07/18/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT
Something seemed strange about the little girl in the corner booth. It wasn't just that she was the only child among the late-night locals and truckers in the 24-hour Denny's off Highway 90 in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. It was that the girl—sitting across from a middle-aged man—never once looked up from the table. "She wouldn't even look at me when I brought over crayons and a. Madagascar mask," says waitress Amber Deahn, 24. "She seemed scared and resigned, somehow. It struck a chord in my heart."
Without even seeing her face, Deahn had an idea who the child might be—8-year-old Shasta Groene, abducted from her Idaho home nearly seven weeks earlier and familiar to Deahn from missing flyers. Deahn told her manager Linda Olson, who went over and asked the girl why she was up so early. "That's when she finally looked up and said, I love your hair,'" says Olson. "And it was Shasta." At 1:51 a.m. on July 2, as Deahn dawdled while making Shasta a vanilla milkshake, Olson sneaked off and dialed 911. Just a few minutes later Idaho police arrested the man with Shasta—Joseph Duncan III, 42, a violent sex offender wanted for molesting a 6-year-old Minnesota boy a year earlier. The miracle of Shasta's rescue was tempered by the gruesome mystery that remained: Was Duncan behind the bludgeoning deaths of Shasta's brother Slade, 13, her mother, Brenda, her mother's boyfriend Mark, and the disappearance of Shasta's brother Dylan, 9, at the time of her abduction in May? According to court papers filed July 5, Shasta told police that Duncan was the man who entered her home and tied up her family and who took her and Dylan to at least two remote campsites.
On July 4, two days after Shasta was found, police—acting on tips—discovered human remains in western Montana. DNA tests will show if they are Dylan's, but police have already said they believe Dylan is dead. At a July 5 hearing Duncan gulped, sniffled and finally wept as a district court judge arraigned him on two felony counts of kidnapping with intent to commit rape—one each for Shasta and Dylan—and ordered him held without bail. Investigators are gently questioning Shasta, who is being kept for observation at the Kootenai Medical Center in Coeur d'Alene. It was there that she was reunited with her father, Steve Groene, who works at a recycling center. Despite her ordeal, Shasta is "thrilled" by the deluge of stuffed animals sent to her by well-wishers, says her great-aunt Sue Torres. "The whole room is full, and she just beams."
Still, disturbing questions remain about her alleged abductor. Convicted in 1980 of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy at gunpoint, Duncan spent 17 years in prison before relocating to Fargo, N.Dak., in 2000. For the five years he lived there "every indication we've had is that he kept to himself," says Fargo Police Sgt. Joel Vettel, who adds that officials paid Duncan seven home visits since 2004. Duncan even managed to make the honors list while studying for a degree in computer science at North Dakota State University.
Then, in March 2005, police charged Duncan with molesting a 6-year-old boy in a Minnesota playground the previous summer. In April he posted a $15,000 bond, but when he failed to show for a court hearing in May, police issued a warrant for his arrest. Shortly after skipping town, Duncan made chilling entries in his computer blog. "I am scared, alone and confused, and my reaction is to strike out toward the perceived source of my misery—society," Duncan wrote. "My intent is to harm society as much as I can, then die." Less than a week later Shasta's family was massacred in their home.
Neither Duncan nor Shasta surfaced again until July 1, when they were spotted on surveillance video taken at a gas station and convenience store about 40 miles east of Coeur d'Alene. A few hours later they stopped at Denny's, where Duncan surrendered without a fight. While police questioned Duncan, Amber Deahn, six months pregnant with her second child, sat with Shasta in the back of a squad car. "She cuddled up to me and cried for her daddy," says Deahn. "And she said, 'I want to go home.'" The next day she finally got to see her father at the hospital. "When I walked in the door her face just lit up," Steve Groene told FOX News. "She acts just like the little girl I saw [before she vanished]."
In the days after Shasta's rescue police limited her relatives to eight-minute visits and did not allow them to question her about her ordeal. The best news of all is that the little brown-haired girl who looked so scared and lost at Denny's has been coming out of her shell more and more every day. When her grandmother and aunts came to see her, "Shasta just held out her arms to them," says Sue Torres. "They spent the whole eight minutes just holding and hugging."
Alex Tresniowski; Kerri Smith in Coeur d'Alene; Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis; Howard Breuer in Los Angeles