by Kevin Taylor & r & Registered sex offender Joseph Edward Duncan III was a federal fugitive in a stolen Jeep when, in the dark hours before dawn. Saturday, he abruptly appeared in a brightly lit Coeur d'Alene diner with a little girl who had been missing from there for weeks.
He was arrested almost instantly, taken into custody without resistance after customers and staff at the Coeur d'Alene Denny's recognized the girl as 8-year-old Shasta Groene -- whose face was on posters all over town -- and called police.
Duncan, 42, had been convicted of raping a neighbor boy as a teenager, spent almost all of his adult life in Washington state prisons, and had recently begun to see his post-prison life -- which had included becoming an honor student at North Dakota State -- started to fray.
He was on the run from accusations he had fondled two little boys last summer in Minnesota. "Demons" he wrote in an Internet diary, had begun calling to him. He is now a suspect in four deaths that left bloody stains across North Idaho and western Montana.
For seven weeks, though, he managed to stay off police radar. A small army of investigators, running down tips in a triple murder and double kidnapping, had nothing that showed an intersection with Duncan or his demons.
Why come out of the darkness, why come back to Coeur d'Alene with Shasta Groene, nearly seven weeks after she vanished, and take her out for a meal during the rush that follows the 2 am bar closings?
The happy, after-bar crowd at Denny's had no idea what currents of darkness came into the restaurant and flowed to Table 20, way against the back wall.
Case "Getting Stronger Every Day"
Police believe Duncan is the author of the Web site, fifthnail.com, in which "Joe" writes about being a sex offender trying to make it in normal society and slipping towards evil when the "demons," as he writes, begin to take over.
Disturbing blog entries such as ones saying the demons are "loose and I am very afraid. ... My intent is to harm society as much as I can, then die," end just days before someone burst into the Groene's small cinderblock house east of Coeur d'Alene on May 15. The house was a gore-spattered scene of horror when police entered on May 16.
Three family members lay dead. Brenda Groene, 40, Slade Groene, 13, and Mark McKenzie, 37, were found bound and beaten so savagely that bits of brain tissue were found on the ceiling, and blood covered almost all of the floor. What's more, the two youngest, Dylan and Shasta Groene, had vanished.
Based on information from Shasta Groene and evidence recovered from the stolen Jeep, police are coming to believe that Duncan is responsible for the deaths and the disappearances. His crossing paths with the Groenes is believed to be random chance as he fled charges of fondling two young boys and headed west along Interstate 90 from his home in Fargo, N.D., in early May.
"We have a strong case that is getting stronger every day," Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson said Tuesday.
"What we've got right now is the testimony of an 8-year-old," Watson added. "We are working very hard to supplement that information so she is not standing out there alone."
Investigators in recent days have discovered charred bones believed to be the remains of Dylan Groene. The remains, discovered in the Lolo National Forest near St. Regis, Mont., have been sent to the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., for identification. Watson said results will likely be returned by early next week.
On Tuesday, Duncan was charged with two counts of first-degree kidnapping in Kootenai County First District magistrate court, and was ordered held without bail.
In court documents at the first appearance, Duncan is accused by Shasta Groene of repeatedly molesting her and Dylan since abducting them from the family home.
"Because he is in jail, and because I believe we have tremendous investigators who are on the right track, I believe the public is safer and children in this community are safer," Watson said. "We are going to take our time with the investigation, and we won't rush anything that will give any reason to tie us up in court."
The Girl at Table 20
Investigators from three agencies -- the Kootenai County Sheriff's Department, Idaho State Police and the FBI -- continued to run down leads in the case that had baffled them for nearly seven weeks.
Investigators have conducted nearly 800 interviews and run down a blizzard of tips.
Nothing made sense, one investigator said. Some theories drawn from evidence at the scene would make a compelling case for the killings, but not the disappearance of the kids. Or vice versa. There seemed to be nothing that tied everything together.
Then the brand-new red Jeep, a rental that was not returned, wheeled into the crowded Denny's parking lot.
The appearance of the girl sparked immediate buzz.
"We had 78 people in here," Denny's graveyard-shift manager Linda Olson said during her shift late Sunday night. "It's odd to see a child at that hour. How many parents take their kids out for ice cream at 2 o'clock in the morning?''
Olson has worked the graveyard shift at Denny's forever. It's about the only place that stays open overnight in Coeur d'Alene, and she knows most of the people who come in after the bars close.
It's a young crowd, still hyped-up on an alcohol buzz, loud and sometimes rowdy. Olson has had to call Coeur d'Alene cops often enough that the patrol officers working graveyard know all the tables by number.
"When I told them Table 20, they knew where it was," Olson said, as well as where other exits were and how to best approach it.
Customers Nick Chapman and Chris Donlan had seen the little girl walking into the Denny's with Duncan. It started a round of questioning: Is that? Could it be? Do you think?
Inside, the little girl also caught the eye of waitress Amber Deahn and Olson.
"When I seen her, it was like 'Oh, my God'" Olson said. "I was almost sure, but not 100 percent, and when I went to look, someone had taken the missing poster down from the window."
The little girl seemed somber. She kept her head down when Deahn made her first trip to the table with menus and crayons.
"She held her head down, so we didn't get a full look at her face," Olson said.
Then Olson cruised past the table, pretending she had business elsewhere. Suddenly, the little girl brightened and shyly called out.
"She said 'Your hair is pretty' and she smiled. I got that beautiful smile of hers," Olson said. "That's the moment that grabbed my heart."
It was also a moment that allowed Olson a close, direct look into the girl's face. The import of that moment remained completely hidden as Olson smiled back and continued her circuit of the floor.
Back behind the counter she called police and, in whispers, organized a plan of attack. The two cooks were to cover the rear door. Deahn was to stay with the girl when police grabbed Duncan. Olson was keeping an eye on the tables of young people, growing increasingly edgy as the buzz about the girl being Shasta Groene began to spread.
Three city police cruisers arrived with lights out. Duncan and the girl stood and went to the front of the restaurant to use the bathroom. As he waited for the girl to come out, Duncan saw the police cars idling in the parking lot.
He took the girl back to Table 20, where a short section of wall cut him off from the hallway leading to the back door.
Once police entered, it was over in seconds, Olson said. Two cops strolled to Table 20, one down each aisle, and whisked Duncan up near the cash register to be handcuffed.
"It was so fast I don't think anyone even knew what was happening," Olson said.
Then came the heartbreak -- the first of many heartbreaking moments for police and residents in these last few days. Deahn, who had run to the table to be with Shasta as Duncan was cuffed and arrested, escorted the girl to the police car.
"Where is your brother?" an officer asked. "My brother is in heaven," Shasta replied.
Growing Up in Prison
For Duncan, it appears, there was no heaven, just this hell. He was convicted of rape in 1980 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He had just turned 17.
As a 16-year-old, court documents say Duncan had stolen guns and ammo from a house in Tacoma. He later accosted a 14-year-old boy, raping him twice at gunpoint and burning him with cigarettes.
Sentenced as an adult, Duncan's Department of Correction file shows a nomadic journey around the state penal system: staying everywhere from the Concrete Mamma itself, the penitentiary at Walla Walla, to McNeil Island, Clallam Bay, Olympia, Monroe and Airway Heights. He collected infractions for fighting, assault, refusing to work, theft and lying to staff.
A posting from January on the fifthnail.com blogsite, has "Joe" writing about being sexually abused so many times as a child he thought it a normal expression.
That still doesn't cut it for repeatedly raping a younger boy at gunpoint and burning the boy as well, said Scott Matson, research associate with the Center for Sex Offender Management in Maryland.
"The vast, vast majority of people who are sexually abused never commit a crime," Matson said. "And it is not accurate to say all sex offenders have been abused."
It is clear that Duncan was considered a dangerous man, Washington corrections officials say, echoing comments by Matson and counterparts in other national agencies that deal with sex offenders. But his young age when he committed the rapes, and his long prison sentence, worked to his advantage in the complicated "score" that can keep a sex offender in prison beyond the term of an original sentence.
Since his arrest in Coeur d'Alene last weekend, people have angrily noted that a Minnesota judge let Duncan go on $15,000 bail after the fondling charges from last summer. But people close to that case have said the judge was acting on limited information about Duncan's past.
In the same vein, people wonder why Duncan was released from state custody in Spokane five years ago and not placed in a special prison for sex offenders who have completed their sentences but are judged too dangerous to release.
"He was never in our special commitment center program," said Steve Williams, Department of Social and Health Services information officer.
Victoria Roberts, community protection unit administrator for the state prison system, reviewed Duncan's files on Tuesday and said his "end of sentence review" didn't add up to a stay in the special commitment center.
"The civil commitment requires there to be a mental abnormality," which Duncan did not display while incarcerated, Roberts said. He also did not get a high score for pedophilia since he was only two years older than his victim, she said. A five-year age gap is required.
Plus, he had been in prison almost all his life. Since Duncan had almost never been out on the streets, there was no evidence to show he was a danger if he was released.
Duncan was paroled in 1994, after serving 14 years of his sentence and within a year had violated his parole -- he was caught smoking dope and obtaining a gun.
He also skipped out, traveling through California and Nevada before being arrested on a fugitive warrant in Kansas City and sent back to prison.
At his 1997 parole violation hearing, Dr. Richard Wacksman (a medical doctor, not a therapist) testified that Duncan should be released and that he would offer financial support. The hearing documents say Wacksman met Duncan in a caf & eacute;/bar in San Francisco while Duncan was on the lam, Roberts said.
When Duncan was finally released -- from Airway Heights on July 14, 2000 -- he was driven to the Spokane Greyhound station. Duncan had successfully challenged the state to get out nearly two months early, saying he was owed 55 days already served in county jails.
In seven months at Airway Heights, Duncan enrolled in personal computing classes offered to inmates through the Community Colleges of Spokane. He later buffed this up on a resume -- posted online -- where he says he worked for the college as a programmer. He never held such a job.
His status as a student in the prison was confirmed Tuesday by CCS's Mary Harnetiaux and Risa Klemme of the Airway Heights Corrections Center.
In the summer of 2000, Duncan had "maxed out" his sentence and he rode away on the 'Hound without supervision or any appointments for further treatment.
Nobody here watched him go. Nobody here remembered Duncan was out there until the stolen red Jeep came out of the darkness and turned into the Denny's parking lot at 2 am Saturday.