The Eastburn Family Murders and The Three Trials of Staff Sergeant Tim Hennis
Although fifteen years had passed in 1985, residents of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were still recovering (and debating) the case of Dr. Jeffrey McDonald, who had been convicted of killing his pregnant wife and daughters then spinning a story about a home invasion by doped-up hippies. The thought that a man – a professional man and respected American soldier – could kill his wife and daughters still sent shivers up their spines.
Mother’s Day, May 12, 1985, started out like any other day, especially for members of America’s military who were mostly far from home and their Moms; phone calls and cards would have to substitute for visits and hugs while they went about the duty of defending a nation.
Little by little, however, these dedicated men and women would learn that the wife and two daughters of one their own had fought for their lives, to no avail. Grown men would shed tears at the image of the lone survivor, a 21-month-old baby, standing, arms outstretched, crying for out for her dead mother and sisters. Crying out for someone.
Military Life. Military Wife.
Katie Eastburn was used to going it alone. She was a military wife, after all. Her husband, Gary Eastburn, was frequently away; this time he was attending an Air Force captain-in-training school in Alabama.
The Eastburns were excited about their upcoming transfer to Germany, even if it was a little nerve wracking thinking about being in a foreign place but there was sure to be plenty of support; the military base to which they had been assigned was large and very accommodating to its American service members and their families.
Katie and the girls knew they’d miss their family and friends, but they were also very heartbroken about having to leave their family dog Dixie behind – strict regulations prohibited them from bringing the pet along. With a heavy heart, Katie placed a classified ad in the local paper that serviced the Fayetteville and Fort Bragg area, hoping to find a good family willing to take Dixie and love the animal just as they did.
Around 9 o’clock p.m. on Tuesday, May 7, 1985, Army Staff Sergeant Timothy Hennis answered the classified ad. He and his wife, Angela Hennis, loved dogs but their current pet was extremely jealous of their newborn daughter. Despite their best efforts, Snowball, a mixed breed, just wasn’t going to work out but they hoped they could find another dog, preferably one from a home with kids, which newborn Kristina could grow with and enjoy. Dixie seemed to be exactly what Tim and Angela were hoping for.
Before he left the Eastburn home, he asked Katie to use the restroom and she obliged – no doubt comfortable with her husband’s fellow soldier. Tim soon exited, thanked Mrs. Eastburn for both the use of facilities and Dixie, attached the dog to a lease, and started toward home, eager to introduce Kristina and Dixie.
Day of Discovery
It can never be said with one-hundred percent certainty how it all went down on that Thursday, May 9, 1985, but what is absolutely known is Katie Eastburn and two of her three daughters would die a brutal death.
On Sunday, May 12, the Eastburns’ next door neighbor, Army sergeant Bob Seefeldt arrived home after bailing out one of his soldiers who had a little too much fun on Saturday night and landed himself in the clinker. When he returned home, he was greeted by a worried wife who had noticed the papers piled up on the Eastburns’ doorstep. The family car was still in the driveway and the baby stroller was parked in its usual place by the backdoor.
The more Bob thought about it, he realized he hadn’t seen the Eastburns in at least three days. He decided a little investigating was in order.
As he stepped up to the front door, he was certain he heard the cries of an infant but his knocks and doorbell rings went unanswered. Returning home, he called the Eastburns babysitter Julie Czerniak, who came rushing over. Bob was waiting outside the Eastburn when she arrived. Julie peeked into a window and saw baby Jana, standing alone in her crib, arms outstretched. Reacting on instinct, Julie began looking for a possible way into the home but Bob convinced her to wait for the arrival of police.
Office William Toman was the first to arrive. Forcing open a window, he retrieved the crying infant and a stack of diapers and handed her to Bob. Saying he smelled something he horrible, he told Bob to standby as he went to check out the source. Right away he discovered the dead bodies of Katie and her 3-year-old daughter, Erin Eastburn. Office Toman called for back-up.
A full scale search of the home found the body of 5-year-old Kara Eastman, lying in bed with the with the covers pulled up.
Area residents wanted to know: why would anyone kill a beautiful young mother and her two daughters? But the bigger questions was who?
To Catch A Killer
While investigators was searching the home at 367 Summer Hill Road for viable clues to identify the killer, a young black man named Patrick Cone approached them and said that he had seen a man leaving the residence three nights ago – which would have been the same night of the murders. Eager to solve the triple homicide, investigators listened intently as Patrick told them, “I was walking home from my girlfriend’s house about 3:30 AM. As I was walking, I saw a white Chevette parked on the road. Then I saw this white dude walking down the lady’s driveway. I passed right by him. He said, ‘I’m getting an early start this morning,’ or something like that. Then I watched him get in his white Chevette and drive off.” Patrick then went one to provide a very thorough description of the man, saying he was approximately 6′ 4″ with blonde hair that peeked out from underneath a black toboggan, wearing a black Members Only jacket atop a white shirt and blue jeans.
Three days after the murders, the police publicly broadcast via television and radio a request for the man who had answered the Eastburns classified ad about the dog to please contact police. The plea was accompanied by a composite sketch created from Patrick Cone’s description.
Tim Hennis was watching the evening news when the investigators request was reported and was shaken by the similarities between himself and the composite sketch. Along with his wife and baby girl, Hennis drove to the police department in his white Chevette and offered to assist in any way possible. He willingly answered all of their questions without the aid of an attorney, nor did he ever request one.
It didn’t escape police how closely Tim Hennis resembled the sketch or that he also drove a white Chevette. Although DNA was still a few years away in being used in criminal investigations, police requested hair, blood, and semen samples from Tim; the latter because Katie Eastburn had been raped shortly before her death. Tim willingly obliged, again without the advice of an attorney.
Tim and Angela returned to their home believing they had done all they could do to hopefully bring justice for the Eastman family, so they were shocked when investigators knocked on their door later that evening with an arrest warrant for Tim.
No one involved – not police, Gary or Jana Eastman, or the Hennises – knew that this case would occupy Courtrooms for the next quarter of a century.
Murder Trial: Round 1
Bob Hennis immediately hired the high-profile Fayetteville law firm of Beaver, Holt, Richardson, Sternlicht, Burge and Glazier, PA. Two of their senior partners, Gerry Beaver and Billy Richardson, were considered to be the best criminal defense attorneys in the state of North Carolina.
Right out of the starting gate, the firm hired the services of a private investigator Bob Nelligar. His job was to retrace the steps of police detectives, scrutinize the evidence, and look for information or clues police may have missed.
Julie, the family’s babysitter, was the first to be interviewed. She told Nelligar the family residence had recently been the target of harassing phone calls; some of a sexual nature. She also admitted to her fascination with Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald’s case, her belief in his innocence, and her mail exchanges with the convicted murderer. She also admitted to two other important facts: her stepbrothers strongly resembled Tim Hennis (producing photos when the investigator was skeptical) and that she had been assisting vice squads in setting up busts of local drug dealers; believing on one occasion she had been followed from the Eastburn home by angry dealer, although she could not positively identify the man.
Secondly, Nelligar and the attorneys set up a reenactment of the scene described by Patrick Cone. Along with a Tim Hennis look alike, they went the Summer Hill Road residence at the same early morning hour, with the same foggy and moonless settings, with video camera in hand. The Patrick stand-in was unable to see the Tim actor as the area was very poorly lit during the predawn hours.
During the reenactment, David Hill, a neighbor from across the street, approached the team and told them that, on the night of the murder, he had approached a van parked in front of the Eastburn residence. He had spoken to a white male sporting a crew cut who said he had just stopped to talk with a couple of friends whose voices David could hear in the back of the van. A couple of days later, David saw the same van for sale in the Winn-Dixie parking lot.
At a second reenactment that failed to prove the eye-witness testimony, Patrick, who was present at the request of investigators, admitted that he believed he was mistaken and that he had been having doubts about have fingered Tim Hennis for quite a while.
Nigellar also spotted several flaws in the evidence such as hairs and fingerprints found at the scene that could not be matched to Hennis or any known friend or family member of the Eastburn familly and the size 9 shoe print uncovered by police was extremely too small for Tim’s size 13 feet.
World renowned forensic expert Paul Stombaugh visited the Eastburn residence six months after the crime. There he located a condom package undiscovered by police underneath the dresser. According to Stombaugh, when compared to known facts about the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Eastburn, this suggested consensual sex had occurred in the home prior to murders, as it was his experience rapists very rarely carried condoms to commit their violent acts. Additionally, after spending several hours in the home and pouring over reports and evidence, Stombaugh was of the mind that the murders were committed by two assailants.
Nelligar wrapped up his investigation by speaking with Charlotte Kirby, the newspaper for the carrier for the Eastburn route. Charlotte was angry at being question and refused to provide any information other than it was raining that morning and she had had to bag the papers. Charlotte agreed to testify, but only if she could do so anonymously. He also spoke with Lucille Cook who had used her ATM card at the same time and same place as Katie’s card had been used; she said she saw no one during her transaction. Lastly, Nelligar spoke with Summer Hill Road residence Chuck and Cheri Radtke, who claimed to have went out for an early morning walk at the same time Patrick Cone said he had seen the man in the white Chevette. According to them, they only did not see Patrick but they had seen no one out at the hour. However, they said, a few nights later, they had indeed witnessed a blonde man with a crew cut, wearing a black beret and black Members only jacket, carrying a black garbage bag over his soldier walking down the street at the same time the Eastburn murders would have occurred a few nights before.
Police and prosecutors, however, adamantly stuck to their belief in Tim’s guilt. They badgered Patrick Cone about his retracted identification of Tim Hennis and prosecutor William VanStory IV argued that just because hair and fingerprint samples didn’t match Tim, didn’t mean he couldn’t have committed the crimes.
On July 4, 1986, after twelve hours of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict on one count of first degree rape and three counts of first degree murder. Tim Hennis was sentenced to death three times.
Murder Trial: Round 2
Just days after being booked into Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, Tim Hennis received a postcard from a mysterious Mr. X that read: “Dear Mr. Hennis, I did the crime, I murdered the Eastburns. Sorry you’re doin the time. I’ll be safely out of North Carolina when you read this. Thanks, Mr. X”. His attorneys waved it off as a hoax, but kept the postcard on file nonetheless. The prosecution received an almost identical postcard but would continue to deny it even when specifically requested in discovery motions.
Tim’s tireless attorneys continued to spend hours preparing and arguing his appeals. After more than two years of being on death row, Tim’s conviction was overturned and sent back to the Courts for a retrial, which began on February 27, 1989.
This time the prosecutor introduce a new witness: Ilesa Peabody, a neighbor who had previously stated she saw no one on the night of murders but was now adamant that she had in fact seen Tim Hennis leave the scene of the crime.
It was of little consequence to the defense who had come to Court this time with both guns blazing and more aggressively took on prosecutor witnesses such as Lucille Cook, the ATM lady who first said no one was at the machine at the time she used it then later was firm in memory of Tim Hennis being the person to use it before her. When she testified at the second trial that she remembered Hennis waiting a “minute or two” before leaving the ATM area, defense attorney used Courtroom theatrics to demonstrate the length of a “minute or two” along with bank record time stamps to prove Lucille was lying.
The state’s star witness, the flaky Patrick Cone, wasn’t exempt from scrutiny when he was forced to admit he had been charged with theft using a stolen ATM card but had questionably been able to avoid being brought to trial.
Sean Buckerner, Patrick’s friend, testified to having lost a wallet which contained a letter written by his friend in which he admitted he didn’t know who or what he really saw on the night of May 9, 1985.
But the defense saved their best for last. With the help of a new private eye, T.V. O’Malley, the attorneys were able to locate the mysterious walker seen by Chuck and Cheri Radtke and later by newspaper carrier Charlotte Kirby. Jaws dropped when John Raupach entered the Courtroom after being called to the stand. John could have been Tim’s identical twin brother! Jurors and spectators were stunned when John testified that he Raupach said that he was 6′ 4″, always wore a black Members Only jacket, black toboggan, white T-shirt, and dark corduroy pants, and that he always carried his book bag over his shoulder.
Following the presentation made by the defense, especially the appearance of John Raupach, it came as no surprise when Tim Hennis was acquitted on all counts.
Murder Trial: Round 3 (Court Martial)
After the acquittal in 1989, Tim Hennis undoubtedly felt free. But it was an ill-fated feeling.
In 2007, Army officials re-opened the case after experts claimed they had linked DNA from the 22-year-old murder to Tim. By this time, 49-year-old Tim had retired from the military but was forcefully reactivated to stand trial under military jurisdiction while double jeopardy prevented state officials from retrying Tim, even with the discovery of new evidence. The federal government is considered a sovereign authority unto itself and therefore separate from powers of the states.
Although Tim initially stuck to his story of only visiting the Eastburn to claim the dog listed in the classifieds, he later claimed that he and Katie had had consensual sex the night of the murder. He did not disclose this important fact before because, according to Tim, he was afraid and did not wish to add to Gary and Jana Eastburn’s grief.
The military jury rejected Tim’s claims and on April 9, 2010, found him guilty on three counts of premeditated murder.
Tim Hennis is currently on death row the an Army facility in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His attorneys are presently working on his appeals, that are expected to go on for years – possibly even reaching the United States Supreme Court.
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© 2016 Kim Bryan