A World Away from Dallas, Patrick Duffy's Parents Are Slain in Their Montana Tavern

updated 12/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/08/1986 01:00AM

A warming Chinook wind had taken the cold edge off the approaching Montana winter. Terrence and Marie Duffy were serving drinks in the tavern they had owned for 34 years in Boulder, a town of simple pursuits and nearly 1,500 people not far from Elkhorn, a former gold-rush town high in the Rocky Mountains. It was 7 o'clock on a Tuesday night.

The Duffys were a private but unpretentious couple, comfortably part of the small, close-knit town. In their tavern, however, just to the right of the bar, were the photographs that proclaimed their connection to a world far different from their own. Terrence and Marie were the parents of Patrick Duffy, whose portrayal of Bobby Ewing on Dallas had made him world-famous. The Duffys were proud of their son, yet they were very much their own people and not exploitative of his fame or his wealth. They lived simply in a modest apartment behind the Lounge.

On the same Tuesday night two weeks ago, 30 miles north in the state capital of Helena, Kenneth Miller and a new buddy, both 19, were visiting Miller's girlfriend. They were telling her they'd been hunting—which was plausible, as it was deer season—and that they were going out. The second young man was Sean Wentz, a troubled youth who had hitchhiked into town eight months previously, leaving an outstanding arrest warrant for automobile theft in California. Wentz, who never knew his father, had lived in a series of foster homes since his mother's death half a dozen years earlier. He had met Tamela Harding soon after he drifted into Helena, and a bond had developed. Divorced with two young daughters, Tammy had weathered her own set of troubles and now, at 24, saw in Wentz a mate for life. They planned to be married in December.

At about 9 p.m., according to one report, Terrence and Marie Duffy were in their tavern, entertaining a solitary customer, when Miller and Wentz entered. Terrence, who was particular about who frequented his place, reportedly didn't care for the way the young men looked and may have ordered them off the premises. Those closest to Wentz learned afterward that he planned to rob the Duffys when he returned about 9:30, again accompanied by Miller and carrying a shotgun, a gift from Tammy. What happened next is less clear and up to a jury to decide. It is unlikely that Wentz had ever been in Boulder before, or that the choice of the Lounge as his target was anything but random. He certainly was not aware that Terrence, 66, and Marie, 63, were the parents of a famous actor. What is likely is that Terrence, given his feisty nature, resisted the robbery. In any case, he and Marie were found later, each lying dead from shotgun wounds in the chest.

Wentz and Miller proved to be as inept at escape as at robbery. Still wearing his blood-spattered clothes, Sean went home to Tammy in Helena and told her what he'd done. When he and Miller went off to steal a Jeep, a frightened Tammy called her father. Kingman "Butch" Harding had been a deputy sheriff in Colorado and now ran his own engineering and consulting firm. He had grown fond of Wentz over the past several months and was looking forward to having him as a son-in-law. Now he called the police, who caught the teenagers after a short chase, not far from the apartment Wentz shared with Tammy Harding.

By midday Wednesday news of the murder brought a media deluge that little Boulder was not prepared to handle and ultimately resented. It also brought Patrick Duffy, 37, who was flown in by private jet courtesy of Lorimar-Telepictures, which makes Dallas. Although Patrick portrays a character of limitless riches on television, Boulder folks think of him as a hometown boy who lives simply and practices his adopted Buddhist faith. The town rallied to keep visiting reporters away from Duffy and his sister, Joanne Hunt, 40, a lieutenant in the Seattle Police Department. Understandably, attention was focused on the Duffy family and their tragedy. Yet, as often happens, there were other decent people, families associated with the two suspects, who were feeling their own hurt and loss.

That Wednesday evening Butch Harding recorded the TV news on his VCR. Later that night he found his daughter sitting on the floor, watching the tapes. When the newsclip showed a picture of Sean Wentz's face, Tammy put the machine on hold. She leaned forward and caressed the image. "Baby," she asked, "why did you do that? Why didn't you talk to me?"

The Harding home is perched on a hillside in Helena. It is a beautiful part of the country in which to live or even to reform your life. The Hardings thought they were beginning to have a positive effect on Wentz. The boy him-self had proved to be the tonic their daughter needed. When Sean met Tammy seven months ago, she had not yet recovered from a traumatic divorce. She had used drugs as a teenager and was seeing a therapist for emotional problems. Wentz was not merely understanding and supportive of Tammy, but showed a strong interest in her girls, ages 3 and 5. "He was the best father I could ever ask for," she says. "He had a beautiful personality. I felt we would have a chance."

Sean told Tammy about his arrest warrant in California. But it took her a while to recognize that his problems ran deeper than his fear of being caught and of seeing the collapse of his new life. The core of his pain, the Hardings now believe, resided in unresolved feelings over the death of his mother. "It was a thorn in his gut," says Tammy. "We talked about it, and he cried and he cried. He began vomiting blood."

He would blow up for no reason, punch a hole in the wall, then forget that he'd been angry. About three months ago, according to Tammy, Wentz slashed his left wrist with a hunting knife. She sewed up the wound from this suicide attempt and persuaded him to go to a psychologist. He went three times, including the day of the Duffy murders. Sean was again in the grip of his demons and had again contemplated suicide. With the volume at a deafening level, he listened continually through earphones to a heavy-metal rock album by Metallica, titled Kill 'Em All. "It's the only way I can separate myself from all the problems coming down," he told Tammy. "I'm putting myself into oblivion."

When the youths were arraigned on murder charges, Kenneth Miller appeared to be on the edge of tears. A different sort of kid from Wentz, he was an average student in high school, a hard worker, someone who took pride in becoming a private first class in the Montana National Guard.

By contrast, Wentz appeared to be cocky, defiant even at the arraignment. Butch Harding wasn't fooled for a minute. When the Hardings met with Wentz in jail, he cried the entire time. Said Butch of Sean's surly courtroom demeanor: "What I see there is a man whose world has come to an end."

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