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Clues few in mystery of missing children

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- Some people think Dylan and Shasta Groene were snatched by drug dealers. Others think they might be hiding in the woods. There's a motorcycle gang war theory and a cult theory.

Nearly three weeks after 8-year-old Shasta and 9-year-old Dylan were reported missing from the home where their mother, older brother, and mother's boyfriend were bound and bludgeoned to death, investigators say they have no clue where the children are -- and no suspect or motive.

''We haven't closed the door on any angle of this thing," said Captain Ben Wolfinger of the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office, whose officers have logged more than 1,600 hours of overtime in the largest criminal case in the office's history.

FBI agents and local officers have interviewed 400 people and searched through 800 tons of animal carcasses and other trash at a landfill. The FBI office in Salt Lake City has devoted up to 85 agents to the search.

Although law enforcement officers are reluctant to say so, the chances of finding the children alive grow slimmer as time passes. According to a 1997 study by the Washington state Attorney General's Office, 74 percent of the children who die in abductions are killed within the first three hours.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, of the 797,500 children reported missing in 1999, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the vast majority were runaways or were abducted by a family member. The NCMEC lists 10 missing children from Idaho, including the Groene children. The earliest case dates from 1980, when 1-year-old Curtis Fair was abducted from Nampa.

The Groene case began on the evening of May 16 when sheriff's deputies went to the rural home after a neighbor reported that dogs were barking and the door of one vehicle was open but no one was in sight. The deputies found the bound bodies of Brenda Groene, 40, Slade Groene, 13, and Mark McKenzie, 37, all dead of massive head injuries.

Officials have not said how long they had been dead. The victims had last been seen alive the previous evening.

The small house is less than half a mile from an access ramp on busy Interstate 90. It is only about 30 miles from the Washington state line, 50 miles from the Montana line, and 100 miles from the Canadian border.

The children's biological father, Steven Groene, 48, of Coeur d'Alene, was almost immediately discounted as a suspect, even though he failed parts of an FBI lie detector test and had no alibi. Groene, a blues musician, and Brenda were divorced in 2001. They sometimes squabbled over visitation rights, but relatives have not indicated any deeper problems.

Some 1,500 tips flowed in, with people offering theories that ranged from alien abduction to a motorcycle gang war, since Steven Groene owns a Harley-Davidson.

Steven Groene, his former wife, and two adult sons had minor criminal records, mostly involving theft or drug abuse. Traces of methamphetamine were found in the bodies of Brenda Groene and McKenzie, fueling rumors of a drug hit.

Andrew Vachss, a New York City author and attorney who specializes in studying crimes against children, is intrigued by the case.

He said the killers apparently had complex motives because they bound and likely interrogated the murder victims. That could indicate a dispute over drugs or money that exploded in a rage of violence, he said. There was probably more than one killer since the victims were bound, he said.

He does not think the children were deliberately abducted to be sold for sex or into slavery, because perpetrators of such crimes would probably not draw attention to themselves by killing three people.

Vachss said another possible scenario is cult activity. Perhaps the adults had betrayed leaders of a cult and were killed, while the smallest children were considered innocent, Vachss said.

But Wolfinger said cult connections were not considered probable.

Bob Price of Tacoma, brother-in-law of Steven Groene, said the family is satisfied that law enforcement is doing all it can. ''The agonizing part is for the two missing kids," said Price, whose wife, Wendy, is Groene's sister.

Searchers initially hoped the children might have escaped the house and hidden in dense woods nearby. Relatives cling to the hope the pair are safe and in hiding.

Some are drawing comfort from the case of Elizabeth Smart, a 14-year-old Utah girl who was kidnapped from her bedroom in June 2002. She was found nine months later on a street in a suburb of Salt Lake City with her abductor and his wife.

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