Secret of Lost Dog Trail Haunts a Friendship

Associated Press Writer

From every corner of this dusty river outpost you see them, sheer jagged cliffs rising from the desert, all burnished reds and orange-yellows and sandy browns, breathtaking and beautiful and deadly.

Castle Rock. Giant's Thumb. Slippery Jim Canyon. Massacre Hill. Their names evolved along with their formations and their stories.

But the name on everyone's mind last summer -- in the mines, in the taverns, at the mini-mart, at the Sage Creek Bagel Cafe -- was Lost Dog Trail.

The remote, rutted track meanders for seven miles across open desert before ending at the head of a cliff. It is a forbidding place of loose shale and parched scrub and swirling dust winds that gust even in summer. Coiled rattlesnakes sun themselves on ledges, slithering into crevices to cool. Lizards scurry underfoot. The redness of the rock seems as endless as the blue of the sky.

Senses are sharper here, if only because of the vastness, the desolation, the danger.

It was here, high on a ridge overlooking Flaming Gorge Reservoir, that a young mother and her child plunged to their deaths six years ago, their bodies crashing from rock to rock before coming to rest 100 feet down.

A tragic accident, people thought at the time. A weekend outing turned terribly wrong.

Or so it seemed.

*

Green River is a mining town of 14,000 named for the river that snakes through its center. It has a dusty, old-fashioned spirit and charm: Strangers are quickly welcomed; scores quickly settled.

Roger Brauburger and Bob Duke grew up here, in the shadow of the cliffs, best friends since a schoolyard fight in seventh grade.

Brauburger was the tough one of the pair, not a serious troublemaker but always in a scrape. As a teen, he strayed into drinking and drugs.

Duke was the clean-cut one, serious and ambitious, the son of schoolteachers who were known for their strictness at home and at school.

The two grew up a few blocks from each other, Brauburger in a little brown ranch house on Arizona Street, Duke in a little red house on Bridger Street. They went to school together, shot pool together, dreamed big dreams together.

Duke talked of college, of getting rich, of traveling far from the trona (soda ash) mines of Green River and making a name for himself. Brauburger was content to drop out of school and follow his father into construction.

Brauburger admired Duke: He was always so focused, so sure; nothing ever rattled him. He would set his mind to something and master it completely. When they took up tae kwon do together, Duke became a black belt. Brauburger dropped out after several classes.

The only thing Brauburger could do better than Duke was shoot. He was an excellent marksman.

They would go off-roading in Duke's truck, tearing over the desert above Flaming Gorge Reservoir, shooting rabbits and drinking beer. Or they would go cruising for girls on the streets of the neighboring town of Rock Springs.

Many nights they'd sit home watching murder-for-hire and horror movies: The violent cult film "Faces of Death" was a favorite. They would joke about becoming hit men themselves.

"We'd kid around about what a great life, little effort, little time, quick money," Brauburger said. "Click, just pull the trigger. Click! Next thing you have 15, 15, 20 grand. Man, what a life."

The outlaw history of Sweetwater County seemed to inspire such talk: Butch Cassidy once roamed these parts, back in the mid-1880s, when Green River was becoming a hub for the Union Pacific railroad. The mines came in the 1940s and remain the biggest local employers.

There is still a rough-around-the-edges quality to much of life here -- a throwback to the days of old.

It's the wind, some locals joke, blowing in from the plains, driving people crazy.

It's the highway, others say, carved right through the rock, bringing interstate traffic and interstate problems.

Or maybe it's the vast open desert where evil deeds are easily buried in the dust, and the only witnesses are rattlesnakes and lizards.

On resurrection day, goes one old saying, bodies will be poking up through the red desert dirt like white picket fences.

*

When he was 21, Brauburger bought Duke his first gun -- a 9 mm Beretta. Brauburger was older by a few months, so he was legally able to make the purchase. He also had connections -- connections that Duke didn't have -- to drugs, to guns, to small-time crime.

Years later, Brauburger would regret these connections and try to escape them.

Years later he would wish, with all his heart, that he had never strayed into a world that had tarnished him for life with a reputation he felt he didn't deserve -- a reputation that would haunt him when he finally tried to do the right thing.

At the time, though, life was good. Brauburger worked construction jobs with his dad during the week, drank beer with Duke on weekends.

Duke was not so content.

His dreams of a life beyond Green River were dashed when his 17-year-old girlfriend, Liana Davidson, a pretty, shy, dark-eyed girl, got pregnant in high school. When she found out, Liana was terrified. Duke stood by her, though he told Brauburger that he felt trapped. They married in May 1991 and had a son, Erik, three months later.

Duke became a carpet layer, working hard, building a reputation as the best in the business in Sweetwater County. Employers loved him: He was diligent, professional and quiet, a good provider for his family, a good husband and father.

Liana threw herself into motherhood and home, filling the apartment with homemade wreaths, crafts and knickknacks. She talked of opening a craft shop someday.

"My wife is going to make me independently wealthy," Duke would joke.

Liana disapproved of her husband's friendship with Brauburger: Roger was too rough, she said, and she hated his drug-dealing friends.

So the friendship shifted. Duke still hung out with Brauburger for occasional nights on the town, and they would still go off-roading in his truck. But Duke started spending more time with another friend, a cop. The two worked out and went fishing together, attended martial arts classes, took up rock climbing. Brauburger, trying to hold down a steady job while selling marijuana on the side, was not invited.

Brauburger envied his old friend with his perfect home, perfect family and money in his pocket with the jobs that always seemed to come his way.

Someday, he thought, I'd like to settle down and have a home and family too.

*

Brauburger got the news in Laramie, 223 miles away, while he was helping a friend move.

"There has been a terrible accident," his mother said on the phone.

Brauburger listened in horror, a hot panic rising in his chest. He thought of the raw jagged edges of the cliffs at the head of Lost Dog Trail. He thought of the bodies. He thought of his best friend.

He put the phone down and buried his face in his hands.

Oh my God, he thought. How could this have happened?

But in his heart he thought he knew.

*

Officially, the deaths were ruled an accident.

A steamy August day. A little boy throwing rocks and chasing lizards. A mother hovering over him. The father heading back to the Jeep for a soda.

Suddenly a scream. And they were gone.

Bob Duke's account was heartbreaking. He described how he raced to the edge of the cliff and saw the twisted bodies of his wife and child far below, how he couldn't find any way to reach them, how he heard the gurgling sound of his son's last breath.

Frantically, he called 911 on his cell phone, then drove to the main road to guide in the ambulance and the firefighters.

He spoke of his agony as he watched the bodies being winched up in a basket, the broken body of 5-year-old Erik cradled in the arms of his bruised and bloodied mother, 22-year-old Liana.

Even the rescuers wept.

Duke stood by his Jeep in silence, answering investigators' questions in a monotone, unable even to cry.

Poor man, he must be in such shock, people thought, as they flocked to the funerals in an outpouring of community grief and support. Only 23 years old and he had lost his family.

Brauburger struggled to find words of comfort for his friend, but he didn't know what to say. He carried Erik's coffin with a heavy heart, proud to be the pall bearer, sick with grief for the child he had known, tormented by thoughts about what had happened -- thoughts that he didn't dare share with anyone.

Mother and child were buried side by side in Riverview Cemetery on a hill overlooking town. Bob Duke took pride in picking out designs for the headstones: doves and flowers for Liana, an engraving of a boy and a dog for Erik.

But even as Duke broke down at the funeral, even as grief and disbelief swelled through the town, there were whispers of doubt.

What could have lured the family to such a desolate, dangerous spot in the first place?

Why had there been no autopsy, no thorough police investigation?

What had really happened that day on Lost Dog Trail?

"There was just this sense," said Tim Merchant of the sheriff's department, echoing other investigators. "It was just a gut feeling that something wasn't right."

But the one man who thought he knew what was wrong was too terrified to say.

After all, who on earth would believe him?

*

After the funerals, Brauburger kept his distance from Duke, although he still borrowed money from him for drugs. They didn't go off-roading as much anymore. They didn't hang out watching movies.

When Duke moved to Houston in the fall of 1998 to live with his older brother, Mike, Brauburger felt a sense of relief. He could put his dark thoughts behind him. He could bury his secret with the past. Nothing he did or said could change things, anyway.

And then the phone calls began, and the nightmarish suggestions.

And the fear and the guilt that had haunted Brauburger for two years erupted one night in a frenzy.

Next week: Suspicions, threats and fear.

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