September 17, 2005 in Idaho

State could buy scene of slayings

Taryn Brodwater And Betsy Z. Russell Staff writers
 

Long before the white cinderblock house on Frontage Road was made infamous as the scene of a triple-homicide, the nondescript rancher was Ralph McKenzie’s boyhood home.

He lived there for more than a quarter century and attended the old Wolf Lodge School.

Ralph McKenzie has a hard time returning to the place that once held happy memories – a place that, for as long as he can remember, has been in the family. It has become a haunting reminder of a day that forever changed the lives of two families. Inside, on May 16, police discovered the bodies of his son, Mark McKenzie; Mark’s girlfriend, Brenda Groene; and her 13-year-old son, Slade Groene.

Unable to conceive ever living there again, Ralph McKenzie said Friday that he hopes the property can become a wetland preserve.

The idea emerged out of a conversation with members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, McKenzie said. Someone mentioned the property was a “great wetland.”

“I said, ‘If you think so, buy it,’ ” said McKenzie, who for years fought to keep floodwaters from Wolf Lodge Creek at bay. He now lives on a hill in nearby Kingston, Idaho.

The Idaho Fish and Game Department is looking into whether the property could become part of a larger project to protect native fish in the area.

“It’s an important migration corridor and rearing area for cutthroat trout,” said Kathy Cousins, an agency biologist. “We’re very interested in trying to preserve that.”

The department doesn’t usually acquire parcels of land as small as the 5.5-acre McKenzie property, she said. But it could if it were part of something larger, possibly including conservation easements or habitat improvement programs along the banks of Wolf Lodge and Cedar creeks beyond the property.

“It’s my intention to go and meet with the other landowners to get the feel of what they’re comfortable with,” Cousins said. If it’s part of a larger fisheries project, she said, “this 5.5-acre parcel could act as a very good public access point.”

Cousins said it might be possible to include a memorial on the site.

She added, “Right now it’s really in its infancy. We’re just investigating the potential.”

State Lands Director Winston Wiggins said his agency hasn’t been involved in any talks, but he’s aware of the flooding and wetland characteristics of the property.

“It’s not a good place for a house, regardless of what happened there, which is of course an awful thing,” he said.

The Idaho Transportation Department also might be interested in the property, as part of its “wetland banking” program. That federal program allows state transportation departments to restore other nearby wetlands when a highway project disturbs a small amount of wetlands. Major highway construction projects are planned for Idaho.

“If it was offered, the department would be interested in investigating it,” ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said. “We’ve purchased small parcels in the past, and then enhanced or developed the wetlands to meet environmental requirements.”

Cousins said she hasn’t yet talked with the McKenzie or Groene families. Fish and Game was contacted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and informed that the land was available for purchase, she said, and might mesh well with the department’s fish and wildlife objectives.

McKenzie said Friday that he will only consider selling the property if it goes for a wetland preserve.

From the time of the homicides until Aug. 16, police had the house guarded around the clock to protect the crime scene.

“The crime left the home in bad condition,” Kootenai County sheriff’s Detective Brad Maskell said Friday. He said a professional biohazard cleanup crew removed flooring, walls and “anything that was contaminated during the crime.”

Steve McKenzie, Mark McKenzie’s brother, said the family had hoped to keep the property in the family. But they went to the house, cleaned up the outside, mowed the yard and changed their minds.

“I was not happy being there,” he said. “I was very uncomfortable. It was always like home. It was always where you went, and it doesn’t feel like that anymore.”


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