The story thus far: Six years ago, a young mother and her 5-year-old son tumbled 100 feet down a cliff at the end of Lost Dog Trail near Green River, Wyo. A family outing gone tragically wrong — or so it seemed. One man knew the truth; but who would believe him?
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.
"I don't know what to do, Dad," he sobbed. "Tell me what to do. I'm lost . . . ."
SIZE="2">Series at a glance:
Today: Butch Brauberger's nightmare
Tuesday: Investigators on the case
Wednesday: Weighing the evidence
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.
The next day Roger Brauburger called Mont Mecham, a grizzled 53-year-old veteran of the Green River Police Department.
"I need to talk to you as soon as I can," he said. "I've got something super-scary to tell you."
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 through 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. Could Roger help?
At first, Brauburger told Mecham, he went along with the conversations because he didn't know what else to do. Sure, he told Duke, what was the plan?
In the police car, Brauburger sputtered: "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 Brauburger sharply.
"How do you know he killed his wife and child?"
Shaking, Brauburger 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 hitman talk. Suddenly Duke turned to him and said, "Would you kill my wife and child for $15,000?"
Brauburger laughed it off, telling his friend he was watching too many movies. But Duke persisted. A few days later he laid out a detailed plan that involved Brauburger hiding in a shed in Duke's back yard and shooting the wife and child during a family barbecue.
Duke would pay him with the insurance money he got for their deaths.
"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 told Mecham that though he was sure it was no accident, he was too scared to go to the police.
"It was my word against Bob's," he said. "Who would have believed me?"
Mecham had known the Brauburger and Duke families for years. He knew that Brauburger had a well-documented history of using drugs and selling marijuana. But Brauburger had never been in serious trouble, and he swore he was finished with drugs now. He was about to get married.
"Roger Brauburger was 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."
Brauburger sat at the table in his father's kitchen and 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 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 for plotting to kill his parents. But they were hoping Duke would say something on tape to implicate himself in the actual 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.
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.
"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."
Oh no, Brauburger thought. Bob's on to me. I'm a dead man.
The cops were thinking the same thing.
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 in a beer-soaked reverie. Finally, he could move on. He had done the right thing.
It's over, he thought.
But a new ordeal was about to begin.
Tuesday: Exhuming the dead