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Sentence offers relief from grief

Thu., Aug. 28, 2008

Victims’ relatives, neighbors praise ruling, but loss endures

Before 2005, Wolf Lodge Bay was a place to eat a steak, watch ospreys hunt fish in Lake Coeur d’Alene or find an easy campsite.

Now it’s also the site of the empty house where a killer and child rapist came searching for prey on May 16, 2005. Along with committing the sexual assaults and four murders that followed, Joseph Edward Duncan III changed the community’s sense of place.

“The impact is so far-reaching. We thought we had a quiet community,” Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson said. “Now it’s not unusual to drive through this community and see a ‘Kill Duncan’ bumper sticker on a nice car. I can never even guess the reach of the effect on this community by this killer.”

Amber Deahn, 28, was working the late shift as a waitress at a Coeur d’Alene Denny’s on July 2, 2005, when Duncan and Shasta Groene re-emerged there after a nearly seven-week hideout in Montana. As Coeur d’Alene police officers led Duncan from the restaurant, Deahn asked Shasta her name before lifting the girl into a teary embrace.

“Our children are our most precious gift on this planet,” Deahn, a mother of three, said Wednesday. “To have that innocence ripped away from a child is unacceptable. Every child should be allowed to be a child.”

Deahn, whose Army Reserve husband is awaiting redeployment to the Middle East, said she hopes to travel to California to follow Duncan’s case in the killing of Anthony Martinez.

The death sentence delivered Wednesday “is a little bit of relief. Shasta will have some closure and justice will be done for her family when he receives the death penalty,” she said. “Ms. Martinez deserves that closure just as much as any other mother. Until there is closure for those families, for me it’s not over yet.”

Deahn hopes media attention surrounding Duncan’s case leads to harsher sentences for child predators.

“We know he was stalking this family. He was hanging out at playgrounds,” she said. “All you can do is take that information and protect your children and the children of neighbors.”

Relief for relatives

Relatives of Duncan’s victims said they hoped the death sentence would begin to ease grief that has marked their lives since that May day when Duncan killed Brenda and Slade Groene and Mark McKenzie in their Wolf Lodge Bay home. After the murders, Duncan fled with Shasta and Dylan Groene, torturing and eventually murdering Dylan, 9.

Lee McKenzie-Wood, 66, McKenzie’s mother, said she was ecstatic when she heard about Duncan’s death sentence.

“I haven’t been this jacked up in a long time,” she said. “It’s like I’ve been locked up in a prison, and my heart and mind have been locked up. When this verdict was released, it flowed out of me. Tears flowed out of me.”

McKenzie-Wood said her 37-year-old son and Brenda Groene, 40, had called for advice about canning the Thursday before Duncan bound and bludgeoned them, along with Groene’s 13-year-old son, Slade Groene, to death with a FatMax claw hammer.

“They were going to get married in a few months,” she said. “The healing will never come for me or the (rest of the) McKenzie family.”

Ralph McKenzie, Mark’s father, said he didn’t attend the Boise trial because he didn’t think he could sit through the proceedings in the room with Duncan.

“This trial has been awful rough on all of us,” he said.

He wasn’t surprised by the verdict – he said he didn’t see how jurors could’ve reached any other – but he was relieved.

“That gives us some closure,” he said. “Now we’ve just got to get on with our lives.”

Asked if he thought Mark would have wanted the verdict, he said: “Sure he would have.”

Wendy Price, Steve Groene’s sister and Shasta’s aunt, said she’s not sure there will ever be closure, but Duncan’s death sentence will provide family members with some relief.

“Tragedy is not really an adequate word to describe this,” she said. “It’s taken an awful toll.”

Among the effects on Price: Not eating. Not sleeping. A new, more frightened, perspective on the world.

Price’s first granddaughter was born seven months ago; she now worries constantly.

“I’m scared for her to go to public school. I’m scared for her to say hi to people in the supermarket,” Price said.

Price said she believes Duncan’s sentence will serve as a warning to other predators. “You are not going to take our children and kill our families. We will hunt you down and find you,” she said.

Family members of Duncan, 45, had nothing to say.

“I’m sorry, I have no comment,” said his mother, Lillian Duncan, who lives in an apartment in Tacoma.

“No, thank you,” said a woman who answered the phone at the Poulsbo home of Duncan’s sister, Tina Novotney.

In Las Vegas, a man who answered the phone number listed for Duncan’s father and stepmother said the couple no longer lived there.

‘Scars in our community’

The trial process took longer than anticipated by Bob Hollingsworth, a neighbor who found the Wolf Lodge Bay crime scene after the slayings there.

“I expected this whole thing to be settled sometime in 2006,” Hollingsworth said.

Execution is probably “the only solution to this situation,” Hollingsworth said. It’s not a matter of malice or vengeance, he said, “it’s just a correct punishment.”

Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas said the death sentence should give the families and the community a chance to begin a healing process.

“This has left deep scars in our community,” he said. “I think this is a good first step. Hopefully he will never return.”

Duncan won’t be coming back to Coeur d’Alene on state charges. He already received three life sentences for state kidnapping convictions, and Douglas will agree to three more life sentences on the murder convictions on hold during the federal trial.

Although he believed the death sentence was “a slam dunk” in the federal case, Douglas said he was “very, very surprised” when Duncan demanded to represent himself, rather than using experienced death-penalty defenders, and then offered little defense.

“By his just laying down, one wonders if this was the result (Duncan) wanted,” Douglas said.

McKenzie-Wood said she spent the day calling family members with news of the verdict. She planned to celebrate with friends at a Denny’s in Post Falls. “It’s just pure relief. I’m sure Mark is looking down and cheering just like we are,” she said. “If he had the chance, he’d drink a beer. Both he and Brenda would.”

Staff writer Richard Roesler contributed to this report.

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