Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Whose job is it to protect our children from harm and abuse? Parents should always be their child’s number one advocate. When parents fail to protect their children, we expect healthcare professionals, teachers, and other adults to recognize abuse and report it. At that point, we expect authorities from the state to act in the best interest of the children. When that system fails, tragedy can occur. For one young boy, named Joseph, that is exactly what happened. This is the story of the Boy in the Suitcase.
Joseph Michael Duncan
Joseph Michael Duncan-Williams was born February 23rd, 1991, to Donna Duncan and James Williams. His parents were not together, but Joseph had a loving family including his maternal grandparents, paternal grandmother, a brother, and two sisters. He had many aunts, uncles, and cousins who loved him dearly. His mother, Donna Duncan, eventually met a man who would change Joseph’s life. His name was Ernst Bruny.
Ernst Bruny was born in 1971 and became the live-in boyfriend of Donna Duncan. Together, the couple welcomed a baby girl in early 1999. Joseph, now eight-years-old, was at school on May 10th, 1999, when he asked a teacher to check his back after recess because he thought he may have scratched himself while playing. When the teacher lifted his shirt, she was in shock at what she saw. Joseph’s back was covered in welts and bruises (DeNeal, 2001).
The teachers asked Joseph about the injuries, but all the boy could do what cry and beg the educators not to report the injuries because “You Can’t. If you do, I’ll get it again, over and over and over” (DeNeal, 2001). Teachers, however, are mandated reporters and fulfilled their legal obligations by reporting the suspected abuse to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. A case was opened for Joseph.
The caseworker that was given Joseph’s case visited the family. Donna Duncan told the DCFS caseworker that her boyfriend, Bruny, and herself had already discussed that the punishments they had been giving Joseph were too severe and they promised not to whip the boy anymore. The couple stated the punishments were given because of lying about homework. The caseworker explained to Duncan and Bruny that this sort of punishment was abuse and had to stop. The couple agreed and the caseworker left (DeNeal, 2001).
DCFS performed background checks on Ernst Bruny that revealed no incidents of past abuse. However, that was not the case. Ernst Bruny had previously been the perpetrator in three violent incidents involving two young family members and his ex-wife (DeNeal, 2001). It is unclear why the background check did not reveal this information.
Donna Duncan continued living with Ernst Bruny along with Joseph and her infant daughter. She was a licensed practical nurse and often found travel assignments more lucrative than working in local healthcare organizations. For this reason, Donna left in the fall of 1999 for Florida to work as a nurse. She left her son Joseph and infant daughter under the care of Ernst Bruny.
On the morning of September 28th, 1999, Donna Duncan entered the police station in Winter Haven, Florida seeking help. She said she was afraid that her son had been beaten to death by her boyfriend (Spiller, 2016). Authorities contacted the police department in Vienna, IL., who agreed to do a welfare check on the boy. While waiting for news from Illinois, Donna told police in Florida that her son was having a hard time following rules and that her boyfriend had “disciplined” her son several times a few nights ago. She further explained that her boyfriend told her the boy was not eating, had been going to the bathroom in his room, and that she could hear he was having a hard time breathing over the phone (Spiller, 2016).
Donna went on to explain that Ernst Bruny told her that her son had stopped breathing and he attempted to do CPR but was unsuccessful. What she said next sickened authorities. “I love both my son and my boyfriend an awful lot, and if I have lost my son I don’t want to lose my boyfriend to the criminal justice system, so we decided to place my son in a suitcase and maintain the body until I got back to Illinois and we could figure our how to dispose of the body” (Spiller, 2016).
The officers arrived at Duncan and Bruny’s home in Creal Springs at approximately 6 am the morning of September 28th, 1999. When Bruny answered the door, officers asked about the whereabouts of the children. Bruny explained that his infant daughter was asleep and that his girlfriend’s son was in Florida with his mother (Spiller, 2016). The authorities insisted on coming inside the home where they found a disturbing scene.
There were signs that a child had gotten sick in the home and there were some blood stains on a pillow. A belt was collected for evidence. The authorities asked Ernst about any trunks or suitcases, but he denied having any. They searched the home, finding a bucket of urine and feces in Joseph’s room but no toys or normal kid items. In the master bedroom closet, they found a suitcase. Inside the suitcase was the bruised and battered body of the now deceased Joseph Michael Duncan-Williams.
It didn’t take much more for Ernst Bruny to confess to what he called “punishing” Joseph for infractions such as not wiping himself well enough after going to the bathroom, lying, and stealing. He claimed that he was in constant contact with Donna and that she was aware of the punishments he was giving the boy (Spiller, 2016). He described whipping Joseph with a belt until his hips looked like ground hamburger. At that point, the couple decided to keep him home from school so that the abuse would not be reported to any authorities. Ernst Bruny admitted to placing Joseph in the suitcase after the child had died. It is believed Joseph died September 26th, 1999 and was kept in the suitcase for two days before authorities came to the home. The pathologist stated that the only part of Joseph’s body that was not bruised were the soles of his feet (Dispatch-Argus, 2001). He died of blunt force trauma and soft tissue injuries.
Ernst Bruny was arrested and charged with first degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, aggravated battery of a child, and concealment of a homicidal death. Upon arriving back in Illinois, Donna Duncan was also arrested on the same charges because authorities believed she knew the abuse was occurring and did nothing to protect Joseph (Dispatch-Argus, 1999).
In July 2000, Ernst Bruny plead guilty to first degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to Menard Correctional Center in Chester to service his time. Donna’s fate would prove to be a bit more complicated as Bruny was not cooperative with her prosecution.
Donna Duncan went to trial in 2001 for the murder of her son Joseph. Donna was not even in the same state when the murder occurred, but prosecutors felt she was culpable because she knew that Bruny was abusing her son and that the abuse was severe enough to cause death. When her trial began, the teachers who discovered injuries in May of 1999 testified about the abuse. DCFS investigators were also called to testify. It became evident that there had been a history of abuse, although the defense claimed it was limited to that once incident in May (DeNeal, 2001).
Donna’s former employer also testified in her trial. The supervisor informed the court that while Donna was working in Florida, she was staying in the home of the supervisor. She further described Donna speaking to Ernst on the telephone every three hours and that Donna indicated to her boss that her son was getting disciplined a lot while she was gone, saying he was “getting his butt lifted” (DeNeal, 2001). She indicated that Donna told her Bruny whipped the boy first thing in the morning and before bed because he knew the boy would be bad during the day (DeNeal, 2001).
Donna Duncan was found guilty of murder. She was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison and sent to Dwight Correctional Center. Her young daughter was put in foster care. It wouldn’t be long, however, before the defense appealed the conviction. The courts overturned Donna’s murder conviction, but not her aggravated battery and concealment convictions in 2004 (DeNeal, 2004). My understanding of the ruling is that because the aggravated battery occurred during the act of murder, she couldn’t be charged with first degree murder based off that conviction.
DCFS also came under fire as a result of this case. The agency faced intense criticism for not removing Joseph from the home (NWI.com, 2001). “When these workers did not do their job, my grandson died” said Karen Lill, Joseph’s grandmother (nwi.COM, 2001). Karen fought for changes to DCFS policies as part of Joseph’s legacy and was successful at advocating for some changes. The changes increased ongoing monitoring in DCFS cases, increased education on recognizing abuse, and eliminating the parent’s ability to simply refuse cooperation (Dispatch-Argus, 2001).
Joseph Duncan was failed by his mother who allowed him to be repeatedly violently abused by her boyfriend. He was also failed by DCFS, which would be recognized as a common theme in the State of Illinois. However, Joseph’s case brings awareness to the importance of recognition and intervention in child abuse cases. Do not just “mind your business” when a child’s life is at stake. If you know or suspect that a child is being abused call the National Child Abuse hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. (1-800-422-4453)
(Ernst Bruny, IDOC)
Spiller, H. (2016) Murder in the Heartland: Book 4; Available for purchase at: Amazon.com: Murder in the Heartland Book 4 eBook: Spiller, Harry: Kindle Store
DeNeal, T. (March 10th, 2001) Bruny’s mother makes her case for adoption; The Southern Illinoisan; Retrieved at: BRUNY'S MOTHER MAKES HER CASE FOR ADOPTION | Local News | thesouthern.com
IDOC (Accessed 2021) Ernst Bruny; Retrieved at: Offenders (illinois.gov)
FindAGrave (Accessed 2021) Joseph Michael Duncan Williams; Retrieved at: Flowers for Joseph Michael Duncan Williams - Find A Grave Memorial
NWI.com (2001) DCFS Report: Problems persist; Retrieved at: DCFS report: Problems persist | Uncategorized | nwitimes.com
DeNeal (February 13th, 2001) Key Question: How much did she know about fiance’s violent past? Duncan murder trial opens; Southern Illinoisan; Retrieved at: KEY QUESTION: HOW MUCH DID SHE KNOW ABOUT FIANCE'S VIOLENT PAST? DUNCAN MURDER TRIAL OPENS | News | thesouthern.com
Dispatch-Argus (2001) DCFS to make changes in wake of child deaths in Southern Illinois; Retrieved at: DCFS to make changes in wake of child deaths in southern Illinois | Latest News | qconline.com
DeNeal, T. (February 21st, 2001) Donna Duncan’s former employer testifies: Duncan knew about spankings; Southern Illinoisan; Retrieved at: DONNA DUNCAN'S FORMER EMPLOYER TESTIFIES: DUNCAN KNEW ABOUT SPANKINGS | Local News | thesouthern.com
DeNeal, T. (May 4th, 2004) Court reverses woman’s murder conviction; The Southern Illinoisan; Retrieved at: COURT REVERSES WOMAN'S MURDER CONVICTION | Local News | thesouthern.com
Dispatch-Argus (1999) State begins investigation as charges upgraded in boy’s death; Retrieved at: State begins investigation as charges upgraded in boy's death | Latest News | qconline.com
Dispatch-Argus (March 1st, 2001) Woman convicted in murder of son who was beaten to death by fiancé; Retrieved at: Woman convicted in murder of son who was beaten to death by fiance | Latest News | qconline.com
DeNeal, T. (March 2nd, 2001) The fate of Joseph Duncan’s sister in question; The Southern Illinoisan; Retrieved at: THE FATE OF JOSEPH DUNCAN'S SISTER IN QUESTION | Local News | thesouthern.com
Terry, D. (2004) Joseph Michael remembered on birthday; The Southern Illinoisan; Retrieved at: JOSEPH MICHAEL REMEMBERED ON BIRTHDAY | News | thesouthern.com
Obituary (1999) Joseph Michael Duncan; The Southern Illinoisan; Retrieved at: Obituary for Joseph Michael Duncan (Aged 8) - Newspapers.com