The Eastburn Family Murders
Three murder trials and advances in DNA finally brought the killer to justice over 20 years later.
When the police officer arrived at the Eastburn’s home on Summer Hill Road, he could hear the youngest daughter, Jana, screaming inside the house. She was just hours away from death by dehydration and starvation, and she was covered in dirt and faeces.
The toddler would be the only one in the house found alive.
Katie, Kara, Erin and Jana Eastburn via http://militaryjusticeforall.com
The Eastburns were a military family and were about to move to England for husband Gary’s new role in the Royal Air Force. He held the rank of captain and was at a training facility in Montgomery, Alabama, 500 miles away from his family in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The family spoke on the phone every Saturday, but when Gary called his wife Katie, for the couple’s morning call, she didn’t pick up. But back in May 1985, there was little else Gary could do but wait by the phone for his wife to call him back.
The Eastburn’s neighbour, Bob, had noticed the newspapers piling up and assumed that Katie and her daughters, Kara who was five, Erin who was three and little Jana who was just under two, had gone away, but their car was still in the driveway.
He rang the doorbell and there was no answer, but he could hear the baby crying inside. He told his wife to contact the Sheriff’s office and he waited for them to arrive.
Jana was passed through the window to Bob, while the police officer continued into the house. He found the bodies of Katie, Erin and Kara after smelling a strong odour, and called in the deaths.
Five-year-old Kara had been stabbed in the chest multiple times and was found curled up under a Star Wars blanket. 32-year-old Katie was found without her trousers or underwear on and had been raped. She’d also been stabbed fifteen times. Three-year-old Erin had received blunt force trauma to her chest and back, and all of their throats had been cut.
Later, when survivor Jana was asked what happened that night, she told the child psychologist to hide because the “bad men” were coming. They believed her sisters had told her to stay hidden, which is why she survived the attack, unharmed.
Forensics were taken from the crime scene, including hair, fingerprints and semen samples. A luminol test showed that a lot of blood had been cleaned up recently.
Gary Eastburn was contacted soon after by detective Jack Watts, who told him to come home immediately as there had been a death in the family. He gave the detective and his partner, Robert Bittle, all the information he could, and told them that the family had a dog, but he knew his wife had put an advert in the paper for someone to adopt her, as they didn’t think the old dog could cope with the journey to England or the quarantine. He didn’t have any information about the new owner of their dog.
Gary walked the house, once the bodies of his family had been removed, looking for anything that was missing. Katie’s bank card, an envelope containing around $300, and the password for the bank card appeared to be the only items missing.
Instead of having to appeal for witnesses, one came forward of his own accord. Patrick Cone had been in trouble with the police before, but what he’d seen that night needed to be handed over to the police.
He told them that he’d seen a man in a Members Only jacket at around 3.30 am that morning. The man was white, blond and tall with a wide nose and moustache. He wore a knitted cap and jeans and was walking away from the Eastburn’s house carrying a bin bag.
The man spoke to Patrick, stating, “leaving a little early this morning”, as he walked towards his car, a white Chevette. Patrick sat with a sketch artist from the North Carolina division of the Bureau of Investigation, to create an image of the man he’d seen that morning.
The sketch via cnn.com
The Eastburn’s babysitter also spoke to the police and told them that Katie thought she had a stalker. The family had received crank calls for months before the murders and sometimes the caller spoke about doing sexual things to Katie.
A few days before the murder, the babysitter picked up the Eastburn’s phone to take a call from a woman named Angela. She was interested in looking at the dog and the babysitter took her details, so Katie could call her back. The note wasn’t found in the house when a search was done.
Six days later, Angela Hennis and her husband, Tim, were watching the news report on the murders. They realised quickly that the newest addition to their home, an old Red Setter, had been picked up from the very same house only days before, and the white Chevette sitting in the driveway was the car the police were looking for.
Tim Hennis drove to the police station, to speak to Watts and Bittle about his encounter with the family. When Watts walked into the interview room, he immediately saw the likeness to the sketch Patrick had helped create.
Tim was a 27-year-old Army sergeant and had recently become a father to Kristina earlier that year. The police interviewed him as if he was a suspect and Tim was rightly wary of them. He asked if he needed representation and the police told him it was just a routine interview.
He told them that he went to pick up the dog on Tuesday, two days before the murders took place. After that, he’d taken his daughter and wife to visit family and they’d stayed behind, which meant he didn’t have an alibi for the night in question.
He let the detectives take fingerprints, saliva, hair and blood samples and while police were collecting what they needed from him, they were also creating a line-up for Patrick. Tim had bounced some cheques in the past, so they had a photo of him from when he was arrested.
They placed it between five images of other men and Patrick immediately picked Tim out.
Tim was released after several hours of questioning and he drove home. Police knew they had found their main suspect and began interviewing the people around him.
Tim’s neighbours had seen him burning items in a barrel outside of his home, and he’d stood there for five hours, tending to the fire. They’d never seen him burn anything in a barrel before and found his behaviour odd.
His local dry cleaner also came forward and told police that Tim had come in the day after the murders to have his jacket cleaned. It was a Members Only jacket. When questioned, Tim’s landlord told police that Tim was late with his rent that month. His tenant owed $345 and he’d been able to pay the rent a few days later, just after the murders.
Tim was arrested and charged with rape and the three murders in the first degree. He was offered a plea deal immediately but he refused to take it. Tim didn’t want to plead guilty because he told them he didn’t do it. Instead, he told police to test the samples he’d given them at his first interview.
Tim Hennis’ mugshot via dailytarheel.com
The blood types, fingerprints and hair were tested, but it was the 1980s so forensics still had a way to go. The blood came back as inconclusive because there was so much of it. The fingerprints and hair weren’t a match or were also inconclusive.
However, other evidence had begun to mount against the sergeant, and then one more witness appeared.
Katie’s bank card had been stolen during the murders, and it had been used to withdraw money after her death. A woman had used an ATM machine a few days after the attacks, and the person before her had used Katie Eastburn’s bank card. She was sure that the blond man, wearing camouflage trousers was Tim Hennis.
Though none of the evidence found in the house could be linked to Tim, the prosecution still wanted to move forward with the trial.
Tim went to trial almost a year after the murders. The jury was shown a slideshow of the crime scene and autopsy photographs with the prosecutor’s presentation lasting 90 minutes. None of the physical evidence matched Tim Hennis and the tactics used by the prosecution were questionable.
Nevertheless, when the jury returned from their deliberation, they found Tim Hennis guilty of three first-degree murders and the rape of Katie. He was transferred to Raleigh and three days after the trial, he was sentenced to death.
Despite the verdict, there were still questions surrounding the case. There were fingerprints and hair all over the Eastburn’s house that didn’t match Tim Hennis and there were also footprints found outside of the Eastburn’s home that were three sizes smaller than Tim’s feet. None of these pieces of evidence were ever questioned during the trial.
While his appeal was being prepared, Tim received a strange letter in prison.
Dear Mr. Hennis, I did the crime, I murdered the Eastburns. Sorry you’re doin [sic] the time. I’ll be safely out of North Carolina when you read this. Thanks, Mr. X
The sheriff’s office also received a letter from the unknown writer but many thought that the letter was a hoax.
In 1988, Tim Hennis’ appeal was finally ready to go back to court, and their defence was that the photograph slideshow presented to the jury was completely discriminatory against their client. The images of the brutal murders and autopsy scenes, they believed, were too much and that the jury would have convicted anyone for the crimes.
The judge agreed that the jury saw too many images, so Tim was given a new trial and it was moved 90 miles away for a fairer hearing. The same year, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that photographic presentation should be limited to not cause prejudice amongst jurors, named the Hennis test for excess.
Patrick Cone was put on the stand first. The defence had planned to discredit the witness’ inaccurate account of the night he saw the tall, blond man in the white Chevette. They brought in a meteorologist and a helicopter pilot, who told the jury that the night was very overcast and dark and Patrick would have found it difficult to see the man properly.
Patrick had been in trouble with the law between the two trials, even telling an officer that he was too valuable to lock up because he was a witness in the Hennis trial. In the end, enough doubt was thrown upon Patrick’s reliability for the jury to disbelieve his account.
They brought the woman from the ATM machine back to the second trial. By the time the police had found her, Tim Hennis had been on television and in newspapers, and she could have easily picked up his face from seeing these reports. The defence also made the jury sit in silence for three and a half minutes to highlight the amount of time between the man’s transaction at the ATM and her own.
Tim Hennis’ lawyers also stressed that the woman had also told investigators, “I don’t remember anything”, before ensuring that her story was in place before the first trial. The evidence found at the Eastburn’s home was also brought up. Who did the hair, blood, and footprints belong to? They certainly weren’t Tim’s. The burn barrel remains from Tim’s home were also collected and tested and nothing of significance was found there, either.
The defence spoke to the dry cleaner, and they told the lawyers that they didn’t use any special blood-cleaning chemicals, on the Members Only jacket. To prove their point, the defence poured blood on another jacket and cleaned it with chemicals that remove blood from fabric. Even with the right chemicals, a luminol test showed remnants of blood on the prop jacket and when Tim’s jacket was given the same treatment, the luminol test didn’t show any signs of blood at all.
The final blow from the defence was a new witness, who was a spitting image of Tim Hennis. John Raupaugh lived a few streets away from the Eastburn’s home and liked to walk around at night when he couldn’t sleep. He was doing so on the night of the Eastburn’s murders, wearing a Members Only jacket and a knitted hat.
John told the jury that the police had interviewed him and when they realised how similar he looked to their suspect, they took his jacket and hat to hide from the defence and only gave them back to him when Tim was safely in prison.
Two days later the jury came back with a “not guilty” verdict for the three first-degree murders and the rape.
Tim Hennis left the court with his daughter, who was now four years old, and his wife. He was a free man.
Tim rejoined the Army, receiving back pay for the years he’d spent in prison and in 1990, he was sent to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield. He returned home after a stint in Somalia, where he received medals for his duty and service.
In 2004, Tim retired as master sergeant and settled in a job at a waste facility in Washington. The family had moved there years earlier and Tim was now filling his time as the leader of his son’s scout group.
Tim continued to live a normal life with a loving family for years, but it would soon be turned upside down once more.
In 2006, Gary Eastburn received a call from detective Bittle. Technology had finally caught up, and the rape kit used on Katie had been found at the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department. It was sent to the crime lab and the DNA swabs from Katie were tested. The semen found in Katie’s body was a match to Tim Hennis.
The problem now facing the prosecution was double jeopardy. Tim had already been tried for the murder of Katie, Erin and Kara, and couldn’t be taken to court again. However, Tim Hennis was military.
The Army called Tim back to active duty and he was charged with the three murders of the Eastburns. On the 17th of March 2010, the trial for Tim Hennis began in the Fort Bragg courthouse, complete with a packed audience.
Tim Hennis in 2010 via Fayetteville Observer
Now in his fifties, Tim sat through the trial as he had done twice before. The defence pulled out the same evidence as the second trial; the shoeprints, the blood, the fingerprints and hair, but the luminol test done at the crime scene showed an extensive clean-up had been done after the murder, and the one piece of evidence that Tim couldn’t get rid of was his semen.
Instead, the defence’s argument was to introduce the idea of extra-marital affairs, stating that a young wife whose husband had been gone for a long time could have impulsively decided to sleep with Tim Hennis when he picked up the dog.
Unfortunately, the jury was made up of officers who were often away from home for long periods of time, and so the argument resonated terribly. What’s more, Tim Hennis had vehemently denied an affair with Katie.
On the 3rd of April 2010, the jury took three hours to decide on their verdict and came back to court to cite Tim Hennis as guilty, once again.
At sentencing, Gary Eastburn was asked to speak. After the murders of his wife and children, he and Jana had eventually moved to England in 1988. There, he’d met a nurse who he married, and after a few years living in the U.K, they’d all moved back to America. When asked what he missed most about his family, Gary replied, “Them. I miss being with them”.
Tim Hennis was eventually sentenced to a dishonourable discharge from the Army and to be put to death. He was transferred to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas where he still resides today.
He’s the only person who’s been tried for life three times after not guilty and guilty verdicts. He’s unlikely to be put to death, due to Presidential approval for military execution, which hasn’t happened since the 1960s.
In February 2020, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces rejected his appeal. When interviewed by The Seattle Timesin 2010, Gary Eastburn said, “I’m perfectly happy if he spends the rest of his life in jail. However, if they did execute him, it was no more than he deserved.”