‘My soul is lighter’: Serial killer’s death brings closure

In 2005 he killed 4 members of an Idaho family and later was caught with the surviving child.

In this April 5, 2011 photo, Joseph Edward Duncan III stands in court in Indio, California. (Terry Pierson/The Orange County Register via AP, file)

In this April 5, 2011 photo, Joseph Edward Duncan III stands in court in Indio, California. (Terry Pierson/The Orange County Register via AP, file)

By Nicholas K. Geranios / Associated Press

SPOKANE — Serial killer Joseph Edward Duncan III died in U.S. prison recently, having admitted to slaughtering seven people — including five children — in Idaho, Washington state, Montana and California.

Some question whether Duncan, whose victims included four members of a single family, killed even more people. Following his arrest in 2005 for the slayings of that Idaho family, the FBI reviewed unsolved missing child cases nationwide.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Traci Whelan believes all of Duncan’s killings were revealed in court. She prosecuted him in what she described as the only federal death penalty case in Idaho history.

“His crimes were all publicly acknowledged and reviewed by a judge or jury,” Whelan said Tuesday from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “He was held accountable.”

Duncan, 58, died Sunday at a hospital in Indiana near the United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute, where he was on death row. The native of Tacoma had recently been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

He had been implicated as a possible suspect in several crimes that occurred between 1994 and 1997, when he was on parole, and between 2000 and 2005, when he was out of prison. Duncan was cleared as a suspect in some cases, but authorities in California and Washington believed Duncan had committed unsolved murders in their jurisdictions.

Duncan was a registered sex offender, telling a therapist that he estimated he had raped 13 younger boys by the time he was 16. He spent much of his life in prison.

Duncan’s most violent string of crimes occurred in May 2005, when he was driving across the Idaho Panhandle on I-90 and spotted two children playing in their swimsuits in the yard of a home next to the freeway. He pulled off the road and started surveillance of the home.

Using night-vision goggles, he broke in and tied up Brenda Groene, 40; her boyfriend, Mark McKenzie, 37; and her son, Slade Groene, 13. Then he beat them to death with a hammer. Two of Brenda Groene’s other children, 9-year-old Dylan and 8-year-old Shasta, were missing when authorities got to the house.

Duncan had taken the children into the wilds of western Montana, where he tortured and abused them for weeks before killing Dylan.

In the early morning hours of July 2, 2005, Shasta Groene was recognized by employees and customers inside a Denny’s restaurant in Coeur d’Alene. She was with a man.

Employees called police and positioned themselves to prevent the man from leaving. Police arrived with their lights off, drew their weapons and entered the restaurant. Duncan was arrested without incident.

Two days later, investigators found human remains at a remote makeshift campsite in the Lolo National Forest near St. Regis, Montana. They were identified as those of Dylan Groene. During the trial, it was revealed that Duncan shot the boy at point-blank range by holding a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun to his head.

Duncan maintained in court that he took Shasta to the restaurant, located a few miles from where he killed her family, with the intent of returning her to authorities. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008.

Shasta Groene, now in her mid-20s, issued a written statement following Duncan’s death.

“For so long I have been struggling with hate towards that man. Today, I woke up feeling like my soul was finally free,” the statement said. “I hope other people affected by Joseph Duncan were able to wake up feeling the same way.”

The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office in Idaho, which conducted the investigation, also released a statement.

“In May of 2005, the Groene Family of Kootenai County, living in the Wolf Lodge Bay area, was brutally victimized by a serial killer passing through our community. The family was stalked, attacked and tortured,” the statement said. “It was one of the worst tragedies Idaho has ever seen.”

Following his conviction, Duncan was extradited to Southern California to be tried for the death of 10-year-old Anthony Martinez of Riverside County in 1997. Duncan pleaded guilty and received a life sentence.

“The sun is brighter today, and my soul is lighter,” Anthony’s mother, Diana, said in a statement this week.

Duncan also admitted to the murders of 11-year-old Sammie Jo White and her 9-year-old half-sister, Carmen Cubias, who vanished after leaving a Seattle motel on July 6, 1996. Their skeletal remains were found on Feb. 10, 1998, in Bothell, Washington. Duncan confessed to beating the two girls to death but was not prosecuted because he was already facing multiple death penalties.

From the time he was taken into custody in 2005, Duncan confessed to all of his crimes and repeatedly sought to plead guilty, according to court records. Against his wishes, Duncan’s lawyers pursued numerous appeals right up until his death.

Whelan, the assistant U.S. attorney in Idaho, said the case weighed heavily on everyone involved, including lawyers, officers, jurors, victims and the community.

“A serial child murderer presents difficulties for everyone,” she said. “There is a human aspect of wanting to protect people, and you can’t protect them.”

Whelan said there is no question that Duncan deserved the death penalty, but there is no disappointment that he died of cancer.

“He is no longer here,” she said.

Talk to us

More in Northwest

FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2014, file photo, Billy Frank Jr. poses for a photo near Frank's Landing on the Nisqually River in Nisqually, Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, signed a measure that starts the process of honoring the late Frank, a Nisqually tribal member who championed treaty rights and protecting the environment, with a statue at the U.S. Capitol. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Statue of Native American leader step closer to U.S. Capitol

Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribal member, was a champion of treaty rights and the environment.

Initiative promoter Tim Eyman looks up at a video monitor in a hallway as he arrives for a session of Thurston County Superior Court, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Olympia, Wash. Eyman, who ran initiative campaigns across Washington for decades, will no longer be allowed to have any financial control over political committees, under a ruling from Superior Court Judge James Dixon Wednesday that blasted Eyman for using donor's contributions to line his own pocket. Eyman was also told to pay more than $2.5 million in penalties. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ouch: Judge orders Tim Eyman to pay state’s $2.9M legal tab

In February, a judge found that the serial initiative promoter repeatedly violated campaign finance laws.

Mount Vernon woman found guilty of plot to kill ex-husband

She tried to convince her child to kill his father by adding rat poison to his food and drink.

State Senate OKs bill to reinstate drug possession penalties

But instead of a felony, those instances would now be treated as a gross misdemeanor.

Inslee signs measure addressing health provider PPE costs

The $6.57 per patient reimbursements will last for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

Protesters lit a portable bathroom on fire in downtown Portland, Ore., Friday, April 16, 2021. Police in Portland, Oregon, said Saturday they arrested four people after declaring a riot Friday night when protesters smashed windows, burglarized businesses and set multiple fires during demonstrations that started after police fatally shot a man while responding to reports of a person with a gun. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP)
Police ask for help identifying Portland, Oregon, rioters

Police declared a riot Friday night during demonstrations after officers fatally shot a man.

Package funding U.S. 2 trestle, Monroe bypass on the move

A $17.8 billion plan dealing with highways, ferries and transit has cleared the state Senate transportation panel.

FILE - In this July 25, 2020, file photo, police pepper spray protesters, near Seattle Central College in Seattle, during a march and protest in support of Black Lives Matter. Washington state lawmakers are wrapping up their work on an ambitious package of police accountability legislation. There are bills that curb police tactics and equipment, restricting the use of tear gas, chokeholds and neck restraints and banning no-knock warrants; that create an independent office to review the use of deadly force by police; that require officers to intervene if their colleagues engage in deadly force; and that make it easier to decertify officers for bad acts. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Slew of police reform bills headed to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk

One of the bills will require officers to intervene if their colleagues engage in excessive force.

A gray whale appears to have developed an infection after being darted with a satellite tracking tag. (NOAA Fisheries)
Gray whale could be sick from tracking tag

Experts are concerned over possible infections related to the animal’s tagging site.

FILE - In this May 26, 2020, file photo, a sign at the headquarters for the Washington state Employment Security Department is shown at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Washington state's rush to get unemployment benefits to residents who lost jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak left it vulnerable to criminals who made off with hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Audit: Unemployment fraud likely higher than $647 million

The auditor’s office indicated that the total amount stolen in Washington state could exceed $1 billion.

State Senate approves expansion of low-income tax credit

The bill passed the Democratic-led chamber on a bipartisan 47-2 vote and now heads back to the House.

FILE - In this May 4, 2020, file photo, an Asian giant hornet from Japan is held on a pin by Sven Spichiger, an entomologist with the Washington state Dept. of Agriculture in Olympia, Wash. Scientists in the U.S. and Canada are opening new fronts in the war against the so-called murder hornets as the giant insects begin establishing nests this spring. The scientists said Wednesday, March 17, 2021, the battle to prevent the apex predators from establishing a foothold in North America is being fought mostly in Whatcom County, Washington and the nearby Fraser Valley of British Columbia, where the hornets have been spotted in recent years. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Officials seek new tools to combat invasive giant hornets

One new rule would allow the state to declare an “infested site” for 20 meters around a nest.