ST. REGIS, Mont. — They were less than 100 miles from home, but they may as well have been 100,000.
The vast, thickly veiled forest in remote northwestern Montana proved to be the ideal hiding place for a man accused of kidnapping two children from their home just across the border in Idaho.
"You have to want to go this far to camp in a place like this," said Sharon Sweeney, spokeswoman for the Lolo National Forest, where investigators believe Joseph Edward Duncan III kept the children for part of the six weeks they were missing.
Investigators are trying to piece together exactly where 8-year-old Shasta and 9-year-old Dylan Groene were taken after their mother, brother and mother's boyfriend were bludgeoned to death in a rural Idaho home. The children were gone when the bodies were discovered May 16.
Authorities suspect Duncan spent at least some of that time with the children in this rugged national forest, camping at two or more remote sites.
It is here, they say, that Duncan, a 42-year-old registered sex offender from North Dakota, is suspected of molesting both children.
Shasta was rescued Tuesday after a waitress spotted her with Duncan at a restaurant in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, a few miles from her mother's home, and called police. But Dylan remains missing, and authorities fear human remains found during the search in western Montana are his. DNA test results are expected this week.
Duncan has been charged only with kidnapping.
Authorities, however, said they believed he killed the children's 13-year-old brother, their mother and her boyfriend. Sheriff Rocky Watson said Friday that the family appeared to have been chosen at random but that the attack was carefully planned and executed, possibly with the motive of abducting the children for sex.
As investigators try to retrace Duncan's steps and determine how he could have kept the children for so long without being noticed, the sheer primitive nature of this part of western Montana could offer some explanation.
The forest west of St. Regis where Duncan is suspected of camping with the children is one of the state's most rugged, a labyrinth of dirt trails and old logging roads, many leading to nowhere.
The sense of physical isolation is instant.
One of the suspected campsites is nothing more than a small clearing where the road dead-ends, bordered by towering ponderosa pines and a steep ravine. It is about an hour's drive from civilization.
Duncan may have kept the children compliant by convincing them they needed him to survive, said Gilbert Kliman, medical director of the Children's Psychological Health Center in San Francisco.