BOISE – Joseph Duncan was set to commit his crimes in northwestern Montana, with different children as his victims, before he changed his mind, drove to Idaho and targeted the Groene family.
The convicted child-rapist went so far as to set up a remote campsite in Flathead National Forest near Stryker, Mont., with children’s toys and a tall tripod for a video camera, according to evidence presented in court Monday in Duncan’s death penalty sentencing trial. He cased numerous homes with small children about 100 miles to the south, even contacting children at one isolated home.
That story emerged as 13 witnesses testified Monday in Duncan’s sentencing trial, which is speeding along as Duncan, who is representing himself, continues to raise no objection to evidence against him and to ask only an occasional, odd question of the witnesses on cross-examination.
Duncan has pleaded guilty in federal court to the abduction, sexual torture and murder of 9-year-old Dylan Groene and the abduction and sexual abuse of then-8-year-old Shasta Groene. He also pleaded guilty in state court to murdering the children’s brother Slade, their mother, Brenda, and her fiance, Mark McKenzie, in their home east of Coeur d’Alene. A federal jury will decide whether he receives a death sentence or life in prison without parole.
FBI Special Agent Steve Liss, of Kalispell, Mont., said he spoke with the occupants of one home near Arlee, Mont., that had been marked as a “way point” on Duncan’s Global Positioning System. They said one or more of their children “had contact in May 2005 with an individual in a red Jeep Grand Cherokee,” Liss said under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson. That’s the stolen vehicle Duncan drove to North Idaho.
Barbara Hampton, of Lovell, Wyo., whose home also was marked on Duncan’s GPS, testified that at that time, her 7-year-old granddaughter and 3-year-old grandson were spending their days at her home, where playground equipment filled the front yard and toys were scattered about.
The picture that’s emerging is one of a revengeful predator who prowled the region for just the right child victims, with elaborate plans for their torture and murder, and then carried out his plan in a blood-soaked crime spree. However, the picture is coming together.
On Monday, the testimony jumped from one thing to another. Duncan’s former landlord in Fargo, N.D., Jeff Ware, described Duncan as a “model tenant” until he disappeared, leaving his apartment trashed, his cat box overflowing and strange writings on his mirror and desk blotter.
Dr. Richard Wacksman, a physician who helped Duncan move to Fargo, loaned him money, got him a car and paid his tuition at North Dakota State University, testified that he’d helped half a dozen people try to get back on their feet in the same way. But, he said, Duncan took the $6,500 he loaned him for a lawyer on a new child molestation charge and instead disappeared. Wacksman said he was so angry that when Duncan called him again on July 1, 2005, he just yelled at him.
FBI agents, GPS experts, a former neighbor and an Enterprise Rent-A-Car employee from Minnesota also testified Monday.
U.S. Attorney Tom Moss noted in his opening statement in the case that prosecutors plan to call about 90 witnesses, only one of them from the Boise area, so logistics will dictate that some will appear out of order.
Mel McArthur, a maintenance worker for the U.S. Forest Service in Montana, said he arrived in Boise 30 minutes before he testified, and he was the next-to-last to testify on Monday. McArthur found receipts bearing Duncan’s name in trash scattered by a bear at a remote campground, along with an Enterprise keychain for the Jeep. He also found a campground recycling bin damaged by rounds from a 12-gauge shotgun; he gathered up the receipts and other items in case they could identify the vandal who shot the bin.
Prosecutors took jurors on a photographic tour of some of the 36 way points that Duncan marked on his GPS in his Jeep, starting with his home in Fargo. From there, the GPS traced a trail through South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Montana before swinging through Idaho to Spokane and back to Coeur d’Alene. They included a rural day care center in St. Ignatius, Mont., a school bus stop in Missoula, numerous homes with kids, and a hillside north of Casper, Wyo., where Duncan left this inscription on a rock: “Deep in my dunjun, I welcome you here,” signed with his inmate number from when he was a Washington state prisoner.
Kootenai County Sheriff’s Detective Jerry Northrup said the way points and an “auto track” system in the GPS unit that automatically recorded everywhere the Jeep went are “like a breadcrumb trail, so to speak … so that you can go back in and follow the dots to where you were.”
Duncan himself acknowledged that in a letter to a friend written from prison, saying, “I’ll tell you this – even though I shouldn’t, my attorneys and the FBI might get jealous (frown face symbol) – there was a GPS unit in the Jeep I was driving that was on constantly from the time I left Fargo until my arrest at Denny’s. So the police had a VERY detailed map of everywhere I was – or at least where the Jeep was – during almost this entire time.”
Monday in court, Duncan was mostly quiet, but he persistently cross-examined Dianna McKinley, a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer from Kalispell who found Duncan’s abandoned campsite by following his GPS coordinates.
Duncan wanted to know details about the area, the location of ranger stations and whether McKinley was working at one of those stations in 1997.
Wacksman’s testimony about Duncan calling him on July 1 – the day before Duncan’s arrest at 2 a.m. at a Coeur d’Alene Denny’s restaurant – referenced a tidbit of evidence presented to jurors Friday: a notecard found in the center console of the Jeep on which Duncan had written several names and phone numbers, including Wacksman’s. Also noted on the card were numbers for “Mom,” “my cell,” and “Mr. Groene,” with “Steve” written above that.
Steve Groene, father of Dylan and Shasta, has been in court each day and testified briefly last week. When Shasta was rescued from Duncan, she said he was bringing her back to her dad, and had changed his mind about killing her because “he said that I taught him how to love.”
Testimony continues today.