One of those missing children, 9-year-old Dylan Groene, was later killed with a shotgun (a fourth murder charge is likely to be filed in federal court) and his body burned in a remote part of a Montana forest late last month.
The surviving child, Dylan's 8-year-old sister Shasta, was driven back to Coeur d'Alene by her abductor -- after seven weeks of horror and captivity -- and her statements to police form the foundation for accusing Joseph Edward Duncan III of being possibly the worst mass killer in North Idaho history.
Duncan served 20 years in Washington prisons for the rape of a 14-year-old Tacoma boy starting when he was just 16. He was released in Spokane on July 14, 2000, and soon moved to Fargo, N.D., where, for the last five years, he has been an outstanding computer student and appeared to have been turning his life around.
In the spring, however, he was accused of fondling two boys at a playground in Detroit Lakes, Minn., about an hour east of Fargo. Duncan, a registered Level III sex offender in Fargo, fled the city a few weeks after the charges were filed.
His flight, and the discovery of a disturbing online journal, cast dark shadows that worry people who track sex offenders. The FBI is checking to see if Duncan was involved in the disappearance of a 5-year-old girl, Leanna "Beaner" Warner, who vanished from Chisholm, Minn., in July 2003. Duncan wrote in his blog that, being a sex offender, he feared being blamed for Warner's death and fretted he couldn't find grocery receipts to prove he was in Fargo that day.
Steve Huff, who runs a Web site devoted to tracking criminals, thought the protest was odd, considering the girl lived 240 miles away. Digging a little deeper, Huff was able to piece together a chain -- from Duncan's own online entries -- that show he traveled from Fargo to Lake Superior for a diving trip in the timeframe when Warner disappeared. The most direct route would have gone through Chisholm.
On Tuesday, Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas and his chief deputy, Lansing Haynes, convinced a magistrate judge to charge Duncan with the murders of Brenda Groene, 40, her 13-year-old son Slade and her longtime companion Mark McKenzie, 37.
The handwritten minutes of Tuesday's court hearing in Coeur d'Alene describe a ghastly scene: A man wearing night-vision goggles stalked the family in the small cinderblock house for two or three nights, peering into the windows to scan the interior layout. During the days, he observed two children playing in the yard.
The house, in an isolated valley about eight miles east of Coeur d'Alene, is visible from Interstate 90. In fact, it's possible to drive right off I-90 and into a large, empty pole-building about a quarter-mile from the house.
Duncan was looking for someone to kill, to take his revenge upon society, he wrote in an online journal, Blogging the Fifth Nail, just days before the killings.
Sometime during the night of May 15, a man with a shotgun entered the Groene house and ordered the three older family members to tie each other up with zip-ties. Brenda Groene was sent to awaken Dylan and Shasta, who were tied up by the man and set outside in the grass. Inside, prosecutors allege, the man beat his three victims to death with a large hammer.
Duncan was that man, Shasta Groene told Sgt. Dan Mattos of the Kootenai County Sheriff's Department in a series of interviews. Items mentioned by the girl -- the shotgun, black gloves, night-vision goggles, zip-ties -- were among evidence recovered from a stolen Jeep Laredo Duncan was driving the night he was arrested.
A number of sources working various aspects of the case said more evidence was found in the Jeep. The items include a GPS unit that tied him to the remote camping spot, McKenzie's wallet and a camcorder used by Duncan to film himself abusing Dylan and Shasta Groene during their weeks of captivity in the Lolo National Forest.
Source say Duncan also used the camcorder to film what appear to be several attempts to kill the children. Each time, however, some gesture or action by the children would stop him. In one apparent attempt to slay Dylan, the boy -- who was bound and gagged and unable to wiggle little more than his hands -- flashed the "I love you" sign to his sister.
About a week after Dylan's death, Duncan drove Shasta Groene to a brightly lit Denny's restaurant in Coeur d'Alene at about 2 o'clock in the morning of July 2, where he took a seat and waited calmly to be arrested.