Ten years ago today, Joseph Edward Duncan III’s heinous spree of killing and raping had almost come to an end.
At 2 a.m. on July 2, 2005, Duncan-who had lived in Fargo for the previous five years-was spotted with 8-year-old Shasta Groene at a Denny’s restaurant in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. A waitress recognized Duncan as the man wanted for weeks for killing Shasta’s family and kidnapping her and her brother.
Duncan’s dark side hadn’t been as easy to recognize during his time in Fargo, despite the former North Dakota State University student being the subject of the city’s first-ever sex-offender notification meeting. Many locals were surprised when his crimes graced national headlines, and at least two area men had been devoted supporters of the convicted rapist.
Despite since admitting to being a serial killer, Duncan continues to receive unexpected help from the outside. As he did before his 2005 arrest, he maintains a blog. In it, Duncan rationalizes his horrific crimes against children one minute and pleads for love and acceptance the next. He speaks as casually about sexually abusing a young murder victim as he does getting a traffic ticket while riding his bike. It was updated as recently as last week. He corresponds via mail with about a half-dozen friends and a girlfriend-one of whom, presumably, maintains the blog on his behalf.
While the 3,000 or so death-row inmates in the U.S. receive mail from condemners and admirers alike, few have a conduit to the outside world like Duncan.
“I would say it’s unusual,” said Kevin Thompson, an NDSU criminal justice professor who talks about Duncan frequently in the classroom because of Duncan’s notorious past and ties to NDSU.
“He (Duncan) wants to be heard and a true psychopath wants the spotlight on them,” Thompson said. “It’s true narcissism, in a way.”
Former student now course subject
Duncan, 52, is serving multiple death and life-in-prison sentences at a high-security U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., for kidnapping Shasta and 9-year-old Dylan Groene from their Idaho home on May 16, 2005, after killing their older brother Slade, mother Brenda Groene and her boyfriend Mark McKenzie. He repeatedly molested both children at a remote campsite in Montana for weeks before torturing and killing Dylan in front of his sister.
The crimes in Idaho happened the day Duncan was supposed to appear again in Becker County, Minn., court on charges he molested a boy and tried to molest another at a school playground in Detroit Lakes.
Duncan was described as an excellent student at NDSU who was close to earning a computer science degree when he abruptly left Fargo in spring 2005 after posting bail on the Becker County charges and before committing the murders in Idaho.
But when Duncan became the subject of the first sex offender community notification meeting in Fargo, Thompson was nervous about him being on the campus.
Thompson teaches a course titled “Deviant Behavior,” which includes a focus on serial killers and psychopaths.
He said Duncan is able to communicate in ways that have others believing he’s reformed when he obviously is not.
“That is the mark of a true psychopath, (convincing) even trained professionals that they’re OK,” Thompson said.
Duncan’s crime spree after leaving NDSU prompted the school to begin looking into background checks for students and forming a safety and security committee, Thompson said.
Now, when prospective students apply to NDSU, or to any North Dakota University System school, they must state whether they’ve ever been convicted of a felony, convicted of a misdemeanor crime involving violence and whether they’re required to register as a sex offender.
If an NDSU applicant answers “yes” to any of those questions, the safety and security committee investigates further to determine how much risk the person presents to others.
‘A wonderful smoke screen’
By the time Duncan came to Fargo in summer 2000, he’d already gotten away with kidnapping, raping and killing three children, unbeknownst to Fargo police or any other law enforcement department.
He since confessed to murdering two half-sisters, ages 9 and 11, near Seattle in 1996-crimes for which he was never charged, and to killing an 11-year-old California boy in 1997-for which he was convicted in 2011.
In his blog, he has recalled feeling a temptation when he once found himself alone with a young boy in a restroom at a ski hill not far from Fargo.
Duncan said the predator in him “awakened” when their eyes met and the boy “flinched” like an animal does when it’s afraid. And then:
“It wasn’t the boy’s appearance, age, or circumstances that aroused me, it was his fear, and his fear alone. As I washed my hands, I metaphorically scratched the predator inside of me behind the ears and thought to it: not yet my friend; not yet... go back to sleep,” he writes.
Some of Duncan’s Fargo acquaintances say they still can’t believe that person is the same “good guy” they once knew.
Jo McCleary of Harwood, N.D., worked with Duncan for at least six months at a now-defunct market research company. “I give people the benefit of the doubt, maybe to a fault,” said McCleary, who was the company receptionist and talked with Duncan often.
She said Duncan opened up to her about his troubled childhood, sexual orientation and criminal past, and something he once told her haunts her to this day.
“He said, ‘I like who I am now, but I have another person in me that I don’t like, that’s evil, and if that comes out, I just want them to kill me,’” McCleary recalls Duncan saying.
A former landlord says he’s still “totally surprised” by Duncan’s split personality.
“He was an ideal renter for us,” said Jeff Ware, who, along with his partner, still owns and rents the property at 810 7th St. N. in Fargo-Duncan’s last permanent address.
Duncan had lived there for about a month when he told Ware just before the community notification meeting that he was a Level III sex offender.
Ware said he decided to give his tenant a second chance after Duncan explained the reason for his sex offender status-that he was “16 and dumb” and “had anger issues” in 1980 when he forced sex on a 14-year-old boy. Duncan had shown the boy a gun, which he said was unloaded.
Larry Boomgaarden, a former Minnesota Corrections Department agent assigned to check in on Duncan after the Becker County charges were filed, found him to be “very compliant,” typical of a sex offender, he said.
“He came across as very docile, which was a wonderful smoke screen,” said Boomgaarden.
Duncan’s Fargo allies
Others in Fargo were also deceived by Joseph Duncan. Two prominent men in the community-one a physician, the other a businessman-gave Duncan moral and financial support at the time, and Duncan’s blog hints heavily of a sexual relationship with one of them.
It was Dr. Richard Wacksman, a critical care physician at what was then MeritCare and now Sanford, who invited Duncan to Fargo.
According to the blog, Duncan met his physician friend “Rich” at a gay bar in San Francisco while out on parole in the mid-90s and they got together periodically.
After Duncan cut loose from parole and was captured by the FBI in 1997, a sentence review board in Washington weighed whether to send him back to prison. Wacksman testified on Duncan’s behalf, stating Duncan was a changed man and that Duncan could live with him in his Harwood home, along with his wife and children.
The parole board turned down the request and Duncan went back behind bars.
It appears, however, that Wacksman didn’t give up on his quest to spring Duncan from prison.
In a recent blog post, Duncan writes about Rich hiring a lawyer to get him credit for lost juvenile time he’d served, and a judge ordering Duncan’s immediate release in July 2000.
Then, Duncan writes, “Rich paid for a one-way plane ticket to Fargo, ND, and the best years of my life began.”
Wacksman, who now operates a medical house-call practice in New Port Richey, Fla., with a son, did not return calls from The Forum.
Another of Duncan’s former supporters, real estate developer Joe Crary, also could not be reached by The Forum.
Joseph Duncan III posted this portrait with an on-line resume updated Dec. 4, 2004, on a North Dakota State University web site.
Joseph Duncan III posted this portrait with an on-line resume updated Dec. 4, 2004, on a North Dakota State University website.
Crary, a former executive member of the Fargo-Cass County Economic Development Corp., wrote Duncan a $15,000 personal check on April 5, 2005, the same day bail was set at that amount on the Becker County child molestation charges.
In a statement to The Forum after Duncan was arrested in Idaho nearly two months later, Crary said he and Duncan had become friends while biking in Fargo and that he wanted to help him financially, as he’d done for others before.
Demeanor of a demon
Sgt. Brad Maskell of the Kootenai County (Mont.) Sheriff’s Department thought it was a prank when he was called in to work May 16, 2005, a day off to celebrate his 50th birthday.
It was no prank, but a report of multiple murders at a rural Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, home.
“My recollection of walking into that house, seeing those bodies-it was one of the most difficult, upsetting cases that I have ever been involved with,” Maskell said.
In the month and a half that followed, investigators would sort through thousands of leads.
But when Maskell got the call around 2 a.m. July 2, 2005, that Shasta Groene had been located in Coeur d’Alene, he was surprised to hear she was with Joseph Duncan.
“That name came in out of the blue,” he said.
Deputies hauled in the fugitive, who gave Maskell a “long dissertation” about the legal system and asked for a cup of coffee.
Later, when Maskell interviewed Duncan with an attorney present, the sergeant described him as calm and articulate.
“Intelligent, soft-spoken, every bit the kind of guy living next door,” said Maskell.
He would only see Duncan’s “other” side upon discovering a small digital storage device in the stolen vehicle Duncan had been driving that contained videos of him molesting the Groene children.
Maskell describes the video clips, some of which were played at Duncan’s trial, as shocking and difficult to even comprehend.
“Very graphic and violent sexual abuse, but also acts of torture committed upon Dylan, without apparent remorse, feeling or any kind of concern for the child at all,” Maskell said.
Equally disturbing in the videos, he said, were Duncan’s religious taunts and references to the devil.
“His actions and demeanor struck me as almost demon-like,” Maskell said.
Duncan awaits ‘release date’
Duncan awaits what he calls on his blog his “release day (a.k.a. execution)” on death row in Terre Haute. The prison is also home to Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who raped and killed University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin in 2003. It will soon house Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It’s also where Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed in 2001.
But no one there has been executed since 2003, and there is no date set for Duncan’s death by lethal injection.
Despite repeatedly waiving his right to fight his death sentences, attorneys continue to pursue appeals to keep Duncan alive, the most recent of which was filed in March.
Meanwhile, Shasta Groene, the lone survivor of Duncan’s crimes 10 years ago, is now 18, and Maskell said he’s heard she’s having difficulty, including run-ins with police and time in juvenile treatment centers in Idaho and elsewhere. Not surprising, he says, for someone who experienced such horrors firsthand.
As lead investigator, Maskell is also still haunted by Duncan’s crimes.
“I don’t think a day will ever go by that I’m not thinking about that case-and the videos,” he said.