This death penalty opponent can sleep well with this execution
It was a phone call that led to the biggest story of my journalism career.
Bill Basler, an investigator with the Division of Criminal Investigation, was on the line that fall day in 1997 and he had a question for the new cops and courts reporter at the Mason City Globe Gazette.
“You going to Sioux City?”
Basler was damn good at his job so I wasn’t going to try to pretend I knew what he was talking about so I replied, “What’s in Sioux City?”
“The Dustin Honken sentencing hearing.”
Now, you have to understand at that point in my career I had no idea that the federal judicial system is nothing like its state counterpart. I was clueless when it came to the fact that a sentencing hearing in federal court looked, sounded and felt like a trial.
“Bob,” Basler said, “if I were you’re editor, I’d make sure you were there.”
I thought back to that phone call Friday afternoon as I read that Dustin Honken — 27 years after he was first arrested on drug charges — had been executed at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. For a couple of years, at least, I was obsessed with Honken, a young man who grew up in Britt and was a Dean’s List student at North Iowa Area Community College before meth took over his life and led to the destruction of so many others.
In 1997, his sentencing hearing began for his guilty plea on federal drug charges. The hearing lasted five days over a period of several months, and I, for the first and hopefully only time in my life, came face to face with evil.
Honken was first arrested in 1993, but when two key witnesses — Terry DeGeus and Greg Nicholson, along with Nicholson’s girlfriend, Lori Duncan, and her two daughters, 6-year-old Amber and 10-year-old Kandi — disappeared, the feds had to drop the case.
Meth dealers being meth dealers, Honken continued to make and sell the drug and was re-arrested in 1996, and with his accomplice, a childhood friend, turning “state’s evidence,” he pleaded guilty.
In the federal system, drug sentences at the time were based on the amount of drugs sold or that could be potentially distributed. That was the base sentence, but prosecutors could add “points” to the system by showing that the defendant had obstructed justice, carried a firearm and the like.
The hearing was, in a word, fascinating, albeit disturbing. The feds painted a picture of a young man who was willing to kill witnesses, law enforcement officers and even his best friend to stay out of prison.
There is no more boring time for a cops and court reporter than the holidays; even criminals seem to take Christmas and New Year’s off.
After two days, Honken’s sentencing was continued until February 1998, so as I sat in the Globe Gazette office over the holidays waiting for anything to happen on my beat, I came up with this wild idea.
I wanted to interview Honken. I wanted to sit down with this man from little Britt, Iowa, and hear his story.
This is pre-email days, so I dashed off a letter to his attorney, Alfredo Parrish, knowing that in all likelihood one of the best defense attorneys in Iowa was going to say “absolutely not.”
Two weeks later, I came into the office and saw the message: “Some guy named Parrish is trying to get a hold of you.”
I quickly called Des Moines, and I was shocked to find out that not only did Honken want to speak to me but that Parrish had given him the OK.
Over the next couple of weeks, I submitted written questions and had a phone interview with Honken, but I treaded lightly because I wanted that face-to-face interview.
I got it. I took the four-hour drive to Sioux City, knowing I had a mere 40 minutes to see the man the U.S. attorney of the Northern District of Iowa called “the most dangerous criminal” he had ever encountered.
We sat in the visiting room of the Woodbury County Jail. Honken sat on one side of the glass partition; I sat on the other. He claimed he had nothing to do with the disappearance of the witnesses or the Duncans. He claimed he was misunderstood. He claimed the feds had the wrong guy.
I made the four-hour drive back to Mason City, and the first question I was asked was this: So, did he do it?
I refused to answer. I just wanted to write my story without putting any preconceived notions into the piece.
The lead I wrote for a Sunday story was something like this:
Who is Dustin Lee Honken?
Is he the loving father of two or the cold-hearted killer of five?
The piece ran in the Sunday Globe, and the next day, I walked into the office and said, “He did it.”
The sentencing hearing finally came to an end in February, and Honken was sentenced to 27 years in prison.
Federal Judge Mark Bennett found that Honken had indeed obstructed justice, but it wasn’t because of the missing witnesses or the attempts to kill Tim Cutkomp, his friend who had turned against him, or the agents on the case; instead, it was because he had hidden an anhydrous tank.
I remember asking Basler and the federal prosecutors if they were satisfied, and they basically said “no, but it buys us some time to find the bodies, bring peace to their families and nail this guy for the murderer he is.”
There is no statute of limitations for murder.
I moved on, both figuratively and literally.
In 1999, I was named the assistant city editor at the Globe, and later that year, I accepted a job in Mankato, Minnesota. Before I left for the Gopher State, I covered Honken’s appeal of his sentence, one he actually won and one that shaved a few years off his sentence.
In the federal prison system vocabulary, though, parole doesn’t exist. The authorities had 20-plus years. They needed less than two.
It’s a long story, but we’ll cut to the chase. In 2000, the feds arrested Angela Johnson, Honken’s girlfriend, the mother to one of his two children and, most importantly, his accomplice.
She posed as a cosmetics salesperson to get Honken into Duncan’s Mason City home, and after her arrest in 2000, she was dumb enough to tell that to a fellow inmate.
And Johnson told the same inmate where the bodies of Nicholson, Duncan and those two little girls were located, and in October 2000, their remains were found just west of Mason City in a field located less than a mile from the State Patrol Post that housed Basler’s DCI office.
I was in Mankato by then, and I was, well, I was pissed. That was my story. A month later, DeGeus’ body was found in a field near Burchinal, and I wanted to write that story, too.
Fast forward five years to 2005. In May, a federal jury found Johnson guilty of five counts of conspiracy to commit murder.
In October, around my 40th birthday and a year after a federal jury found him guilty on 17 counts, Honken was sentenced to death. Two months later, Johnson received the same sentence, although her sentence was later reduced to life in prison.
Honken spoke at his sentencing and claimed his innocence.
“I have committed wrongs both known and unknown,” he said. “But never have I taken another’s life. Thought it? Yes. Verbalized it? Yes. Done it? No.”
I did not believe him in 1998 when I sat down to talk to him with only a glass partition between us. I did not believe him when I read about his sentencing. And I do not believe him now.
I remember reading the transcripts of wiretaps and Honken talking about thinking he’d have nightmares if he killed someone but, to paraphrase, he said, “You don’t, you do it and just forget about it.”
I remember hearing the testimony about his plans to kill Cutkomp, break into the DCI state lab and destroy evidence and hunt down law enforcement officers and prosecutors and make them pay the ultimate price.
But mostly, I remember his eyes on that February day in 1998.
They were cold. Ice. Cold.
For several years, I wanted to write a book on Honken. He had consumed so much of my life that I wanted to find out how the hell a kid from Britt, Iowa, turned into a drug kingpin and mass murderer.
We talked a few times in the late 2000s and early 2010s, and I even made plans to travel to Terre Haute and interview him. But he got cold feet and I didn’t pursue the matter.
But those damn eyes — and pictures of Lori Duncan and those two innocent, precious girls — came to me in dreams every so often, enough at least that I cold never quite let go of the biggest story of my career.
I am not a death penalty guy. If you make a mistake, there’s no recourse, and numerous studies have shown that it’s far cheaper to incarcerate someone for life than it is to put him or her to death.
However, Dustin Honken was for so long the exception to my rule. The Duncan girls would be in their 30s now, probably raising families and giving Lori Duncan an opportunity to be a grandmother. Nicholson and DeGues may have been drug dealers — selling a drug that has caused so much carnage to so many families — but they didn’t deserve to die, either.
I’ll admit that I didn’t get much work done Friday afternoon. I kept checking websites from various newspapers — including the Des Moines Register and the Terre Haute Tribune-Star.
I uttered a prayer or two, “Please God, end this story; don’t give him a stay.”
Finally, I saw the reports. Dustin Honken had been executed. His last words were, “Hail Mary, Mother of God, pray for me.” His time of death was 4:36 p.m. Terre Haute time and 3:36 p.m. Iowa time.
And all I could think was one thought. It’s about time.