It was a warm spring afternoon in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on the 7th of May, 1985, when 27-year-old Army sergeant, Tim Hennis, responded to an advert in the local newspaper, the Beeline Grab Bragg, which served the military community in the area surrounding Pope Air Force Base and Fort Bragg. The ad was placed by Katie Eastburn, who was trying to find a new home for the family dog, Dixie. Katie’s husband, Gary Eastburn, was a captain in the Air Force and had recently discovered he was required to relocate so the family were planning their big move to England. He was currently away on a training assignment in Alabama. The Eastburn family consisted of Katie, Gary, and their three daughters – 5-year-old Kara, 3-year-old Erin and 22-month old Janna.
Hennis arrived at the Eastburn home at 367 Summer Hill Road at approximately 9PM that night. He told Katie that he and his wife, Angela Hennis, loved dogs and thought that Dixie would be a perfect addition to their family which included a 10-week-old daughter named Kristina. Hennis adopted the English setter and returned home to his family, new dog in tow. Two days later, however, Hennis made an unexpected visit to the Eastburn family. It isn’t known exactly how the following events unfolded, but the grim outcome would send shivers down the spine of the nation.
Four days later, a concerned neighbour who had not seen any movement from the Eastburn home and had noticed the newspapers piling up, contacted police to conduct a welfare check. When police arrived, they looked through the window and saw a crying toddler. Nevertheless, nobody answered the door. When they broke in, a putrid smell wafted up their noses and they were met by a scene that shocked even the most hardened officers: “Death has a smell, its own aroma. I’ll never forget the smell in there,” said Officer Robert Bittle, who was first on the scene. Kara was found curled up underneath a bloody Star Wars blanket. She had brutally stabbed ten times. Erin was found bludgeoned, stabbed and almost decapitated in her bed. Katie was found in her bed. Her bra was up around her neck and her underwear had been cut off. She had been raped and then stabbed 15 times. All of them had been slashed across the throat. Janna was found unharmed but distressed and hungry; she had been left in her crib for three days with no food or water.1 “For so long after that homicide, I could close my eyes and I could see the children,” said Officer Robert Bitte.2
The gruesome slayings stunned the safe, middle-class neighbourhood. The murders played to a common fear among military families that when the man of the house was away, the family would become prey. But the locals wouldn’t have long to wait until an arrest was made. Before her murder, Katie wrote a letter to her husband about the “nice man” who had come to the house on Tuesday night and adopted Dixie. The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department announced that they wanted whoever had adopted Dixie to come forward for questioning. “We have no idea who it was. But anybody who went to the house, we’re going to talk to,” they announced. Hennis’ wife, Angela, saw the enquiry and the couple reported to the Sheriff’s Department right away.3 Investigators noticed how much Hennis resembled the composite sketch based on a description provided by Patrick Cone, a neighbour of the Eastburns who had seen somebody lurking in their driveway the night of the murders. When Hennis was interviewed, he couldn’t provide an alibi for the night of the murders; Angela was out of town all weekend.
While Hennis denied any involvement in the murders, his neighbour told investigators that he had seen Hennis burning something in a barrel in the backyard in the early morning hours after the murders. Hennis was apprehended on the 16th of May, 1985, after Cone picked him out of a police line-up and identified his car as similar to one he had seen parked nearby on the night of the murders. When Gary Eastburn rushed home, he identified several missing items from the family home, including his bank card. It was determined that the bank card had been used at an ATM nearby and an eye witness identified Hennis as the man she had seen using the ATM at around the same time the card was used.
After a lengthy and distressing trial, during which graphic crime scene photographs were shown, Hennis was found guilty of rape and three counts of murder. He was sentenced to death. However, Hennis appealed this conviction on the grounds that the crime scene photographs had inflamed the jury. In 1989, his retrial began and this time the defence mounted a better argument. The second witness to place Hennis at the ATM, now claimed that her memory could have been influenced by Hennis’ pictures in the newspapers. Additionally, it was uncovered that she initially claimed she did not see anybody at the ATM that night. Another witness was produced by the defence team – a tall blonde high school student who looked strikingly similar to Hennis. He told the court that he often walked through the neighbourhood at night and that Cone could have been mistaken when he saw him and thought it was Hennis.4 The defence also produced a newspaper carrier who claimed she saw a small, thin man leaving the Eastburn’s home on the night of the slayings.
In 1989, Tim Hennis was acquitted on all charges and then released. He returned to the Army and served in the first Gulf War and in Somalia, steadily earning promotions. He had a son and became a Boy Scout leader so that he could spend more time with his young son. He retired in Lakewood, Washington, in 2004, and lived a life of anonymity along a quiet, tree-lined street.
At the time of the murders and the subsequent trials, DNA testing was in its infancy. Investigators could do blood-type and hair analysis tests to determine whether a suspect was in the population that could have committed a crime but they couldn’t pinpoint a specific person based on that evidence. Then in 2006, when DNA testing was much more advanced, investigators decided to have the State Bureau of Investigations test the evidence once again. This time, analysis on the semen found at the crime scene matched a blood sample Hennis had voluntarily given the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department back in 1985. Since Hennis had already been tried and acquitted, double jeopardy prevented him from being tried in state court again. However, he could be tried in military court and in October of 2006, authorities successfully reenlisted Hennis back into the Army so that another trial could take place. The Army were able to try him twice for the same trial because of the dual sovereignty doctrine. They dropped the rape charge against Hennis due to the statute of limitations being expired.
During the third trial, Hennis’ defence argued that the DNA did not indicate murder and instead, could have indicated that Hennis and Katie had sexual relations at some point before the murders. “Does the evidence take you beyond adultery to murder?” asked lawyer, Frank Spinner. “You should follow that evidence where ever it leads you, no matter how uncomfortable it may make you.”5 They argued that despite the DNA evidence, no other evidence such as hair or fingerprints were found at the crime scene. The prosecutor, Capt. Matthew Scott, argued that Hennis may have been able to clean up the crime scene but that DNA doesn’t lie. “The person that slaughtered her, raped her – the person that raped her left his sperm,” he said.
In 2010, after weeks of testimony and less than three hours deliberation, the jury found Tim Hennis guilty on three counts of premeditated murder. He was sentenced to death and currently remains on Death Row at the Army facility in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
- The News & Observer, 17 May, 200 7 –“DNA Ties Sergeant to 3 Deaths”
- CNN Special Reports, 8 February, 2015 – “Timothy Hennis”
- The News & Observer, 21 January, 1996 – “Innocent Victims”
- The News & Observer, 12 May, 2007 – “Army Takes Up Triple Killing”
- Associated Press, 8 April, 2010 – “Jury Finds Soldier Guilty in 1985 Triple Slay Case”