or slight acquaintance, and in 40 percent of those cases, the child was killed.

Officials are not saying whether they believe the homicides were committed by a stranger, but they no longer suggest the children went into hiding, considering that multiple searches of the surrounding neighborhood, ponds and forests were unsuccessful.

One friend of the family said Groene and McKenzie had a party the night before they were found killed. Autopsy results showed that the adult homicide victims had marijuana and methamphetamine in their systems, Dr. Robert West, the Kootenai County coroner, confirmed Thursday. Results are pending on the amount of drugs they took and the times of death.

The children were at the party and were believed to be home when the homicides happened, investigators have said.

Sheriff Rocky Watson recalled two other non-family child abduction cases in Kootenai County, with two very different outcomes, in the past 25 years.

Both remain unsolved.

In November 1984, 2-year-old Ryan Hoeffliger disappeared from his Hayden home and was found dead seven hours later floating under a private dock a mile and a half away.

He didn’t just wander off, said Undersheriff Gary Cuff, who worked the case as a detective. “Somebody got him there. His diaper had been changed.”

Four years earlier, 4-year-old Jodie Aldrich was abducted from a Hayden day care. She was found alive a couple of days later in the barrow pit near the intersection of U.S. Highway 95 and state Highway 53, Watson said.

Watson thinks Aldrich was released because of the media pressure, and he’s hoping the intense media coverage of the current case will make Dylan and Shasta Groene too “hot” for their abductor to keep.

“I want the guy to pull into a rest area and toss the kids out,” Watson said.

Cuff said he’s encouraged by huge investigative efforts from all agencies, including the FBI, which has dozens of investigators working the case – several of whom now are combing through Kootenai County’s trash.

Missing children are among the top priority cases for the FBI, said Timothy Fuhrman, special agent in charge of the region.

“We are going to do whatever we can to assist in finding these children,” he said. “We are absolutely committed.”

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