Dustin Honken, 52, would become the first Iowa defendant to to be put to death since 1963 if he is executed as scheduled on Friday. Iowa abolished the death penalty in 1965, but federal prosecutors sought to execute Honken for killing government informants and children.
Honken is set to die by lethal injection at the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he's been on death row since 2005 and two other men have been put to death since Tuesday after a 17-year hiatus in federal executions. His appeals to delay the execution have so far been denied.
“He does deserve what he’s getting. I can tell you that. He deserved it a long time ago,” said Susan Torres, 54, who plans to attend the execution with other victims' relatives.
Torres, who lives in Des Moines, Iowa, was Lori Duncan's sister-in-law before her brother and Duncan split up and she was an aunt to Duncan's daughters, 10-year-old Kandi and 6-year-old Amber. Duncan, her new boyfriend, Greg Nicholson, and her daughters were kidnapped and killed by Honken and his girlfriend in 1993, which was seven years before their bodies were found.
Mark Bennett, the federal judge who oversaw Honken’s trial, said he generally opposes the death penalty, but that if anyone deserved to be executed, it was Honken. He said Honken’s crimes were reprehensible and that Honken had a fair legal process, including talented lawyers who “did an outstanding job with virtually nothing to work with."
“I am not going to lose any sleep if he is executed,” said Bennett, who has since retired from the bench. “Normally I would, but the evidence was so overwhelming.”
Honken grew up in the northern Iowa town of Britt as the bright but devious son of an alcoholic father who was convicted of robbing banks.
Honken was dealing marijuana and cocaine by the early 1990s, and he began cooking meth after studying chemistry at a community college. He and a friend moved to Arizona to produce the drug in the hopes of getting rich, and they distributed their product through two dealers based in Mason City, Iowa.
Nicholson, who was one of the dealers, began cooperating with investigators in 1993 after coming under suspicion. Honken was arrested and indicted for conspiring to manufacture meth after Nicholson secretly recorded Honken and testified before a grand jury.
Honken informed the court that he would plead guilty. But days before his July 1993 plea hearing, he and his girlfriend, Angela Johnson, went searching for Nicholson. They found him at the home where he had moved in Duncan and her daughters.
Duncan didn't know that Nicholson was an informant and she wasn't involved in drugs, said Torres, whose daughters were playmates with Duncan's girls.
“She was a very sweet innocent person that happened to be put in a bad situation,” she told The Associated Press on Wednesday by phone.
According to prosecutors, Johnson posed as a cosmetics saleswoman to get into the house. Honken forced Nicholson, 34, to record a statement declaring Honken innocent of the drug charges.
Nicholson and the Duncans were taken to a remote area, fatally shot and buried. Honken withdrew his guilty plea and gave his lawyer the videotape of Nicholson.
As the investigation into Honken continued, Honken's other dealer, 32-year-old Terry DeGeus, disappeared months after Nicholson and the Duncans did. Johnson lured DeGeus, whom she dated before Honken, to a property where Honken beat him with a bat and shot him.
Investigators found the bodies of Nicholson and the Duncans in 2000 in a wooded area outside Mason City after Johnson was duped into giving a hand-drawn map showing where they were buried to a jailhouse informant. The adults had been bound and gagged and shot multiple times. The girls had each been shot once in the back of the head. DeGeus’ body was found a few miles away, his skull fractured.
Bennett said the girls were still in their swimsuits when they were kidnapped on the hot summer day. “It’s just horrific how they were massacred,” the judge said.
Honken was convicted of the killings in 2004 in a trial that featured extraordinary security measures, including an anonymous jury. Honken was bolted to the floor of the courtroom and wore a stun belt under his clothing to prevent escape attempts.
The jury recommended that Honken be put to death for the girls' slayings, and Bennett agreed.
The girls' father, John Duncan, who had pushed for years to have Honken executed, died in 2018 of stomach cancer.
“He was very sad when he knew he was passing because he wasn’t going to see this happen,” Torres said. “We assured him we would be there."
Johnson was convicted in a separate trial and sentenced to death. Bennett later reduced her punishment to life behind bars, which she's currently serving at a federal prison in Minnesota.
Honken did not respond to an interview request sent last year after the government announced its plans to execute him.
Honken has two children — one with Johnson and one with another woman — and was a father figure to a third. He wrote in a 2006 journal that he felt a “great crushing weight of despair” for failing them.
“When those people finally get around to killing me they’ll realize only the shell of me remains, the heart of me died long ago," he wrote.