Man accused of kidnapping 2 Idaho children and killing a family holds key to laptop mystery

Wednesday, October 18th 2006, 5:56 am
By: News On 6

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) As the man accused of kidnapping two children and killing their family waits in a jail cell for a federal indictment to be handed down, he still holds what could be a bargaining chip: An encrypted laptop that may contain more horrors.

The FBI's top hackers apparently have been unable to break through Joseph Edward Duncan III's security encryptions, and a plea bargain Duncan's lawyers struck Monday with state prosecutors says the key must only be shared with his defense lawyer.

The computer key may provide Duncan some negotiating leverage in the next few weeks when authorities file federal charges that are expected to carry the death penalty.

``Federal authorities are going to attempt to execute my client,'' said Roger Peven, Duncan's federal public defender. ``This is something I'd be happy to talk with federal authorities about.''

Peven is the only person other than Duncan to have seen some of the contents of the laptop. He has declined to say what he saw on the computer.

Has Duncan, a computer savvy predator with his blogs, videos and other high-tech tools, outwitted law officers? And what do his computers contain?

``I am working on an encrypted journal that is hundreds of times more frank than this blog could ever be (that's why I keep it encrypted),'' Duncan wrote on his Web log three days before the May 16, 2005, murders near Coeur d'Alene.

Duncan speculated that it would take at least 30 years for technology to emerge that could easily crack the encryption ``and then the world will know who I really was, and what I really did, and what I really thought.''

Duncan, 43, pleaded guilty Monday to killing three people, Brenda Groene, her 13 year old son, Slade; and her boyfriend, Mark McKenzie, so he could kidnap Shasta Groene, then 8, and her 9 year old brother, Dylan, for sex.

Seven weeks after the May 2005 slayings, Shasta was rescued. Dylan's body was later found at a remote campsite in Montana. Under his state plea agreement, he is to be sentenced to three consecutive life terms without parole.

But federal prosecutors have said they intend to charge Duncan with kidnapping Shasta and Dylan, and that they expect to seek the death penalty. Court documents allege he repeatedly molested the pair.

Duncan also has been investigated in the abductions and murders of 10 year old Anthony Martinez in Riverside County, California, in 1997 and two Seattle half-sisters, Sammiejo White, 11, and Carmen Cubias, 9, in 1996.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Haws noted that Duncan's initial plea offer, which was rejected by Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas, called for Duncan to reveal the encryption key in exchange for escaping the death penalty.

That initial deal also hinted that the contents of the laptop contained information involving at least Shasta Groene. The final deal called for the key to be revealed only to Peven.

Haws declined to criticize the state's plea agreement, saying Douglas' job was only to get the best deal against Duncan in state court.

``How it affects the federal case is not their job,'' Haws said.

If the federal trial does not produce a death sentence, Duncan could be brought back for a death penalty hearing in state court, Douglas said.

FBI computer experts in Quantico, Virginia, have reportedly spent the past year trying to break into Duncan's laptop, which was found in his stolen vehicle in July 2005, and the desktop computer at his apartment in Fargo, North Dakota.

Douglas said he rejected the initial offer that would have given law enforcement officers the encryption key because it also spared Duncan the death penalty in the state case. The contents of the computer were only of interest to federal authorities, Douglas said.

``That was not even my case,'' Douglas said.

Duncan, a Tacoma, Washington, native, is a registered sex offender who spent most of his adult life in prison for sex crimes against children. He was released from prison in 2000, and was scheduled to complete a bachelor's degree in computer science at North Dakota State University in May 2005, the same month the murders occurred.

Public defender John Adams, who negotiated the plea agreement with Douglas, said the final deal ``was something both sides could live with.''

``I don't know what's on there,'' Adams said of the laptop computer.