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Catching up with Steve Groene

Sun., April 23, 2006

KIRKLAND – The man glanced at the stacks of petitions and hesitated. Automatic life in prison for certain sex crimes?

“It seems a little harsh,” he said.

A few feet away, talking to someone else, was a man to whom a “one strike” law doesn’t seem harsh at all. Steve Groene’s life was turned upside down last year when Washington sex offender Joseph E. Duncan III allegedly killed two of his sons and held his daughter captive for weeks.

“This is the only thing out there that has some teeth,” Groene said of Initiative 921. Backers have dubbed it Dylan’s Law, after 9-year-old Dylan Groene, who was abducted and later slain. His sister Shasta was rescued when she was spotted at a restaurant.

On Saturday, I-921 proponents held half a dozen yard sales across the state, trying to raise money to hire signature-gatherers. At each, they signed up volunteers, handed out petitions and accepted donations. They must collect about 225,000 signatures by July 7 for the measure to appear on the November ballot.

“The deadline is looming and we need many people on board now,” said initiative author Tracy Oetting. This is the third time in four years that she’s tried to pass a one-strike initiative. If it fails this time, she said, she’s giving up.

“I’ve cried a couple of times. I just get frustrated,” said Diana Kinson-Stein, who organized the yard sale in Lacey, near Olympia. “It just seems like it took nothing to get 400,000 signatures to repeal the gas tax. But this may fail.”

“There’s just this overflow of sexual terrorism in our country, and nobody’s doing anything about it,” said Chelsey Fanara, who organized a sale in the Palouse town of St. John.

To Steve Groene, even life in prison sounds too soft.

“I think these guys should be taken out and shot on sight,” he said. “There’s no doubt they’re going to re-offend.”

His voice was hoarse. He was in Seattle last week for medical checks. A year after cancer surgery on his throat, the cancer is back. He’s scheduled to have surgery on his vocal cords within a month.

He’s disgusted, he said, by the “bleeding hearts” protecting the rights of sex offenders. “Nobody was there fighting for my kids’ rights when they were murdered,” he said.

Shasta is doing well, he said. At her insistence, she returned last year to the same school. She’s getting good grades. She’s still in counseling, but he’s trying to make her life as normal as possible. She’s taken up horseback riding, plays soccer and takes swimming lessons.

Now 9, she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night, dreaming about her brothers or her mother, who with her boyfriend was also slain.

Groene said his daughter doesn’t talk much about what happened during her weeks in captivity. “If you walked up to her on the street, you’d have no idea that something this traumatic happened to her in life. She just acts like a normal kid.”

He didn’t want to comment on whether he’d support a plea agreement, with Duncan avoiding a possible death penalty by admitting guilt and getting life in prison. Groene said he’s discussing the family’s feelings with officials.

“Certainly, in this case, he more than deserves it (death),” he said of Duncan. “In fact, I’d be more than happy to do it myself. But then sometimes you have to look at the effect all around … The whole process, it’s pretty long and drawn out.”

As he spoke in the front yard of a Kirkland home Saturday, yard-sale shoppers milled about. Some signed the petitions or plunked bills into the donation bucket.

“I think what you’re doing is wonderful,” one middle-age woman told Oetting. “It should have been done years ago.”

The woman bought a $25 I-921 sweatshirt. She put her change in the donation bucket and took two blank petitions.

Groene said he’s encouraged by the effort. “It really lets you know there’s still good people out there,” he said.

The measure would mandate life in prison without parole for several sex crimes, including rape of a child and first-degree child molestation.

“It’s an epidemic. It’s real,” said Oetting. “We need to deal with it because our lawmakers won’t.”

Prompted largely by the Groene killings and abductions, Washington lawmakers this winter passed more than a dozen bills aimed at sex offenders. They allowed electronic monitoring for some offenders after release from prison. They boosted the minimum sentence for some sex crimes to 25 years in prison. They toughened penalties for failing to register with authorities. They created a new crime – “criminal trespass against children” – so officials can ban sex offenders from areas such as parks, swimming pools and playgrounds. Lawmakers also discussed eliminating “sentencing alternatives,” which apply d largely to crimes within families and allow sex offenders to avoid long prison sentences by going to treatment programs.

Some victim advocacy groups and prosecutors say it would be a mistake to have a one-size-fits-all life prison sentence for such crimes. Ratchet up the punishment too much, they say, and families will balk at turning in friends or relatives.

“You don’t want to drive these cases underground,” said Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. “For the stranger rapist and the serial child molester, I don’t think there’s any disagreement about what we need to do with those people. But that’s not the majority of cases.”

McBride said Washington’s sex offender laws are already as tough as any in the nation. Most serious sex offenses are “two strikes” crimes, qualifying for life in prison on the second offense. Washington’s civil commitment law made it a leader in keeping violent sex predators locked up even after their prison terms were over.

And since 2000, many sex offenders have been sentenced under “determinate-plus” sentences: a minimum prison term followed by periodic reviews. If the offender is deemed too dangerous to release, he can be kept in prison for life.

Oetting disagrees that mandatory life in prison would discourage children from testifying against friends and relatives. If anything, she said, they’d likely feel safer.

Regardless of whether Dylan’s Law becomes law, volunteers are working to memorialize the little boy in another way. Groene said work is nearly finished on three stone slabs to be placed at the Lolo National Forest campsite where Dylan was killed.

Groene and Shasta visited the site last summer, leaving behind some of the dead boy’s toys and a copy of a poem that Groene came across as he struggled to cope.

The poem recounts a father’s grief at a son’s death, and how the father mourns that he can no longer touch the boy’s face or hold his hand. The boy responds that he’ll always live in his father’s heart.

The final line: “I’m an angel now in Heaven, no need to cry for me.”

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