GREEN RIVER, Wyo. The schoolteachers' sons and their murder-for-hire plot were the talk of the town.
People ached for Larry and Roberta Duke, 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 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 Roger Brauburger, blaming him for inflicting this pain.
"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."
The FBI wrapped the case up 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.
Brauburger couldn't believe the outcome. 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 office in Cheyenne and demanded that his family be put in the federal witness protection program.
Sorry, agents told him. 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."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.
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.
Merchant listened. Brauburger's fear was believable. And so was his story.
But Merchant needed more than Brauburger's word to make a case.
Merchant pulled out the file. He spread the photographs across his desk and stared at them for a 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.
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.
He felt they had been murdered. But could he prove it?
The FBI tapes proved only the plot against the parents.
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. But that wasn't enough for a conviction.
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 got a court order to exhume the bodies.
For the next two months Merchant and a team from Moneyhun's office worked the case, digging 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.
They tracked down experts who might help their case: A fall expert who dropped dummies from the cliff in an effort to prove that Liana and Erik might have been pushed. A lichen expert who concluded 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?Comment on this story
"We warned you there were to be no skeletons or we would find them," he yelled at Brauburger.
Brauburger was a nervous wreck.
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?
Wednesday: Justice for Liana and Erik