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.
Brauburger's story "sounds to me like a dreamed-up, drug-mind statement," Taylor said. "And we know that Roger Brauburger was a drug peddler, a drug dealer and a drug user."
Even the so-called fall expert, Taylor pointed out, couldn't prove that a crime had been committed. There was no evidence of strangulation. There was no evidence of foul play on the cliff. If there was, it should have been investigated years ago.
The prosecution felt stumped. There seemed no doubt that the original investigation had been bungled and no clear explanation why, except that Duke was considered such an upstanding citizen that he wouldn't have been capable of such horror.
Then, in the middle of the trial, along came a witness who was so compelling that Moneyhun called her "a gift." She just walked into his office one day at lunchtime and said, "I have to tell the truth."
She was pretty and poised and devastating.
Moneyhun put Crystal Robinson on the stand the next day.
Robinson told the court that when Liana and Erik were still alive, she had been Duke's girlfriend. He would drive her to the cliffs at the end of Lost Dog Trail. There, among the rocks and the dust and the sunsets, they would drink beer and make out. And he would tell her, over and over, that he wanted out of his marriage.
When she asked why he didn't get a divorce, she said, Duke always gave the same answer:
"He wanted to find a way out in which he would not have to pay child support."
Bob Duke took the stand in his own defense in the final days of the trial. In a strong, confident voice, he described how a family outing to the cliffs had turned tragic, how his wife had fallen when his back was turned, her scream, the sound of his child choking on his last breath.
"I was pretty freaked out. I felt real dizzy," Duke said. "I just kind of dropped down to my knees and I started hollering."
Moneyhun thought Duke seemed defiant and remorseless and arrogant.
He lashed out at Duke's behavior on the cliff.
"It must have taken every ounce of strength and resolve that you have as a parent not to go down there or try to get down there and see what happened," he said sarcastically.
He sneered when Duke defended the taped conversations about murder as a misunderstood joke.
"You stop me when I get to the funny part," Moneyhun said.
What actually happened, Moneyhun suggested, was that Duke shoved his wife and child off the cliff and then scrambled down after them to make sure they were dead. That was how he heard his son's last gurgling breath. Only when Duke was sure they were dead, Moneyhun said, did he call 911.
Duke listened dispassionately, his blank expression infuriating Moneyhun. Few people had ever angered him as much, he said later. Few cases had felt so important.
"Maybe it was because there was a child involved," he said. "Maybe it was because the case was so old and Duke seemed so arrogant and I just felt like he had gotten away with it for so long."
The jury deliberated for eight hours.
The verdict came suddenly, late at night, delivered so fast that Brauburger couldn't make it to court in time. As he raced up the courthouse steps, he met Ralph and Rose Davidson, Liana's parents. They were clinging to each other, smiling through tears.
"Thank you," Ralph Davidson said, grasping Brauburger's hand. "Thank you for coming forward and for doing the right thing."
Duke had been found guilty on all six counts.
Sentencing took place on a breezy day in September, in a courtroom packed with family members, witnesses, investigators and the jury.
Larry and Roberta Duke sat in front, staring straight ahead, silently holding hands. Their older son, Mike, sat beside them.
They ignored the stares and the whispered questions that seemed to echo through the court: How could they continue to support their son? How could their family have come to this?
Bob Duke shuffled into court in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs and leg shackles. Reading from a prepared statement, he spoke of his devotion to his wife and child, his devastation at their deaths. He suggested that he was being punished -- by the prosecution and the media -- for not showing more emotion.
"I'm sorry," he said, "if my grief did not meet the expectations of the public."
Brauburger listened, sitting in the back of the courtroom with Heather. Until the last minute, he had been unsure about whether to come. He thought he never wanted to see Duke's face again.
Heather, expecting their third child, had persuaded him. You need to be there, she told him. You need to feel proud of what you have accomplished. You need to be there so that someday, when your children are old enough, you can tell them how their father did the right thing.
Brauburger wore his bright yellow coat so that if Duke turned around, the first thing he would see would be his old friend.
"I wanted him to look in my eyes, to know that it was over, that he didn't get away with it," Brauburger said. "I wanted him to know that justice had been done."
The judge read the sentence: Six life terms, four of them consecutive. Duke's lawyer immediately said he would appeal the conviction.
At the back of the courtroom, Brauburger hugged Heather.
Finally, they could move on with their lives.
Brauburger stared intently as his former friend was led away. Duke never turned around.
(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.