Joseph Duncan's story begins in Tacoma, Washington, where he first showed signs of disturbing deviant behavior. At the age of 16, Duncan was accused of raping a younger boy at gunpoint. Duncan was sent to a mental hospital for treatment, but he refused to cooperate and was sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in jail. He only served 12 years before being released on parole.
Duncan was classified as a Level III sex offender, the most dangerous and likely to re-offend. At first he followed the rules, reporting regularly to his parole officer—but after two years, he slipped from sight. For months Duncan lived on the run, bouncing from state to state. Authorities believe that during this time he may have killed two girls in Seattle and raped and murdered a 10-year-old boy in California. When police finally caught up with Duncan in Missouri, they threw him in jail for violating parole. Four years later, he was out again.
Duncan settled in Fargo, North Dakota, registering as a sex offender as Megan's Law requires. Then, at a school playground in Minnesota, a man matching Duncan's description molested two young boys. Police suspected Duncan of the crime, and he was arrested and appeared before Judge Thomas Schrader. Despite Duncan's chilling record of sexual violence against children and his history of violating parole, Judge Schrader set bail at just $15,000—the judge claims he never knew the full extent of Duncan's sadistic past—and Duncan wrote a personal check and walked out of jail a free man. The online diary Duncan maintained began to read like postcards from hell: "It is a battle between me and my demons," he wrote. "I'm afraid…if they win, then a lot of people will be badly hurt."