Six weeks after members of her family were beaten to death at her Idaho home, an 8-year-old girl who had disappeared with her brother was found eating in her hometown Denny's early Saturday morning by a waitress who recognized the girl from a missing-children poster.
Her 9-year-old brother was still missing, and authorities in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, said they now have information that he may be dead.
Shasta Groene walked into the Denny's at 1:50 a.m. with Joseph E. Duncan III, a registered sex offender from Fargo, N.D., and a fugitive from a charge of sexually molesting a 7-year-old last summer in Minnesota, police said.
As he entered the restaurant, Duncan, 42, ripped down a missing-children poster of Shasta and her brother, the restaurant's manager told the Spokesman-Review, a newspaper in nearby Spokane, Wash.
Shortly after the waitress recognized the missing girl, Duncan was arrested and charged with kidnapping. Police said he was driving a 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee stolen in May in St. Paul, Minn., with Missouri license plates that had been stolen in April.
Duncan was being questioned in connection with the triple slaying on May 16 of Shasta's mother, Brenda Groene, 40; her brother, Slade Groene, 13; and her mother's companion, Mark McKenzie, 37. They were found bound and bludgeoned to death in their home about 20 miles from the Denny's where Shasta turned up.
Authorities said they are still looking for her brother, Dylan, but said that their investigation indicated "he may be deceased."
Shasta was alert at the restaurant and did not appear to have been injured, said Kootenai County Sheriff's Capt. Ben Wolfinger. He said at a news conference that she was "generally in good health when they first found her at the Denny's having a meal."
Waitress Amber Deahn, who noticed the girl, told the Spokesman-Review that Shasta looked familiar from the poster -- and that she also looked withdrawn. After her manager called police, Deahn told the newspaper that she "picked up that child and held her and hugged her."
She was taken to a nearby hospital, according to Wolfinger, where doctors examined her and police tried to interview her. He said the interview was not going quickly.
"You have to understand that she is a little girl," Wolfinger said. "She has obviously been through a pretty traumatic time."
Police said they do not know whether the girl or her family had any previous connection with Duncan. One relative said he was a stranger to the family.
"We don't have any idea who Duncan is, other than a very, very sick individual," Shasta's uncle, Bob Price, told the Associated Press. "Sick and stupid to go to a Denny's at 2 a.m. with a child."
From the age of 16, Duncan has had a history of sex crimes. He is named on a Fargo sex offender notification list that includes individuals whose crimes place "them in a classification level which reflects the potential to re-offend."
According to the registry, Duncan's first sexual offense took place in 1980 in Tacoma, Wash., after he stole four handguns and abducted a 14-year-old boy, whom he twice assaulted at gunpoint. Duncan pleaded guilty to first-degree rape and served 20 years in prison.
He moved to Fargo in 2000, where he enrolled at North Dakota State University and registered as a sex offender. A school spokesman has told news media in Fargo that Duncan majored in computer science, twice made the dean's list and was a member of the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, a fraternity for academic excellence.
Last July in Becker County, Minn., which is near Fargo, Duncan was charged with criminal sexual conduct. On a playground at a middle school, he allegedly pulled down the pants of a 7-year-old and touched him.
Duncan posted a $15,000 cash bond in April in connection with that charge, but in May he missed a court appointment. An FBI official said Saturday that Duncan was wanted on a federal warrant for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Authorities in Coeur D'Alene said they had no information about whether Duncan had been staying in the local area. They said there had been no tips before Saturday that he had been seen with Shasta.
Duncan reportedly ran a Web site devoted to the assertion that registration of sex offenders is "state sanctioned discrimination."
The Web site, called the Fifth Nail, was unavailable by midday Saturday. But before it became unavailable, the Spokesman-Review found blog entries under the name "Joe," who wrote that he is "sticking up for the human being inside" oppressed criminals.
Joe wrote on May 11: "As far as letting God take care of the Demons, too late. . . . Now they are loose and I am very afraid."
In the final entry, dated May 13 -- nine days after the Grand Cherokee was stolen in St. Paul and three days before the triple Idaho slaying -- Joe wrote: "I'm not a bad person. I just have a disease contracted from society, and it hurts a lot."