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Tale of Lost Dog Trail Ends in a Courtroom

The murder case against a man in the deaths of his wife and son rests on a former friend with a checkered past.

January 05, 2003|Helen O'Neill | Associated Press Writer

GREEN RIVER, Wyo. — THE STORY SO FAR

Bob Duke was sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting to kill his parents, but authorities were having a difficult time proving that the deaths of his wife and son six years earlier were anything more than an accidental fall. Roger Brauburger, who insisted Duke had tried to hire him to kill them all, was the prosecution's strongest witness. But with his reputation for carousing and small-time drug-dealing, would a jury believe him?

- From Associated Press

*

GREEN RIVER, Wyo. -- The jury traveled to Lost Dog Trail on a warm windy morning last August, driving down the remote winding track to the face of the cliff. In silence they crept along the ridge, spooked by the wind and the rattlesnakes, shocked by the deadly drop to the gorge.

It seemed like an evil place, one juror said later.

That was exactly the impression prosecutor Harold Moneyhun had counted on.

Moneyhun had decided to press the case only after a grand jury found enough evidence to do so, and only after insisting that the jury visit the cliff.

"It's not a picnic area," Moneyhun said. "It is the murder weapon."

Each day Moneyhun repeated this in court, using a 5-by-3-foot brown fiberglass model of the cliff as a prop. It dominated the courtroom, a chilling reminder of where the mother and child had died six years earlier.

State prosecutors brought six charges against Bob Duke: two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of his wife and child, two counts of soliciting their murders and two counts of soliciting his parents' murders.

They reckoned the solicitation charges involving the parents would be easy to prove. After all, Duke had already been convicted on similar federal charges. The real challenge would be to prove he had killed his wife and child.

They had no eyewitnesses, no forensic evidence and a key witness who would be portrayed as a criminal and a loser by the defense.

Still, Moneyhun believed he had to try the case.

"At this point, there was just this feeling that someone had to stand up for Liana and Erik," he said later.

So Moneyhun launched his assault with the biggest piece of evidence in his possession: the FBI tapes.

In the hushed courtroom, Duke's taped voice sounded clear and calm as he discussed, in eerie detail, how to murder his parents.

"A .22 is quiet enough.... No one can think it's anything more than a door slam...."

The jury listened grimly.

The defendant didn't flinch.

*

Roger Brauburger was one of the first witnesses to testify. Nervously he slid into the witness chair and gazed around the packed courtroom, taking it all in -- the bailiffs, the jury, the crowd. Finally his eyes settled on Duke, sitting a few yards in front of him.

In leg shackles and a suit, Duke looked paler than Brauburger remembered, and much older. He was nearly bald and his eyes looked cold. There was hardly a trace of the skinny, dark-haired youth who had once been his best friend.

The two men stared at each other silently.

For a fleeting moment, Brauburger forgot the court, his testimony, the knot in his stomach.

For a fleeting moment, he let his mind drift back -- back to the days when they were just two foolish kids, tearing across the desert in Duke's pickup, shooting rabbits and drinking beer, and dreaming that beyond the cliffs and the gorge and the endless dust life held something different for them, something glorious.

How did we ever get to this point, he wondered. What went wrong?

And then he remembered carrying little Erik's coffin. And Liana's battered face.

I've got to do this right, he thought. So they can rest in peace.

For the next four hours Brauburger testified in a case that could put his old friend away for life. He described how Duke had first approached him to kill his wife and child, and how, years later, he had come to him for help once again.

"He said, 'I've done family before and I didn't like it,' " Brauburger told the court. " 'Would you be interested in killing my parents?' "

*

Moneyhun was satisfied with Brauburger's performance, but he knew it wasn't enough.

He needed more -- more than the parade of witnesses who testified that Duke was unhappy in his marriage, or the experts who said the cliff had not given way. He needed something more than the rescue workers who, over and over, described Duke's lack of emotion at the scene.

Even the photographs of the bodies were not enough, although they moved some jurors to tears. Others stared coldly at Duke.

He stared back without expression.

Defense lawyer LaVoy Taylor countered Brauburger's testimony with a smile and a slow drawl.

It was all a huge mistake he said. A young man, who had tragically lost his family, who was already serving prison time for a stupid joke gone wrong. This case wasn't about murder, Taylor argued. It was about an overzealous prosecutor so bent on getting a conviction that he rested his whole case on a witness with no credibility and a criminal past.

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