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Hope from heartache

2008-03-10T00:00:00Z Hope from heartacheANGELA BRANDT,  Independent Record - 03/10/08 Helena Independent Record

hen Derek VanLuchene was a teenager, his 8-year-old brother, Ryan, was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered by a repeat sex offender. Ryan VanLuchene was playing in his backyard in Libby when he was abducted by a man who had been out of prison just a few weeks for a sexual assault against a teenage boy.

At this point, Derek VanLuchene, who was 17 at the time, was "just in a fog." Instead of researching colleges like his peers, he was spending grueling hours in court. Shortly after turning 18, VanLuchene had a pivotal moment of realization - he had been letting his brother's murder consume his life and lead him down the wrong path.

After a night of drinking, VanLuchene was pulled over by a Montana Highway Patrol trooper.

"He told me, 'You're not going to use this as a crutch,' " VanLuchene said.

A short time later, the Conrad Police Chief offered VanLuchene a job. He has now been in law enforcement for 17 years.

VanLuchene says the field is perfectly suited to him because he understands both sides.

"A lot of cops are good with victims but haven't been victims themselves," he said.

While many of his cohorts over the years knew something awful had happened to VanLuchene's brother, he didn't, up until recently, feel comfortable discussing Ryan's murder.

In 2005, a chain of events pushed VanLuchene to begin speaking about the death.

VanLuchene, who is now working in Helena as an investigator for the state Division of Criminal Investigation, received a letter from his brother's killer, Robert Hornback, who is serving two consecutive 100-year terms in prison.

In the letter, the convicted killer asked for forgiveness.

"Derek, please don't hate me anymore," the letter read. "I keep a picture of Ryan in my photo book. I have done so since my mother sent it to me. She told me to look at his picture every day so that I would never forget."

VanLuchene said it makes him sick to think that his brother's killer has a picture of his brother. He has not responded to the letter, saying the only reason Hornback wants forgiveness is so he can eventually get out and kill again.

At about the same time, Joseph Duncan III was in the news. A convicted sex offender and murderer, Duncan was out on bond after molesting a 7-year-old boy, when he killed three people in an Idaho home and kidnapped two children, subsequently murdering one of the children.

"I couldn't believe this was happening again," VanLuchene said.

One last sign, urged VanLuchene into action. When he heard "Who You'd Be Today," by Kenny Chesney, it instantly reminded him of Ryan.

"It ain't fair you died too young, like a story that had just begun. The death tore the pages all away. God knows how I miss you, all the hell that I've been through. Just knowing no one could take your place. Sometimes I wonder who you'd be today," Chesney sings.

"It just all came together like Ryan was saying it was time to do something," VanLuchene explained.

VanLuchene uses the country song in a video on his Web site www.ryanunited.org. He decided he somehow had to keep Ryan's memory alive, in order to memorialize him and make a difference. Ryan United is a resource for the law enforcement community as well as victims and their families. Articles on sex offenders and abducted children are posted on the site along with message boards for law enforcement.

In addition to the Web site, VanLuchene also travels the country doing presentations. The video is the first thing he shows to his audiences, which are usually filled with law enforcement officials.

"This is the attention grabber," he said as he started the video on his laptop computer.

"He looks so much like our littlest, Liam. Sometimes I look at Liam and go, 'Wow,' " he said.

Between VanLuchene and his wife, Danette, they have five children - Kirsten, 18, Kellen and Dallas, both 14, 5-year-old Adyson and 3-year-old Liam.

"It's weird having kids of my own how protective I am," VanLuchene said. "I can't see how my parents went through what they did."

His family members all experience feelings of guilt over Ryan's death but decided not to point fingers and instead do something about it.

"I think as a family we've realized only one person was responsible and that's Robert Hornback," he said.

VanLuchene and his mother have testified many times in front of the state Legislature to help increase punishment for sex offenders. They are at the Capitol so often, some of the legislators are used to them now, he said.

"I want to make sure nothing like this happens again. We've done a lot but there is still a lot to do," he said.

It took 17 years for VanLuchene to be able to talk about the murder with anyone, let alone in front of thousands of people at a time.

He said he has to prepare himself before he speaks in order "to keep emotions in check."

"Before a presentation, I ask Ryan to help me do what I need to do," VanLuchene said.

Detective Bryan Fischer, who is part of the Montana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, saw VanLuchene's presentation for the first time last year and found it quite touching. Although the two have known each other since attending the Montana Law Enforcement Academy in 1992, Fischer had never heard VanLuchene speak of his brother's death in such a way.

"That was quite incredible," Fischer said.

He said Derek's talk served as a "gut check" for those attending the sexual and violent offenders conference where he spoke.

"It was refreshing for the audience as well to remind us this is what you're meant to do and it is important," Fischer said.

"He's an asset to law enforcement here in Montana," he added.

In addition, VanLuchene is a great guy, both Fischer and Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Department Detective Cory Olson said.

Olson, who works on sexual predator cases, said VanLuchene has been integral in bringing more training involving sexual offenders to the state. Olson described Derek as an intelligent, hardworking man with a great sense of humor.

"He'll go into a room of strangers and leave with them all being his friend," Olson said.

"He's a fantastic person. I can't say anything bad about him," he added.

Reporter Angela Brandt: 447-4078 or angela.brandt

@helenair.com

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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