INDIO, CALIF. – A convicted serial killer pleaded guilty Tuesday to the 1997 murder and torture of 10-year-old Anthony Martinez, bringing closure to a case that devastated the Beaumont boy’s family and haunted Riverside County residents and law enforcement for more than a decade.
The plea agreement carries a mandatory life sentence and guarantees that Joseph Edward Duncan III will not face the death penalty in California. He already has three federal death sentences, on top of nine other life terms, in connection with the murders of four members of a North Idaho family, including two children. He also has confessed to killing two children in Seattle.
Martinez’s family sat in an Indio courtroom Tuesday, watching Duncan as they listened to a prosecutor detail the killing of Martinez and the Idaho family. Martinez’s mother, Diana Gonzales, bowed her head and wept.
The 45-year-old Duncan wore a red jail uniform and a bulletproof vest. He answered in a hushed voice as Riverside County Superior Court Judge David Downing questioned him.
“You are charged with the murder of Anthony Martinez. Do you intend to plead guilty?” Downing asked.
“Yes, I do,” Duncan answered.
“Guilty,” Duncan said when asked for his plea.
“Admit,” he said to the judge’s reading of each special circumstance: kidnapping, molestation and torture of Martinez, plus three previous murders.
“In plain language,” the judge told Duncan, “you will die in prison because of this plea.”
As part of Tuesday’s plea agreement, Duncan waived the right to appeal the Riverside County case.
Formal sentencing in the Riverside County case is scheduled for April 5 in Indio. Prosecutors said Duncan could be returned to a federal prison as early as the next day to wait for his Idaho death sentence appeals to be heard.
‘Now we can mourn’
Riverside County, under the guidance of former District Attorney Rod Pacheco, originally had sought a death penalty conviction against Duncan. Pacheco’s successor, Paul Zellerbach, decided after talking with Martinez’s family to accept a plea in exchange for a lesser punishment.
Downing addressed that issue Tuesday.
“I know the D.A. anguished about this decision. This case has languished for two years. … Because Mr. Duncan is already facing a federal death sentence, it doesn’t make much sense, practically speaking, to go forward with a death penalty trial here.”
His defense team offered to settle the case last month in exchange for a life sentence.
During a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Martinez’s mother, wearing sunglasses and speaking with a shaking voice, said she was glad to have the case finished.
“The last 14 years have been the longest road I’ve ever been on. We waited so long, and I didn’t want to wait any longer,” Gonzales said. “Now we can mourn Tony’s death like we should have in the beginning. When he was buried, we didn’t know who did it.”
During Tuesday’s hearing, Supervising Deputy District Attorney Otis Sterling recounted Duncan’s crimes.
Duncan kidnapped Martinez on April 4, 1997, as the boy was playing with a group of other boys in his neighbor’s backyard in Beaumont.
“Using the ruse of a lost cat, he offered each of the children a dollar to help him search,” Sterling said.
As the other boys left the yard, Duncan grabbed Martinez at knifepoint and forced him into a white Cadillac. He drove Martinez to a remote area 50 miles away at the south edge of Joshua Tree National Park, north of Indio. Duncan held the boy down, molesting and raping him.
Duncan bound Martinez’s wrists and ankles with duct tape so he could not fight back, Sterling said. He hit the boy’s head with a large rock, then covered his body from head to toe with boulders. Martinez’s nude body was found 15 days later by a Joshua Tree park ranger who saw vultures near the site.
For eight years, investigators had no suspect or any leads.
A break in the case came when Duncan was arrested in 2005 for stalking and killing a family outside Coeur d’Alene. During questioning by FBI agents, Duncan admitted to killing Martinez and, in 1996, two Seattle girls, Sammiejo White, 11, and her sister, Carmen Cubias, 9.
Riverside County authorities matched Duncan’s thumbprint to a partial print found on the duct tape on Martinez’s body.
In Idaho, Duncan was tried and, in 2008, convicted for the murders of Brenda Groene, her fiancé, Mark McKenzie, and her oldest son, Slade Groene. All three were bludgeoned with a hammer in their home. Duncan abducted Groene’s two youngest children, Dylan, 9, and Shasta, 8, and molested them before killing Dylan. Duncan was with Shasta at a Coeur d’Alene Denny’s when a waitress alerted authorities.
Pacheco filed murder charges in January 2007 and extradited Duncan two years later, after three death sentences already had been imposed.