The Deadly Secret of Lost Dog Trail
EDITOR’S NOTE – This is part two of ”The Secret of Lost Dog Trail,” a four-part serial narrative about two mysterious deaths and a reluctant witness.
1st article in the series:
3rd article in the series:
4th article in the series:
GREEN RIVER, Wyo. – Butch Brauburger had never seen his son so upset. Tears were streaming down Roger’s face. There was a look of terror in his eyes.
Calm down, son, the father said.
But Roger was a blubbering mess, ranting incoherently about guilt, about how he should have said something years ago, about how more lives were in danger.
”I don’t know what to do, Dad,” he sobbed. ”Tell me what to do. I’m lost. …”
It was late at night on Jan. 3, 1999, and at first the father thought his son had been drinking.
But the more Butch Brauburger listened, the more he realized Roger was deadly serious. And that his son’s life was in danger.
There’s only one thing to do, the father said. You have to go to Mont.
Mont Mecham is a grizzled 53-year-old veteran lieutenant with the Green River Police Department, a formidable presence with his tough exterior, his searing blue eyes and the neck-brace he wears like a badge of honor.
”Bad day on the job,” he growls, describing the night five years ago when a burglary suspect shot him through the throat and left him for dead. He’s had nine surgeries since then, and still doctors can’t figure out how to fix the nerve damage that leaves his back in constant pain, his arms stiff and ice cold.
Mecham knew Brauburger and Bob Duke. His son, now a cop, had gone to school with them. As kids, the three sometimes hung out in Mecham’s basement. Nice kids, Mecham thought. Roger was a bit of a hell-raiser, but the others had turned out OK.
For years, Mecham had been bothered by the deaths of Liana and Erik Duke. Too many things didn’t add up. It didn’t make sense for a family to be out on the cliffs in the first place. No parents in their right minds would allow a child to run around up there.
”Two bodies, one eyewitness, no forensic evidence,” he said. ”It wasn’t right.”
But Mecham couldn’t investigate because the case fell into the jurisdiction of the Sweetwater County sheriff’s department. Frankly, he told friends there, they could have done a better job.
About a week after the deaths, out of curiosity, Mecham drove to the end of Lost Dog trail. He crept to the edge and peered over the ridge where the bodies had fallen.
Standing in the wind and the dust, looking down the cliff face, he was sure.
”I was looking at the murder weapon,” he said.
”I need to talk to you as soon as I can,” Brauburger said. ”I’ve got something super-scary to tell you.”
It was the day after Brauburger had talked to his father. Over the telephone, Mecham could hear the terror in Brauburger’s voice.
Mecham drove straight to the construction site where Brauburger was working. In the police car, Brauburger poured out his story.
His old friend Bob Duke had been calling him from Houston, he said. At first it was just small talk about work and what he and his brother Mike were up to. But lately the talk had turned ugly.
Duke had run out of the $60,000 insurance money from his wife and child’s deaths, and with his brother, had hatched a plan to make a lot – fast. They just needed a few details wrapped up: Alibis, a driver. And could Roger get them a silencer?
At first, Brauburger told Mecham, he went along with the conversations because he didn’t know what else to do. Sure, he told Duke, he could get a silencer. What was the plan?
In the police car, Brauburger sputtered out the words as if he still couldn’t believe what Duke had told him:
”He said, ‘I’ll pay you $20,000 to kill my parents.”
Go on, Mecham said.
”I thought, Oh my God he’s serious. He killed his wife and child and now he is planning to murder his own parents.”
Mecham looked at him sharply.
”Slow down,” he said. ”How do you know he killed his wife and child?”
Duke told me he was looking for a hitman this time, Brauburger said, because, as he put it, ”I’ve done family before and I didn’t like it.”
Shaking, Brauburger then told the veteran cop the secret he hadn’t dared to tell anyone in years.
It was the summer of 1996. Brauburger had been hanging out with Duke, watching movies, talking their crazy hit-man talk. Suddenly Duke turned to him and said, ”Would you kill my wife and child for $15,000?”
Brauburger laughed it off. Who’s worth more, he joked, the wife or the kid? But Duke persisted, Brauburger said. A few days later he laid out a detailed plan.
Brauburger could go to Duke’s apartment on Idaho Street and hide behind a shed where Duke would leave a .22-caliber Ruger rifle. Then, during a family barbecue, Brauburger could shoot the wife and child in the head, shoot Duke in the leg, spray a few neighborhood kids and make his getaway. Duke would pay him with the insurance money he got for Liana and Erik.
”I told him he was nuts,” Brauburger said. ”I said if he was that unhappy, he should get a divorce.”
I can’t do that, Duke told him. My parents would hate me.
Three weeks later Liana and Erik were dead.
Brauburger’s face was full of panic as he turned to Mecham. ”I knew right away it was no accident,” he said. ”But I didn’t know what to do.”
”Why didn’t you go to the police?” Mecham asked.
Brauburger was incredulous.
”It was my word against Bob’s,” he said. ”Who would have believed me?”
Mecham knew Brauburger had a well-documented history of using drugs and selling marijuana. But he had never been in serious trouble, and he swore he was finished with drugs now. He was about to get married and start a family.
”Roger Brauburger was no certainly no angel,” Mecham said later. ”But people don’t go to angels to kill their parents.”
Brauburger had just enough of a past to be credible.
”We’re going to have to wire you,” Mecham told him. ”We need to get this on tape.”
”NO!” Roger cried. ”If Bob gets word I’m a dead man.”
Mecham rolled his eyes.
”What are we going to do?” he snapped. ”Let Mom and Dad die, like the wife and kid?”
That night, police taped a call between Roger Brauburger and Bob Duke. The conversation rambled. The details were vague. But a date for the killing was set, just three weeks away.
It was enough for Mecham to believe everything that Brauburger had told him. The next day, Mecham drove 273 miles to Cheyenne and played the tape for the FBI.
Brauburger, stocky and tattooed, with a wispy goatee and small eyes behind thick glasses, sat at the round table in his father’s kitchen. He stared anxiously at the phone on the wall. There was nothing to indicate that it was wired to a recording device, but the cops swarming around the tiny house were reminder enough.
His heart beat wildly; beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. He didn’t feel right and he was sure his voice didn’t sound right.
It was noon on Jan. 8, 1999, and Brauburger was about to place the fourth recorded call to Duke in three days. Everyone – the cops, FBI, and Brauburger himself – sensed that this call would be the last. They had too much to lose if Duke got suspicious.
The previous calls had gone well – chillingly well. Duke talked about setting a date for the murders, about using a .22-caliber rifle, about the need to get into the house when both parents were out because his father had a gun, about the need for both brothers to have alibis. He talked about money: $20,000 if Brauburger did the job himself, $5,000 if he acted as a driver for someone else.
Police and the FBI were satisfied they had enough to arrest Duke on conspiracy charges for plotting to kill his parents. But they wanted more. They wanted him to mail something – a key or money – physical evidence to strengthen their case.
Even more, they wanted Duke to say something on tape to implicate himself in the killing of his wife and child.
The calls had been making Brauburger increasingly uneasy. Just the day before, Duke had asked Brauburger, ”You’re not talking about this?”
”NO,” Brauburger had replied. ”No, I haven’t said a word to no one.”
But the question made police nervous, too.
They assigned extra patrols around the homes of Duke’s parents and the Brauburgers. And they staked out Duke’s Houston apartment, ready to burst in at a moment’s notice.
In the little kitchen in Green River, the air was thick with tension.
Brauburger took a deep breath and dialed the Houston number.
”Hey, what’s up?” he asked Duke.
They bantered a bit about work, and then Brauburger got to the point.
”Hey,” Brauburger said. ”Uh, is there any way we can make it look like an accident, like you did with your wife and child?”
There was a moment of silence. Then Duke exploded.
”Dude, I did NOT do that…”
”Oh, I thought you said you did that.”
The cops signaled to him to stay calm. They shoved handwritten notes across the table, but Brauburger was too distracted to read them. Oh God, he thought. Bob’s on to me. I’m a dead man.
The cops were thinking the same thing.
”There was no doubt in my mind that someone was going to get killed unless we could stop it,” Mecham said later. ”Either the parents, or Roger.”
It was time to make their move.
Trembling, Brauburger listened over the phone as FBI agents and police burst in on Duke in Houston. He heard Duke cry out. In the background a dog barked.
Then the phone went dead.
The arrests were all over the news in Texas and Wyoming. Bob Duke was charged in federal court with conspiracy to use interstate telephone lines to plot his parents’ murders. Mike Duke was charged with failing to report the plot. (The brothers declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Brauburger was elated. That night, he hit the bars and then drove through the desert, whooping it up in a beer-soaked reverie.
Finally, he could move on. He could forget about the past, the friendship with Duke, the guilt and torment of the past few years. He had done the right thing. He had prevented more killing.
It’s over, he thought.
But a new ordeal was about to begin.
See Part Three in Friday’s edition
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 tape recordings 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 and visits to the cliff at the end of Lost Dog Trail. Duke and his family declined to be interviewed.
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