by John W. Taylor
In 1985, Gary and Kathryn Eastburn lived in Fayetteville, North Carolina with their three daughters, Cara, 5, Erin, 3, and Janna, 22-months. Gary was a captain in the Air Force. He had orders to relocate to out of the country. Because their family dog could not accompany them, they placed an advertisement in the newspaper to sell it. Tim Hennis, a G.I. based at nearby Fort Bragg, responded to the ad.
Four days later, a neighbor contacted the police because he had not seen anyone enter or leave the Eastburn residence in days. When the police entered the home, they found Kathryn and her two oldest daughters stabbed to death. The 22-month-old baby was still alive. At the time of the murders, Gary Eastburn was on a training assignment in Alabama. The victims were found on May 12, 1985, but the authorities believed they were killed on the night of May 9 or in the early morning hours of May 10.
After seeing a television news story indicating that the police were looking for a man who responded to the Eastburn’s newspaper ad, Tim Hennis voluntarily drove to the police station with his wife Angela and their baby girl. He fully cooperated with law enforcement and answered all of their questions. According to Hennis, he never entered the Eastburn residence and only spoke to Kathryn from the porch.
Police discovered an eyewitness named Patrick Cone, who placed Hennis near the scene of the crime in the early morning hours of May 10. As a result, the police arrested Hennis. At trial, the prosecution laid out a strong case against Hennis. On the night of the murders, Cone claimed that he saw a tall white male wearing a Members Only jacket, a knit cap, and jeans near the Eastburn home. He described the individual as 6’4” with blonde hair, same as Hennis. Cone later picked Hennis out of a police line-up as the man he saw that evening.
Two neighbors, Chuck and Cheri Radtke, claimed they also saw a man matching the same description, walking down the Eastburn’s street around the time of the murders.
After the murders, Gary Eastburn identified several missing items from the family home, including an ATM card. The police discovered two $150 withdrawals tied to the missing ATM card. Witness Lucille Cook said she saw a man matching Hennis’s description use the same ATM around the time the Eastburn’s card was used. Cook also identified Hennis from a photo line-up.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors showed jurors numerous crime scene photos. The prosecutors utilized the horrific photos of the victims to convey the theme of someone must pay for this atrocity.
On the night of the murders, Hennis’s wife walked out on him after a fight. She called him a poor provider and told him she was bored. According to various accounts, Hennis then drove to his ex-girlfriend’s house, but she turned down his sexual advances. Hennis claimed he proceeded home, watched television, and fell asleep. However, the prosecution asserted that Hennis drove to the Eastburn house with the motive of sex. When he was rebuffed a second time, Hennis flew into a murderous rage. In July of 1986, the jury agreed with the prosecution’s version of events and found Hennis guilty of rape and three counts of first degree murder. He was sentenced to death.
Hennis appealed his conviction on the grounds that the prosecution’s repeated showing of graphic crime scene photos of the victims improperly prejudiced the jury. The North Carolina Supreme Court concurred and granted him a new trial, which began in 1989. The defense team was much more aggressive the second time around.
Lucille Cook, who placed Hennis at the ATM machine around the time the Eastburn’s ATM card was used, backed away from her claims. She thought her memory may have been influenced by the pictures of Hennis she saw in the newspaper. Further, it was learned that the first two times she spoke to police she claimed that she did not see anyone at the AMT, but during a third conversation, she identified Hennis. The defense also refuted her testimony with ATM time stamp records, which contradicted her version of events.
The defense team highlighted the fact that none of the fingerprints or hair fibers collected from the scene matched Hennis. Police captured a size nine shoe print, which was much smaller than Hennis’ size 13 feet. Where was the evidence placing him inside the Eastburn home?
Patrick Cone was the State’s star witness in the first trial; however, he was much less effective the second time around. The defense team pointed out minor discrepancies in Cone’s testimony. The defense also produced a new witness, John Raupaugh, who claimed he was out walking on the night of the murders in the same neighborhood. Raupaugh stated that he often wore a knit cap and had a black Members Only jacket. He was also 6’4” and bore a striking resemblance to Hennis. With the appearance of Raupaugh in the courtroom, the jurors had reasonable doubt. Tim Hennis was acquitted on all counts. After the trial, he re-enlisted in the Army and then retired in 2004.
In 2006, advances in DNA testing allowed the authorities to analyze Kathryn Eastburn’s rape kit. Semen found during analysis conclusively matched Tim Hennis. Though many DNA statistics are grossly overstated because they do not account for human error, the match to Hennis was reported as 12 billion to one. Law enforcement believed that whoever raped Kathryn also killed her and her two children. Unfortunately, Tim Hennis had already been tried and acquitted for the murders; therefore, double jeopardy prevented prosecutors from trying him again.
The authorities devised a way around double jeopardy. The Army forced Hennis to reactivate and then charged him with the murders in military court. Double jeopardy prevents an accused person from being tried again for the same or similar charges, following an acquittal or conviction. However, the federal government (“Army”) is considered a sovereign and separate authority from the states. If there are overlapping criminal laws, such was the case here, a person can be re-tried for the same crime. This loophole allowed the Eastburns to seek justice, but the maneuver sidestepped many questionable legal and ethical boundaries.
Though DNA found under Kathryn Eastburn’s fingernails was unidentified and a hair found in her bed did not match Hennis or any other known person, the rape kit DNA results were too compelling. In April of 2010, the jury found Hennis guilty of three counts of premeditated murder and sentenced him to death, again.
Hennis’s lawyer alluded to the idea that Hennis had consensual sex with Kathryn Eastburn on the night of the murder. His lawyer also highlighted integrity issues with the DNA evidence. When investigators re-examined the rape kit, portions of the evidence container had been opened and torn. Though Hennis may have a legal basis for these assertions, they contradict each other. If he had consensual sex with the victim, then the DNA was most likely his. However, if the DNA results were in error, how does that fit with a consensual sex scenario? Hennis never mentioned engaging in consensual sex with Kathryn Eastburn prior to the DNA results implicating him. He failed to mention it during police interviews, his first two trials, or after he was acquitted. Hennis’ explanation for why investigators found his semen in the rape kit appeared to be out of desperation rather than stemming from the truth.
Tim Hennis currently resides on death row in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He cannot be executed without presidential approval. Hennis has filed numerous unsuccessful appeals and many more are likely based on the unusual and legally questionable work-around of double jeopardy.
Brooks, Drew, “Timothy Hennis Case: Federal Judge Dismisses Latest Appeal,” The Fayetteville Observer Online, http://www.fayobserver.com/military/timothy-hennis-case-federal-judge-dismisses-latest-appeal/article_133f50b2-c6d8-5978-bdaf-6ff0949799f0.html, October 1, 2015.
Bryan, Kim, “The Eastburn Family Murders and the Three Trials of Staff Sergeant Tim Hennis,” Owlcation, https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/staff-sergeant-tim-hennis-murder, June 13, 2016.
Coletta, Sue, “Eastburn Murders Expose a Loophole in the Law,” Inside the Mind of a Crime Writer, http://www.suecoletta.com/eastburn-murders-expose-a-loophole-in-the-law/, February 9, 2016.
Dolan, Maura, “Expert links soldier to 1985 killings,” Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2007/may/18/nation/na-hennis18, May 18, 2007.
Patterson, Thom, “Triple Murder Suspect Goes From Guilty to Innocent and Back to Guilty,” CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/18/us/death-row-stories-hennis/, July 18, 2014.
Whisnant, Scott, “Triple murder retrial to start,” Star-News, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=01JIAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ZxQEAAAAIBAJ&dq=eastburn+murder&pg=2825,3871705&hl=en, February 27, 1989
Whisnant, Scott, “Witness shaky on identifying Hennis,” Star-News, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=AU5OAAAAIBAJ&sjid=SRQEAAAAIBAJ&dq=eastburn+murder&pg=4667,2693974&hl=en, March 23, 1989.
“Jury in Hennis trial visits area where murder victims lived,” The Robesonian, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=yrFVAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Z0ANAAAAIBAJ&dq=eastburn+murder&pg=3724,4335645&hl=en, June 20, 1986.
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John W. Taylor writes in the true crime genre at www.truecrimewriting.com. He has written short pieces and articles on the death of Marilyn Monroe, JFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. John wrote and published Umbrella of Suspicion: Investigating the Death of JonBénet Ramsey and Isolated Incident: Investigating the Death of Nancy Cooper in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
John’s interest in the darker side of human nature has compelled him to conduct numerous research and writing projects on various unsolved crimes. He currently resides in Raleigh, North Carolina.