Plot Rekindles Suspicion About Family Deaths
THE STORY SO FAR
Roger Brauburger had finally gone to the police with his secret: Just three weeks before Liana Duke and her 5-year-old son fell to their deaths on Lost Dog Trail, her husband had tried to hire Roger to kill them. And now the husband wanted Roger to help him kill again.
From Associated Press
GREEN RIVER, Wyo.-- FBI agent Todd Scott hated his job that day, couldn’t remember a single task in his career that had sickened him as much.
Nothing can prepare you for this, he thought. No training can teach you how to confront parents with proof that their two sons -- their only children -- had been plotting to kill them.
Larry and Roberta Duke were gracious and kind. They talked of their grief over Liana and Erik, whose photographs lined their living room walls. They talked with pride about their sons, Mike and Bob. Good boys, they said. Turned out real good.
The couple refused to listen to the FBI tapes of their younger son, Bob, plotting their murders. They angrily dismissed Scott’s explanation of the federal charges. The case hinged on the word of a drug addict and loser, they said. Why would anyone believe Roger Brauburger over their son?
Scott’s heart went out to them. There are some things, he thought, no parents should ever have to believe.
The FBI wrapped up the case quickly. The brothers pleaded guilty, saying they wanted to spare their parents the anguish of a trial. Four months after their arrests, Bob Duke was sentenced to 10 years. Mike Duke got 21 months.
It was May 1999, nearly three years after the deaths of Liana and Erik Duke.
In Green River, the schoolteachers’ sons and their murder-for-hire plot was the talk of the town.
People ached for the parents, who still marched into class every day, stoic in their belief that their sons had been wronged. Friends tried to comfort them, sent flowers and cards with little notes that made muddled attempts at saying the right thing.
But what could anyone say when the whole town was buzzing with the same awful question: If Bob Duke was capable of plotting to murder his parents, had he also killed his wife and child?
There were many who shunned Brauburger, blaming him for inflicting this pain upon the parents, upon the town.
“It was like the town was divided,” Brauburger said later. “Half congratulated me and the other half hated me -- all because I had done the right thing.”
Brauburger couldn’t believe the outcome of the FBI case. Initially, investigators had told him that Bob Duke would probably go to prison for life. Ten years! That meant he’d be out in seven. And his brother would be out in a few months.
Brauburger had no doubt they would seek revenge.
Brauburger was married now. He had a child and another on the way. In a panic, he drove to the FBI in Cheyenne and demanded that his family be put in the federal witness protection program.
“I put myself on the line for you guys,” Brauburger told Todd Scott.
Sorry, Scott told him. Brauburger didn’t qualify for witness protection. Duke simply wasn’t considered dangerous enough.
Brauburger was terrified. Everywhere he went, people whispered behind his back. News accounts portrayed him as a drug addict, although he insisted he’d given up drugs years ago. He had been kicked off jobs by people who were friends of the Dukes. His ulcer was getting worse. Even his home life was rocky: His wife, Heather, had thrown him out a few times because she was so fed up with his drinking.
Many times he wondered: Why had he bothered?
“It was one of the few times in my life when I had really done the right thing, the hardest thing,” Brauburger said. “And no one seemed to care if I lived or died.”
In his tiny basement office next to the courthouse, Tim Merchant, division commander with the Sweetwater County sheriff’s department, had never been able to shake his doubts about the deaths of the mother and child. With the conclusion of the federal case, he had a new reason to investigate.
Merchant is lean and weathered, proud of his badge and his roots that go back five generations in this town. He trusts his instincts, especially when things don’t feel right. And nothing had ever felt right about the deaths of Liana and Erik Duke.
For nearly a year after the brothers went to prison, Merchant mulled over the case. He pored over FBI documents.
He tracked down Brauburger and found a man who felt bitter and betrayed and terrified.
When Bob Duke gets out of prison, I’m going to meet him with a gun, Brauburger told Merchant.
“If I don’t kill him first, he’ll kill me,” he said. “And no one else will protect me.”
Merchant listened. Brauburger’s fear was believable. And so was his story about what happened at the cliff at the end of Lost Dog Trail.
But Merchant needed more than Brauburger’s word to make a case.
He drove to the cliff and stood at the top, kicking through the sagebrush, peering over the sheer 100-foot drop to the ledge where Liana and Erik had fallen. The wind whistled, blowing up the dust. The cliffs rose all around, dark and foreboding.
No one brings a child to such a place, he thought.
Back in his office, Merchant pulled out the file. He spread the photographs across his desk and stared at them for a long, long time: Liana, battered and swollen, her bruised body crumpled over a rock, a thick purple mark ringing her neck. Little Erik in all his angelic innocence, looking as if he were sleeping except his face was ashen.
Merchant felt sick.
This guy is not going to get away with this, he thought.
In April 2000 Merchant went to his boss.
“I want to reopen the Duke investigation,” he told him.
“Go for it,” his boss said.
The first person Merchant went to was Sweetwater County Attorney Harold Moneyhun. Like Merchant, the 51-year-old prosecutor had been haunted by the deaths of the mother and child for years.
Moneyhun is tall and serious, with a quiet sense of authority and a thoughtful, scholarly manner. In his heart he felt he had a murder case. But could he prove it?
The FBI tapes proved the plot against the parents, but they offered nothing explicit about the wife and child.
The cliffs were compelling: When he stood at the edge of Lost Dog Trail, Merchant had no doubt he was looking at a murder weapon and no doubt that the jury would feel the same. But that wasn’t enough for a conviction.
And then there was Brauburger.
“I believed Roger when he said Duke had offered him $15,000 to kill his wife and child,” Moneyhun said. “But would a jury be able to see past Brauburger’s own past, which we knew the defense would raise? I just didn’t know.”
Merchant showed Moneyhun the photographs. He pointed to the marks on Liana’s neck. Both men were thinking the same thing.
Moneyhun e-mailed the photos to a pathologist friend in Indiana.
The reply came back like a thunderbolt.
“It looks like she was strangled.”
Could this be their proof?
They decided to seek a court order to exhume the bodies.
For the next two months Merchant and a team from Moneyhun’s office tirelessly worked the case. Phone records, financial records, insurance records. They dug up every scrap of information they could find.
They interviewed and re-interviewed everyone who had been at the scene on Aug. 10, 1996 -- rescuers, firefighters, cops. They tracked down Duke’s old school friends and girlfriends and people he had worked with.
Over and over, they interviewed Brauburger. His story never wavered.
Gradually, they pieced together discrepancies in Duke’s story: He told some people that Erik had been playing with toys, others that the boy was throwing rocks. He told some that the family had gotten lost; others told investigators that Duke knew the trails well.
They tracked down experts who might help their case: A fall expert who dropped lifelike dummies from the cliff in an effort to prove that Liana and Erik might have been pushed. A taekwondo expert who explained ways of immobilizing people without leaving a mark. A lichen expert who scrambled fearlessly around the cliff’s edges and concluded, unequivocally, that the cliff face had not given way. In some of his accounts, Duke had said it had.
But the key was the autopsy. That would be their trump card.
On July 7, the bodies of Liana and Erik Duke were exhumed.
Four days later the autopsy results came back: The injuries were horrific, but they were consistent with a fall.
Liana Duke had not been strangled.
Merchant and Moneyhun were so devastated they considered dropping the case.
But there was more bad news.
Sifting through financial records, Merchant found a $1,000 check from Duke made out to Roger Brauburger in October 1996, two months after the deaths.
Hush money? That was what it looked like.
Merchant was furious. Had their key witness been lying to them?
“We warned you there were to be no skeletons or we would find them,” he yelled at Brauburger.
Brauburger was a nervous wreck. He’d lost work over this case -- days when he had to skip jobs for yet another interrogation by investigators. His health was suffering. He had put himself on the line for the cops, the FBI and now the prosecutors.
He needed these guys to believe him. If they didn’t, no one would.
Desperately, Brauburger explained that the loan was drug money. He had this dumb idea that he could borrow the money to buy marijuana, sell it and pay Duke double what he owed.
“It was stupid and it didn’t work,” Brauburger said. “But I’m telling the truth.”
Merchant had no choice but to believe him.
But would a jury?
Next week: The courtroom faceoff.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
How This Story Was Reported
- From Associated Press
This story is based on extensive interviews with investigators from the Green River (Wyo.) Police Department and the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Department; prosecutors; the FBI; witnesses, including Roger Brauburger and his family; relatives of Liana and Erik Duke; and jury members. It also drew on court testimony and evidence submitted in both the federal and state cases, including FBI tapes of conversations between Bob Duke and Brauburger, the coroner’s report, photographs of the scene and of the autopsies. Research included attendance at the trial and the sentencing as well as visits to the cliff at the end of Lost Dog Trail. Duke and his family declined to be interviewed.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.