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Sifting Through the Evidence 

by Kevin Taylor

Detectives in Kootenai County have combed through a mountain of interviews, tips and evidence for more than a week but have found few big breaks to solve the sort of crime that rarely happens in North Idaho.

On the evening of May 16, police found the bound and bludgeoned bodies of Brenda Groene, 40; her 13-year-old son, Slade; and her boyfriend of six years, Michael McKenzie, 37, in a small cinderblock house in the Wolf Lodge Bay area east of Coeur d'Alene.

Two other children from the house, 8-year-old Shasta Groene and 9-year-old Dylan Groene, were missing and have since been the focus of a nationwide Amber Alert.

A neighbor who came by on May 16 to pay Slade Groene for mowing his lawn called police after finding the house quiet and the front door handle covered with blood.

This week, 30 FBI agents from around the country have been assigned to reinforce the 40 detectives from local, state and federal agencies already working the case. The added manpower will soon turn to a mountain of trash stored at the county's Fighting Creek Landfill. Some three tons of garbage, including the contents of county dumpsters at Wolf Lodge Bay collected around the time of the murders, has been set aside at the landfill for investigators to dig through.

Kootenai County Coroner Dr. Robert West said the three victims had been bound and were beaten to death with a blunt object. He said the extent of skull damage indicated death was likely immediate.

"It is so barbaric. It is a heinous, senseless act," says Bob Price, brother-in-law of Steve Groene, Brenda's estranged husband and father of the three children. The couple also had two older boys, Vance and Jesse, who were not at the house.

The ongoing mystery of the missing children has propelled the case to national attention. The FBI offered the use of its forensic laboratory at Quantico, Va., and took the rare step of opening the lab on Sunday as an estimated 500 bits of evidence -- fingerprints, clothing, hair fibers and blood samples -- arrived from North Idaho.

By Monday, some results were already being returned -- primarily fingerprints and other easily processed information. DNA evidence, which investigators hope will tell them who was in the house and help track movements throughout the house, was expected by week's end.

Rick Ohnsman of the Idaho State Police says use of the FBI crime lab is invaluable. The volume of evidence would have overwhelmed ISP's state lab, he adds.

Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson and the FBI's Tim Fuhrman (who's based in Salt Lake City and is the special agent in charge of the Groene investigation), announced Monday a $100,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the killer or killers.

Steve Groene, in an interview on Sunday with Geraldo Rivera on Fox, was upset at being told he may have failed a lie detector test. But this week, sheriff's officials have stressed that Groene is not, and never has been, considered a suspect.

"I could ever possibly be so barbaric and evil," Steve Groene said in a written statement Monday. "In that regard, I appreciate the kind words of sheriff's Captain Ben Wolfinger and journalist Geraldo Rivera in response to the few questions and innuendo of that nature. I will continue to fully cooperate and communicate with local law enforcement."

In any event, polygraphs are not admissible evidence in Idaho courts.

Police have said they have not yet determined a motive or identified suspects. Detectives from the sheriff's department, the state police and FBI have worked nonstop and are said to have conducted more than 200 interviews last week.

Police say six or eight people are believed to have visited the little house on the evening of May 15. All have been located and interviewed.

Price says family members gathered in Coeur d'Alene for memorial services and funerals Tuesday and Wednesday; a vigil for Dylan and Shasta was planned after Wednesday's funeral for Brenda and Slade Groene.

"Even as we turn our focus on burying the victims, we are hoping the children are still alive, and that all the attention through the media will cause something to come in that will allow them to be found and be returned,'' Price says, adding that the family is "extremely grateful for the resources extended to us by law enforcement. There are awfully good people in this town, both investigative and in forensics, and Coeur d'Alene is not big enough for whoever did this to hide."

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of missing Dylan and Shasta Groene, or about the killings of their mother, brother and MacKenzie, are asked to call (208) 446-2292 or e-mail [email protected]

Publication date: 05/26/05

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