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Missing Idaho boy becomes top priority

Sister found alive after 6 weeks, but questions persist

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- A day after missing 8-year-old Shasta Groene turned up with a registered sex offender at a Denny's restaurant in her hometown, investigators struggled with a troubling question: What happened to her 9-year-old brother?

''Dylan is our number one priority at this point," Kootenai County Sheriff's Captain Ben Wolfinger said at a news conference yesterday.

Forty investigators are working on the case, with the FBI and Idaho State Patrol backing up city and county police.

There was no sign of the boy when Shasta was found Saturday with Joseph Edward Duncan III of Fargo, N.D. Investigators fear he met the same fate as the three people found bludgeoned to death in the family's home, Wolfinger said.

He said police were seeking the answers to several other questions: ''Where have Duncan and Shasta and Dylan been the last six weeks? Was Duncan involved in the triple homicide? Were other people involved? If so, who and where are they?" Across the country, officials faced another tough question: Why had the man accused of kidnapping Shasta been released on bail?

Duncan, 42, had been released a month before the children disappeared. He was facing charges of molesting a 6-year-old boy on a middle school playground in Minnesota and had spent more than a decade in prison for raping a 14-year-old male in Washington state.

Prosecutors in Becker County, Minn., where Duncan was released, did not return calls seeking comment. Police in Fargo said they had been looking for Duncan since May, but had no indication he had fled to Idaho.

''Why did this crime occur?" Wolfinger said. ''I think why is probably the biggest question we have."

The Groene children were reported missing May 16, when officials found their mother, Brenda Groene, 40; their brother, Slade Groene, 13; and Mark McKenzie, 37, bludgeoned to death in the family home.

Wolfinger said Duncan invoked his right to a court-appointed lawyer, but one will not be named until his first court appearance tomorrow. He was charged with kidnapping and was being held without bond.

Days before the children disappeared, an ominous message was posted on an Internet site officials said Duncan maintained.

''I am scared, alone, and confused, and my reaction is to strike out toward the perceived source of my misery, society," the May 11 entry said. ''My intent is to harm society as much as I can, then die."

A search of the stolen Jeep that Duncan was driving has been completed, and the evidence was forwarded to the FBI, Wolfinger said. He declined to describe that evidence.

The astonishing emergence of Shasta more than six weeks after she disappeared, countered by her brother's continued, ominous absence, was met with mixed emotions in Coeur d'Alene.

''We're happy about Shasta," Bill Todd, owner of Davis Donuts, said yesterday. ''But I'm sad there's no good news on Dylan yet."

''There can be happy endings," employee Darcy Furey said hopefully.

Todd's business was one of many that taped up posters of the missing children and displayed reader boards praying for their safe return. The case dominated conversations in this northern Idaho resort community of 35,000, decked with flags for the sunny Fourth of July weekend -- a big event in tourist-dependent Coeur d'Alene.

In hunting for the children, investigators had interviewed hundreds of people, searched through 800 tons of trash, and fielded more than 2,000 tips.

The restaurant where Shasta was found is just miles from the family home. It was not known whether Duncan had a connection with the victims.

Shasta's father, Steve Groene, stayed with her at a local hospital overnight. The girl is in good condition and spoke at length with investigators, but authorities are treating her gently, Wolfinger said.

Duncan was convicted of twice raping a 14-year-old in Washington state in 1980. He served 14 years in prison and was returned there after violating parole in 1997.

Released in 2000, he moved to Fargo, where more than 300 people turned out at a community notification meeting when he was registered as a Level III sex offender, for those determined to be at highest risk for re-offense.

In the 3 1/2 years he had lived in Fargo, police said, Duncan had met the legal requirements to register as a sex offender.

In April though, Duncan was charged with molesting a 6-year-old boy on a school playground in Becker County, Minn., in July 2004. He was released on $15,000 bond, and his whereabouts were unknown until Saturday morning.

Material from the Los Angeles Times was included in this report.

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