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Joseph Duncan and the Fifth Nail: How This Tragedy Could Have Been Averted Dec. 19th, 2018|10:29 am



On May 16, 2005, a terrible tragedy occurred. After a bloodbath in which their mother, older brother and a family friend were slain, Shasta and Dylan Groene were abducted. Six weeks later, Shasta was recognized in a restaurant with 42-year old Joseph Edward Duncan III. Duncan is now in jail, having been charged with kidnapping and other charges.

Joseph Duncan is a former convict, having been convicted of sexual assault against another minor at the age of sixteen. According to a blog that he maintained, he was also repeatedly sexually abused as a child. In his blog, he complains about the stigma and the fear resulting from being a registered sex offender, the treatment programs he underwent and the unfairness he believes he suffered at the hands of the penal system. His blog is named Blogging the Fifth Nail, alluding to a fifth nail through the heart of Jesus Christ, to put him out of his misery.

Are there lessons to be learned from his experiences? I believe there are. In light of his situation, I believe that several things need to be examined:

The Treatment of Juvenile ‘Sex Offenders’

By his own admission in his blog, Duncan committed a “terrible act” when he was sixteen years old.

“My crime was a terrible act, committed by a confused young person who did not realize at the time the impact of his actions. While it is tempting to rationalize my actions as a youthful mistake, I have long since taken full responsibility and acknowledged the heinous nature of my actions.”

Duncan’s crime was that he raped another sixteen-year old boy at gunpoint. Even though he was a juvenile at the time of the crime, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison, all of which he served. Initially, he was enrolled in a treatment program, but when one of the program officers propositioned his mother, he dropped out.

“I committed a sex crime when I was very young. I was sentenced to a sex offender program for adults where half the men in my ‘treatment group’ sat and fantasized about me. After two years I was a ‘senior member’ when the state therapist paid a surprise visit to my mother’s house and propositioned her saying it “would help your son in the program if you co-operate with me.” When she told me about it I quit the program…”

Thus, a juvenile offender who had committed an admittedly heinous act was incarcerated in an adult prison where officials were aware that “because of his appearance and age he would likely be abused by other inmates…” Despite his original belief that he would not spend a long time in prison, he served over half of his sentence before being paroled.

“…because of ‘sex offender hysteria’ I ended up spending over 12 more years in prison before finally being awarded parole. All my psych reports say I am a low risk; I was just a kid acting out confusion over my own abuse and studies show conclusively that my type of offense is rarely repeated.”

Duncan states that he was abused repeatedly as a child.

“…I was abused, even raped, so often and by so many different people growing up that I thought it was like smoking pot, everyone did it, but nobody openly admitted it.”

While this is the case of a single person in a single state, one must wonder how often such things take place around the country. How many youthful sex offenders are tried as adults and sent to adult prisons? How many of these offenders are subsequently marked for life by requirements that they register as “sex offenders”? How many of these offenders that were themselves abused as children receive adequate counselling and therapy to work through their own feelings of abuse?

The Treatment of ‘Sex Offenders’

Duncan, who spent two years in a treatment program before being sent to prison, makes some very interesting observations about his experience.

“…the program, defunct as it was, was based on highly successful research that showed sex offenders were most successfully “rehabilitated” when they confronted the truth about their crimes and behavior. It was to say the least very controversial and, in my opinion, the down fall was from the effect of watering down the very truth that the program was based on because the truth was a bit to harsh for the public pallet [sic].

“The offenders in the program became disillusioned as they were instructed to use modified versions of the truth that would stand public scrutiny. While emphasizing truth and honesty, the therapists began instructing the senior members in the program to refrain from certain terminology and treatment techniques that might be considered “offensive.”

“These offenders were people who had already shown that they genuinely wanted to understand why they did what they did. Proving your sincerity for treatment was the most important pre-requisite for getting into the program … Now these same offenders were being told to “ not discuss” specific facts, and to even lie if necessary to cover up what was going on in the program. My therapist at the time, Mike Sheppard, told our group one day that, in response to a subpoena, he had told a court official certain records had been destroyed in a fire. The group as a whole agreed to support his story. After all, nobody wanted their own personal information (and confessions) to become a part of the public record. It is no wonder the program failed. It was taken over by people who thought the truth could be faked.”

While Duncan is very correct in his analysis that one of the most important parts of therapy is accepting the truth about one’s actions and responsibility for them, I think that he has missed another key point. It is also very important to deal with the reality of one’s feelings. If one has a sexual attraction to children, one needs to learn to admit and accept that attraction. Simply being taught that such an attraction is bad is not sufficient. Unless the violent sex offender can be taught to accept this attraction and to find non-violent ways to cope with and express these attractions, the treatment will not be effective.

Duncan also discusses the effectiveness of offender treatment when the offender is able to be truthful about his actions and fully realize the impact of those actions upon the victim.

“And yet every one of them committed their crimes for the same reason as I; they were not in touch with the impact of what they were doing. In fact, the ability these people have to hurt others so terribly depends directly on their ability to hide from the reality of their actions.

“…numerous studies have shown conclusively that once a sex offender — any sex offender — reaches this level of treatment their chance of re-offending drops well below 8%!”

Duncan also expresses the opinion that a highly pathological world view is an extreme that cannot exist without the its opposite, a highly moralistic worldview.

“The only way to help a person with a bad perspective is to change their perspective. One of the best ways to change their perspective is with education (that’s what I did), but the best way is to change their environment. Put them in an environment that will not support their distorted views. Prison, even modern treatment programs almost always fail to do this (no surprise here, since if they did focus on changing peoples perspective law abiding citizens — especially those who think like police (i.e. ‘Pigs’) — might be force to recognize their own distorted view of the world. It is the opposite distortion (that of the righteous) that counter-balances the negative distortions present in our society. In fact, if you took away the distorted views of the self-righteous, the distorted view of common criminals would not be far behind, and visa-versa [sic].”

Duncan also makes a very practical suggestion about how best to rehabilitate offenders. He is, however, doubtful that such a system will ever be implemented.

“Yes, I know a lot about abuse, from all three sides, the victims, the offenders, and the systems. I’m not saying let offenders do their thing, I have no problem with taking direct measures to stop people from hurting people. But I think it is more effective to take direct measures to stop people from wanting to hurt people. We should offer free offender counseling and even amnesty for certain types of offenses if the offender agrees to treatment (before they are caught). That would be a very practical and effective way to reduce sex crimes dramatically. I doubt it will ever happen though, because our society loves the excitement that sex offenders bring into our living rooms through the media and we would be lost without someone to point our fingers at.”

It seems that it is easier for society and the penal establishment to simply brand such people as evil and to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. But is this choice wise? I would maintain that first we need to determine what the motives are behind such actions before deciding how to deal with them. If these are acts of desperation at one’s own situation, re-enactments of what one has experienced at the hands of others or an inappropriate expression of one’s repressed pedoemotions, then I would suggest that incarceration is not the most effective way to deal with them.

I would also suggest that there needs to be a variety of different treatment programs for such offenders. While they may share some common needs, a different overall approach needs to be taken to treating the different sorts of people I have mentioned above as their motives for committing such acts are different.

The important things that needs to be imparted in any such treatment program are the need to accept oneself and to cultivate a positive self-image. Labelling and stigmatizing such offenders is totally counter-productive to this aim.

Duncan makes many very intelligent statements about what the goals of sexual offender treatment ought to be and points out many flaws in some current systems. He also writes quite clearly that he has accepted full responsibility for the crime he committed as a youth and that he has personally accepted the truth of his actions and understood the effect that these actions had upon his victim.

One must therefore wonder, if he is guilty of the crimes he is now being accused of, what went wrong. If he was successfully rehabilitated, how could he commit another violent offense? I do not believe that there is a single answer to this question, but I think that the next two points may very well have played a major role if he is indeed guilty.

The Stigma of Being a Registered ‘Sex Offender’

There are many who advocate sex offender registration laws who claim that public sex offender registries do not negatively affect the former offender. Duncan, in his blog, gives numerous examples of how difficult it is to cope in society when labelled a ‘sex offender’. The incidents and observations detailed here took place or were made over a period of fifteen months.

Incidents Involving Society

Here we can see how the label ‘sex offender’ hangs over the head of the former offender like the sword of Damocles. Media coverage and a public registry made Duncan’s name very familiar in his city and he often worried that he would be recognized. He also expresses trepidation in social situations as he is afraid of the reactions of people to finding out about his status.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004: “I seem to enjoy being around other people more and more, but I constantly struggle with my legal status as a ‘Sex Offender’. I hate that term, to me it sounds worse than the word, ‘nigger’. I feel like I can’t make any friends because who wants to be friends with a ‘Sex Offender’? Even some of the friends that I do have prefer that I don’t mention it, like they would be ashamed if anyone found out they were associating with a Sex Offender. I’m afraid to hand in my assignments in my Statistics class because there is another student with my same last name who I am sure will recognize my name when it is called out by the instructor while passing back the graded assignments. I cringe in any class when they announce my name, for fear of someone recognizing it (not an unreasonable fear considering my name was headline news for a week just a couple of years ago). Even in public, when I buy something at a store and they look at my name on the credit card, or ID when using a check, I feel insecure.”

Monday, March 01, 2004: “I like traveling because I feel more ‘normal’ because of the anonymity of being a traveler. For example, at the Tampa airport they called my name over the intercom to ask me if I wanted to switch to an emergency exit row seat, I did not cringe when they called my name the way I do when I am around where I live. In fact, when I got to Minneapolis to change planes and continue home, I immediately started feeling self conscious. At the gate where we were boarding for the last hop every time I saw someone looking at me I thought they recognized me (as a sex offender) because they might remember me from the police web site or newspapers. I don’t know how the courts can pretend this law does not penalize sex offenders. It is a daily torment for me.”

Monday, April 05, 2004: “Yesterday a friend told me that I was an exception to the rule when it comes to his “experience with sex offenders”. He meant it as a complimentary comment, implying that most sex offenders only think about re-offending. It was not the first time I have been offended by comments that were meant well. The truth is that I am not an exception, I am the rule! Most sex offenders are just like me, not at all concerned about re-offending since the idea is not even in the realm of possibilities to them. They are hard working responsible law abiding citizens, and in fact on average slightly better adjusted than the average working class person. These are facts backed by numerous statistics, and yet most people are like my friend and believe that most sex offenders are deviants with only one thing on their mind. Even our city’s police web site tries to straighten out this ‘myth’ but to little avail since most people’s ‘experience’ with sex offenders seldom goes beyond the front page of the local paper.”

Monday, May 10, 2004: “I read in the news this morning that the police intend to make their harassment address checks on sex offenders even more frequently than before (four times a year now). This really, really bothers me. So much that I am having a hard time concentrating at work today. I keep thinking about how dehumanized I feel, like I am not wanted. I keep thinking about how people are terrified when they find out I am a "sex offender."

“Once I visited with another student after a class two summers ago. When she found out later that I was a ‘sex offender’ she was so scared that she complained to school officials and stopped coming to class!”

Wednesday, May 12, 2004: “It has been dawning on me lately that the reason I have been feeling uncharacteristically unmotivated for the last couple of years is because of all the stress associated with being required to register and basically not being able to do anything without being immediately concerned about people knowing I am a ‘sex offender’”

Friday, April 01, 2005: “Dave Forester, a reporter form the local paper just stopped by. Wanted to know if I had any comment about the charges against me in Becker County for an article he is preparing for the paper tomorrow.”

After reading these incidents, one must wonder if public notification is the best way to deal with former offenders. Is causing a person to have to live in fear of scorn or ostracism a sound policy? How can we expect people to re-integrate into and become productive members of society when they are constanly in fear of being labelled as something so repugnant?

Worse still is the role of the media in transforming the name of a former offender into a household name. Any media coverage that states or implies that a person is a sex offender will brand that person indefinitely, even if the offense took place decades before. This is especially true in smaller communities. The right to privacy of former offenders should be considered much more seriously by society if they are ever to have a real chance at a fresh start.

Incidents Involving Police

While monitoring high risk situations and deterring crime are two vital functions of any police force, the incidents Duncan details below make one wonder if current methods actually achieve these aims or if they simply make life more difficult for former offenders. They also indicate that some police may operate with the assumption of ‘once guilty, always guilty’ and make a rush to judgment simply on the basis that somebody has offended in the past.

Sunday, January 04, 2004: “I already had the police at my door telling me some women down town were waving my picture around (that they printed from the internet) accusing me of harassing them for a date (a part of town I’ve never been to and women I never heard of, but the police acted as if they knew it was me). The visit was very intimidating and not friendly. I was ‘warned’ that I was being watched as a known sex offender.”

Monday, March 01, 2004: “One of the compelling reasons for moving downstairs instead of somewhere else now that I can afford a bigger place is the assumption that the police will not do a community notice because I am staying basically at the same address.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2004: “I just had another unwanted visit from the city police. This time it was officer Martin doing an address confirmation because I am a registered sex offender. Officer Martin was very professional and polite, but having a police car in your driveway when you get home from work is not a pleasant experience.”

Friday, July 09, 2004: “I got a call today from an investigator in a city about an hours drive away from where I live. Apparently I am a suspect for some undefined incident that occurred last Sunday. He would not tell me anything about what happened, though he did not seem too concerned except to say it was a felony and all felonies are serious (in other words it probably was not too serious at least).

“The officer wants me to drive to his city to talk to him. I almost told him I would, until he told me I was a suspect (I had to ask). Then I told him I would get back to him after I talk to an attorney.”

Friday, August 06, 2004: “I made it a point not to go out, or go to bed early last night because Sgt. Pallus told me that an officer would be stopping by to confirm my address. Well, she never showed. But a student from school stopped by who had asked me to help him with html and JavaScript. While he was there I was worried the officer would show up. I don't know if he knows about my ‘status’ as a registered sex offender or not, it is not something I feel is important for people to know. But, regardless if he was aware or not, the situation would have been awkward.”

Thursday, August 26, 2004: “My home was invaded by several police officers just this last Friday while I was at work. I caught them just after they broke in through a window on my web cam which sends an alert to my cell phone when it detects motion. My phone alerted me to the break-in while I was waiting for Investigator Chad Jutz fill out the paperwork after searching my car and taking a disposable water proof camera.

“The said they were looking for pictures of two boys who were molested more than a month ago by a man driving a red car and who had a ‘bump’ on his lip. The man took pictures of the boys and so they took all my cameras and my home computer to look for pictures. Of course I am clean, they might find some pictures of me naked, non-sexual mode photos I used once to make a birthday card for a girlfriend once) but that’s about it.

“At first the search did not bother me too much, since I anticipated it happening eventually considering the way the police think (a sex offender driving a red car committed a crime, I’m a sex offender and I drive a red car, it does not matter I live about 60 miles from the crime and even in a different state). They can get away with the search warrant because I am a sex offender and no one is going to blame them if they find nothing since I am guilty by historical fact.”

Friday, April 01, 2005: “A freindly [sic] officer from the city police department just stop [sic] by to do their quarter [sic] ‘offender check’ I did not bother asking his name. Each time they seem to add more and more to the check, this time they wanted ID and phone number. He also wrote down additional comments on the form he was filling out that I did not see.”

I would suggest that the police need to find ways to monitor individuals that they consider dangerous in such a way that that person’s privacy and civil liberties are not threatened. Yet, after reading these accounts an even bigger question arises: are these measures even effective? If Duncan is guilty of the crimes he committed, all of the address checks, searches and community notification that took place did not prevent him from committing (it was committed in a different state). And if he got away with ‘getting even with society’ as many times as he appears to claim in some of the final entries to his blog, it would seem to indicate that he was able to operate with impunity despite the actions of the police.

Other Observations

Duncan makes some very poignant statements about the ramifications of being a registered ‘sex offender’. It seems quite apparent from these observations not only that some former offenders face formidable challenges reintegrating into society, but that society itself, by the terminology it uses to refer to them, makes that process yet more challenging.

Sunday, January 04, 2004: “Just found out that a five year old girl went missing from Chisholm MN on June 14, 2003 (this year). I did not even know until today that this happened. So, I tried to figure out what I was doing that day, since I’m always afraid of getting accused when something like this happens.”

Thursday, January 29, 2004: “While I was in prison I educated myself and made serious efforts to understand how my life had gotten so far off track so quickly. Now I am a professional Software Engineer, but have a hard time finding work or even a place to live because of all the hype surrounding sex offenders. I can’t even find a girlfriend, because the kind of woman I like, mature and educated, are terrified when they find out I'm a “Level Three Sex Offender”; which of course I am not, I am an ex-convict, and that is all. People must realize that it is never okay to discriminate against any class of people for any reason. Even if that class is so obviously offensive. Discrimination is always based on the perceived offensiveness of a class; blacks where [sic] portrayed as a threat to decent society, as were the Jews in Nazi Germany. The truth is that most sex offenders do not re-offend.”

Tuesday, January 27, 2004: “The term ‘sex offender’ is an interesting choice of words. In the past the term ‘ex-convict’ was used to describe offenders who were released from prison. The ‘ex’ obviously implying that the mistake was in the past. But States have unanimously and officially dropped the term ‘ex-convict’ and replaced it with ‘offender’ a present tense term that implies the person was, and still is, offensive.”

Sunday, February 08, 2004: “No matter how hard I try to get away from the mistakes I made when I was 16, I can’t. Our society will never forgive me…”

Tuesday, April 06, 2004: “Labeling sex offenders doesn’t hurt the sex offenders anywhere near as much as it hurts their victims. Because it does nothing to deter the problem, it only further supports it. We must see this. We must see that as a society we are supporting a cesspool that is breeding violent criminal sexual behavior. The ‘sex offenders’ are just acting out what they have learned from us. I know, because when I was sixteen I was acting out what I had learned, nothing more. I was, and am, very fortunate to recognize this.”

Is constant and invasive monitoring the correct way to prevent former offenders from re-offending? Does long-term incarceration in fact rehabilitate the offender? Would not a better-conceived treatment program, reinforced by non-threatening support and followup after successful completion of the program be more effective than stigmatization and ostracism?

The Stigma of Being a ‘Pedophile’

In the early entries of his blog, Joseph Duncan quite vehemently denies that he is a pedophile and expresses his extreme distaste for those he met in prison who were. In the final entries, however, he alludes to acts that might have been against children and when he was arrested, he was in the company of a young girl who had been missing for several weeks. Furthermore, the girl is reported to have told police that he abused her.

Monday, January 05, 2004: “Let me clear a few things up here before I go further: I am not a pedophile nor have I ever been accused of being one.”

Monday, January 05, 2004: “I have lived with child preditors [sic], and I have communicated with them on a level of trust no therapist could ever fake. I never judged what they told me, so I heard things that were quite shocking on the surface. But because I did not react to what they told me they went on and told me amazing things fully revealing the seriousness of their distortions. I learned that most people who prey on children have discovered that adult-child sexual relations are not in and of itself a bad thing, and does not in and of itself cause harm to the child (assuming no physical injury has been inflicted). You may scoff at this saying of course they think that, that is what makes them sick. But, by scoffing, you are only perpetuating the problem by rejecting a rational [sic] that is based on solid fact.”

Duncan appears to contradict himself here. While on the one hand he talks about the serious distortions in the thinking of these people, he later says that their rationale is “based on solid fact”.

Thursday, January 22, 2004: “One of the most enlightening experiences I ever had was once years ago when I was at McNeil Island State Penitentiary. I was doing a lot of soul searching, and in the process I moved into a two-man cell with a known child molester that nobody else was willing to live with. This guy represented everything I hated. He was a ‘rat-snitch’ self righteous pious catholic fraud, not to mention child molester who admitted to his perverted love for little girls in a sickening sheepish way. This guy was worse than the most despicable character you ever saw on TV.

But, one day in the chow hall, when I walked in I noticed that he was the last person in the line I was heading toward. So I instinctively started heading for a different line to avoid having to stand behind him (or being seen near him). But, then I caught myself; I hated him. And at this point in my life I was just starting to understand that hate is a fools resource for dealing with fear and ignorance. So, I continued to the line he was in, fighting off the demons that would have me put him down the whole way. By doing this I won a battle inside myself, and for the first time I could see, that he and I were kin.

I’m not saying that I am anything like him, or that we are equal. I’m saying I saw for the first time that we are all the same. Not separate and similar, but together and the same. It is a complex concept when viewed from eyes focused in this world. But when you let go of the illusion that typically passes for reality, and see the underlying truth, It all sudenly [sic] makes sense.”

By this point in the blog, the calm assurance that Duncan exhibits throughout has vanished entirely. The pressure of suppressing whatever he has been suppressing has grown too great and he is no longer able to control it. As his world spins out of control, his fear and desperation increase, yet he discovers that it is too late to contain that which has broken free. His entire value system collapses and in his final entry he admits that he no longer knows what is right and what is wrong.

Sunday, April 24, 2005: “The current battle is of epic proportions (I do not make this claim idly either). It is a battle between me and my demons. Only two people in the world have a clue as to the power and nature of my demons (besides me) and they will probably never read this. But just the same, these demons are stronger than even I gave them credit for, and now they are taking my best blows and not even staggering. I’m afraid, very afraid. If they win then a lot of people will be badly hurt, and they’ve had their way before, so I know what they can do. I’ve been praying a lot and asking God for help. I’ve asked him to step in and intercede directly, because I see no other way at this point that I can win.”

Are these ‘demons’ feelings that he has suppressed and refused to come to terms with? Would they be controlling his life now had he been able to face up to them earlier?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005: “To be more specific, I am scared, alone, and confused, and my reaction is to strike out toward the perceived source of my misery, society. My intent is to harm society as much as I can, then die.

“I was in prison for over 18 years, since the age of 17. As an adult all I knew was the oppression of incarceration. All those years I dreamed of getting out And getting even. Instead, I got out and I got even, but did not get caught. So, I got even again, and again did not get caught. So, I figured, well, I got even twice (actually more, but that’s [neither] here nor there), even if I’m the only one who knows, so now what? Well that was when the ‘Happy Joe’ dream started. I met a bunch of really great people, the kind of people I didn’t even know existed, but here they were, bunches of them, my neighbors, my landlords, my professors, my coworkers, and they were all good people, who were willing to give me a chance despite my past. They were willing to accept me and be my friend, something that was new for me, having been betrayed by many ‘friends’ and even my own family.

So, I tried to make it work. But the problem was those demons. The ones who ‘got even’ for me. They kept reminding me that if my new ‘friends’ knew about them (and what they, I, had done to even), then so much for their friendship. So, ‘Happy Joe’ was just dreaming, or pretending to be happy.”

Friday, May 13, 2005 “I don’t know much any more what right and wrong even is. My view is either everything is right (in some regard) or everything is wrong (in some other regard). The question (one I am struggling with at this point) is, “Does it matter?”

“I have feelings, in fact I think I must be more sensitive than most people because I seem to feel more than they do, at least more than what they openly express. I feel for the starving children and families in the world, others say, “Oh, that’s too bad, but I can’t do anything so…”

I wish I could be more honest about my feelings, but those demons made sure I’d never be able to do that.”

Was one of the purposes of Duncan’s blog, therefore, an exercise in the denial of his pedoemotions? Was it a cry for help? Was he hoping that he would be found out as a result of his entries? It would seem that he gave enough information about himself throughout that it would have been relatively easy to identify him.

In a world where the word ‘pedophile’ were not so pejorative, would it have been easier for Duncan to admit that he possessed pedoemotions (if he in fact does have them) and learn how to channel these feelings in a positive rather than a destructive fashion (if he did in fact do so)?


If Joseph Duncan is guilty of the crimes he has been accused of committing, then he must take responsibility for his own actions. On the other hand, however, I think that some, if not all, of the factors discussed in this article could have played a crucial role in leading to his alleged crimes.

In the wake of cases like this and the case of John Couey, who killed Jessica Lunsford in February 2005, our society needs to re-examine its approach to dealing with former offenders who may have pedophilic tendencies. An important step in that direction would be to de-stigmatize these feelings and stop perpetuating the myth that everyone with such pedoemotions inevitably commits atrocities against children. If we were to stress that there is no crime in having such emotions and that having them does not make one a criminal, we would allow those that possess them to both admit to them and seek support rather than being forced to hold them inside of themselves.

Note: All quotes in this article are from Joseph Duncan’s blog, Blogging the Fifth Nail.

Disclaimer: The sole purpose of this article is to examine how Joseph Edward Duncan III claims to have been treated and, if he is guilty of the crimes he is accused of, how this may have affected his decision to commit them. It does not assume his guilt, nor does it in any way attempt to defend or rationalize any of his alleged crimes. The Amaros Concern abhors all violence and non-consensual contact between adults and minors. It also believes firmly in the principle of innocent until proven guilty and therefore will not condemn Duncan until such time as he is convicted in a court of law.

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