They were ghastly crimes in a tranquil area near Coeur d’Alene. Three dead, bludgeoned with a hammer in their home.
Two children missing. No leads or apparent motive.
The news crashed down on the community one year ago this week. Soon it erupted into a story attracting national attention as police and the FBI mounted a desperate search for Dylan and Shasta Groene.
After seven agonizing weeks, friends and family were elated when 8-year-old Shasta turned up alive at a Denny’s restaurant in Coeur d’Alene in the company of Joseph Edward Duncan III, a registered sex offender. And they were heartbroken and enraged when they learned her brother, Dylan, never made it out of the remote Montana woods where authorities say the children were held captive and subjected to unspeakable abuse. The boy’s remains were found later.
The brutality and randomness of the crimes hit folks hard in the close-knit community and sent a shockwave across the region. But the story also has touched people across the nation and around the world.
Steve Groene, the children’s father, recently told The Spokesman-Review that Shasta, the lone survivor of the ordeal, has received letters from people in England, Australia and China.
When fundraising benefits were held for the girl, donations poured in from around the nation.
From the day the bound and bloodied bodies of Mark McKenzie, his girlfriend Brenda Groene and her 13-year-old son, Slade Groene, were found in the cinderblock home at Wolf Lodge, just east of Coeur d’Alene, their relatives were thrust into the spotlight.
They went on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted,” pleading for the children’s safe return. They answered questions from throngs of reporters and appeared on national news shows.
Steve Groene went on Geraldo Rivera’s show, and Rivera recently returned to Coeur d’Alene to interview Shasta and her father.
Affter Duncan’s arrest, Oprah Winfrey invited the family on her show, where she announced she would give $100,000 to people who helped catch fugitive sex offenders. Since the launch of Oprah’s Child Predator Watch List, viewers have helped nab four sex offenders.
Winfrey told her viewers that Shasta’s story was the last straw. “We can change the laws so that when, in this country, a child is molested the first time, that person is put behind bars and never let out,” she said last October. “Never let out! I’m so sick of it!”
The crimes inspired works of fiction as well, including a recent “ripped from the headlines” episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” Kentucky author Karen Robards said the Groene case gave her the idea to make child sex slavery part of the story line in her newest novel, “Vanished.”
Robards said the case was one of many she researched for the book.
“What made Shasta stand out is that when she was rescued, it became obvious that the man who had taken her and killed the rest of the family, including the brother taken with her, was a nutcase if ever there was one,” Robards said.
From Oklahoma, a poem for Dylan
Monday marks one year since the murders and kidnappings, but the case is still fresh in the minds and hearts of many.
Donna Lynn, a 33-year-old mother of four from Oklahoma, said she was so deeply moved she penned a poem titled “If Dylan Could Write You a Letter.”
“I followed it from the beginning when their little faces came on TV and I prayed for them so often,” Lynn said. “It had me by the heart. It was gripping me.”
She said she was overcome by grief and then anger when she learned of Dylan’s fate. A devout Christian, Lynn began to question whether God existed. Eventually, she decided she had to do something to “help in the world.” She has enrolled in college and plans to major in psychology.
Lynn was inspired to write her poem after hearing that letters Dylan and Shasta wrote to their father were found in the Jeep that Duncan drove. She said she began wishing Dylan could write his family a letter to assuage their grief.
The national impact of the case is also evident in the online community, where people spend considerable time following every turn in the case.
Within days of Duncan’s arrest, a man using the name “Mickey Rat” started an online Web log, The Cellar, which aimed to track down the sex offender’s online presence.
Duncan himself had maintained a blog, authorities said. The final entry, posted just days before the triple murder and kidnapping, said, “My intent is to harm society as much as I can, then die.”
New England crime blogger Jules Hammer eventually took over The Cellar and occasionally posts information on the case. A related forum includes a network of members throughout the country following all aspects of the case and posting their thoughts and links to articles and news reports daily.
Hammer and members of the forum, collectively nicknamed the Cellar Dwellers, were the impetus for a memorial to Dylan Groene to be placed at the Montana campsite where the boy was killed.
The first of three stones planned for the memorial will be engraved with his name, birth date and the date he died. A poem by an anonymous author titled “I’m an Angel Now” is also being engraved on the stones.
It will replace a makeshift memorial that Shasta and Steve Groene left at the site last summer. Shasta Groene scrawled her brother’s name on a rock, along with the dates 1995-2005. An arrow pointed to the dates with the words “years he lived.”
Some toys and the boy’s shoes were left near the rock, along with the poem that is being etched into stones for the memorial, which will be set into the ground in the coming months. Plans call for native perennials to be planted around the stones.
John Q. Murray, editor of a weekly newspaper in Western Montana, is overseeing the fundraising and logistics of placing the memorial. He became involved in the effort after he was contacted by the Cellar Dwellars, who had followed Murray’s articles online.
“I was telling about how emotional it was when I visited up there,” Murray said of his visit to the site where Duncan allegedly shot and killed Dylan. “It was like getting punched in the gut. I wanted to sink to my knees.”
Because of the case, Murray said he now prints the local sex offender registry and Amber Alerts in the Clark Fork Chronicle.
Case haunts Montana town
The small community of St. Regis, Mont., was shocked by news the kids were held captive in a vast wilderness they consider their backyard, the Lolo National Forest, Murray said.
“So many people have just been beating themselves up about not noticing they were up there,” he said.
After Duncan’s arrest, residents recognized the suspected killer and realized they had seen him in town. He had even brought the children with him on occasion, eating at the local burger joint.
Western Montana Mental Health and the Mineral County Public Health District held a counseling session for the community not long after Shasta was rescued.
“After they saw the children’s pictures in the news and after that little boy was killed, people recognized them and they felt a lot of guilt,” Public Health nurse Peggy Stevens said.
Gas station clerk Jackie Allen recalled working the graveyard shift one night when Duncan came in alone. She said he bought some Budweiser and gas and chatted with her for about half an hour.
Duncan asked about campgrounds, Allen said, and she told him there were two in town and more in the forest up Little Joe Road.
“He said he had kids and was married,” Allen said. “He was a very friendly guy, very nice, polite. He didn’t put a scare to me at all.”
It wasn’t until after Duncan’s arrest and the FBI came looking to talk to her that Allen realized who she had been talking to that night.
“I was spooked,” she said. “I told him about my family, my boys.”
Near Olympia, waitress Diana Kinson-Stein said she was aghast as the details of the attack trickled out.
“It was like the boogeyman coming into your house,” she said. “Even with everyone there, they were absolutely not safe. I thought it couldn’t be one person.”
The horror of the case sparked a push for a “one strike, you’re out” ballot measure. Tracy Oetting, an activist who’d thrown in the towel after unsuccessfully trying twice to get such a measure on the ballot, decided to try one more time. She has until July 7 to gather a quarter million signatures.
Oetting’s calling her Initiative 921 “Dylan’s Law.”
“When I saw what that child went through to protect his little sister, it broke my heart,” she said. “That child stood up with the courage of an adult.”
“He slaughtered the entire family for that little girl. How sick is that?” said Tena Braucht, an I-921 volunteer in Spokane. “And we let him out of prison.”
The case brought tears to the eyes of Chelsey Fanara, a mother in Whitman County, Wash. “There’s just this overflow of sexual terrorism in our country and nobody’s doing anything about it,” she said. Like Kinson-Stein and Braucht, Fanara organized a garage sale to raise money for the one-strike initiative.
“There’s no need for a second chance,” said Fanara.