Eastburn murders: a family was slaughtered in their home. It would take 25 years to find the killer and bring him to justice.
In May 1985, a young military wife, Katie Eastburn, was at home on Fort Bragg with her three daughters, Cara (age 5), Erin (age 3), and Janna (21 months).
Gary, her husband, was at a training camp in Alabama—500 miles away from North Carolina. Living apart for two months wasn’t easy for Katie and Gary. All household duties, like finding a new home for their dog, Dixie, fell on Katie’s shoulders. Dixie was old, and Katie feared she wouldn’t survive the six-month mandatory quarantine when they moved.
At a time before emails and cell phones, the couple stayed in touch by writing letters. With the exception of every Thursday night, when Gary called home from the pay phone.
One call went unanswered.
After several attempts to reach his wife, Gary became increasingly more worried that something was wrong. Katie had never missed a Thursday night phone call.
Unable to leave his military post, he frantically called home for two straight days and nights.
No one ever answered.
By Sunday night, the neighbors questioned where this beautiful family was—the warm spring air no longer sweetened by children’s laughter and the mail was piling up.
They knocked at the front door. No answer. Inside the home a baby was crying. Immediately they called the local police, who broke down the door and found twenty-one-month-old Janna in her crib, severely dehydrated, her teeth black from only hours left to live. They passed Janna to an awaiting neighbor and shuffled all non-law enforcement from the scene.
The search of the residence continued.
In the living room by the couch was a pair of woman’s sneakers, the laces still tied. They also found woman’s panties, sliced in half. As they came down the hall to the master bedroom, they found five-year-old Erin lying on the floor by the bed, her throat severed. On the other side of the bed was Katie, bound with rope, her blouse and bra pulled apart, naked from the waist down, her throat severed, and multiple stab wounds to her face and chest.
The horror didn’t end there.
Two doors down, investigators found Cara in her bed, a Star Wars blanket covered her tiny body and head as though she was trying to hide from the intruder. She too had stab wounds and a severed throat.
Still at work, Gary received word that he had a phone call. He responded, “Oh, good, it’s Katie. I can stop worrying.”
“No,” said his buddy. “A detective is on the line.”
Gary answered the call. “How many are dead?” he asked.
But investigators were vague. All they told him was that he’d had a death in the family and needed to get home right away. It was a two-hour flight that Mother’s Day evening, and Gary spent every second of it worrying about what happened to his family.
Upon hearing the news, Gary said his world stopped, shattered in an instant. Investigators still can hear the sobs that broke from Gary that Mother’s Day evening. “It’s something that never leaves you.”
Back in 1985, DNA testing wasn’t available.
They interviewed the babysitter, who regularly helped out Katie. The babysitter was keeping secrets. For months she’d been corresponding with Jeffrey MacDonald, a military officer who claimed a band of long-haired hippies broke into his home while he was sleeping on the couch and murdered his wife and children, upstairs. At the time of the murders, the MacDonald family lived at Fort Bragg.
Police found no evidence to support his version of events. MacDonald was later convicted of the brutal slayings and sentenced to death.
Could the cases be connected? Was Jeffrey MacDonald telling the truth back then and the killers had struck again?
Investigators had to be sure. They dug deeper into his case file and found nothing to substantiate his claims. Other than the lovesick babysitter who swore MacDonald was innocent, investigators found no reason to believe the two cases were connected, even though both families were stabbed and the women were both raped.
Digging through Katie’s life, investigators found an ad Katie had placed in the Fort Bragg’s newspaper. She was looking for a good home for their beloved dog, Dixie. Investigators turned to the media to see who answered the ad.
Within two hours, another military man, Timothy Hennis, called the station to say that he took Dixie two days before the murders on a trial basis to see if Dixie fit into his family. He claimed he never entered the residence. Rather, Katie met him at the door with Dixie. He took the dog and left.
Investigators asked him for a blood sample and fingerprints. He complied. None of his fingerprints or blood were found at the scene.
Timothy Hennis was excluded as a suspect.
An insomniac neighbor, who often walked the quiet streets at night, reported seeing a blond man with a moustache leaving Katie’s house that night, with a trash bag slung over his shoulder. As the stranger strolled passed, he remarked, “Getting an early start,” presumably referencing why he was leaving at that hour. He stuck the bag in the trunk of a white car and drove away.
Days later, someone used Katie’s ATM card at a local bank. They stole $300. But back then, ATMs did not have built-in cameras like they do today. However, a woman reported seeing a tall blond man in front of her in line.
Investigators asked the insomniac to sit with the sketch artist. He complied. When investigators saw the sketch, their jaws dropped. The drawing was the spitting image of Timothy Hennis. They pulled his driver’s license photo and created a six-pack photo lineup for the woman at the ATM.
Without hesitation, she pointed at Hennis. “That’s the man I saw.”
Turns out, the night Katie and her daughters were murdered, Hennis’ wife left him with their eighteen-month-old daughter. She told him he was a piss poor provider—the bills often went unpaid or were late—and she was bored with their cash-strapped way of life.
With a strike to the ego, Hennis drove to an ex-girlfriend’s house and propositioned her. She also shot him down. Hennis claimed he returned home, ate dinner, watched TV, and went to bed.
Police arrested Timothy Hennis based on eyewitness testimony alone. At trial, the prosecution showed enlarged photographs of the crime scene and beat the jury over the head with, “Someone must pay for this brutal slaying. You must put Hennis behind bars.”
The jury returned a guilty verdict and sentenced Hennis to death. His attorney appealed.
In a shocking turn of events, The Court of Appeals overruled the conviction and granted Hennis a new trial on the basis that the prosecution used unfair tactics to influence the jury.
Timothy Hennis spent two years on death row before he went to trial a second time.
Meanwhile, his attorney found another blond man who walked the streets around the Eastman home that night. And he could have been Hennis’ twin. They looked so similar the jury had no choice but to set Timothy Hennis free.
A not guilty verdict was entered. Hennis returned to the U.S. Army and climbed the ranks to master sergeant.
The Eastburn case ran cold.
In 2006, a cold case detective at the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office took interest in the Eastburn case. He found vaginal swabs that were taken from Katie’s body. The samples contained semen. The detective sent it to the crime lab for DNA testing—a forensic technique that wasn’t available years before.
The DNA matched Timothy Hennis. A 12,000 million to one certainty.
But now what? The U.S. Constitution prohibits double jeopardy. Meaning, if a defendant is found not guilty, he can never be tried again for that crime. Prosecutors weren’t going to let that stop them from getting justice in the brutal slaying of an innocent family.
They found a loophole. But how?
The reason is as old as the nation itself: The federal government is a sovereign authority separate from the individual states that make up the country. Because Timothy Hennis was a soldier in the U.S. Army at the time of the murders, the state couldn’t try him again…but the Army could.
And they did.
Hennis, who retired from his post-acquittal Army stint in 2004, was ordered out of retirement and back to active duty to allow for his court-martial. In the defense’s closing arguments, attorney Frank Spinner urged jurors not to convict his client, claiming there was no blood, fingerprint, or fiber evidence that connected Hennis to the murders and that Hennis had been seen working on a dollhouse, presumably for his young daughter, at the time the witness supposedly saw him at the ATM.
Spinner even suggested that it was possible there was no rape. Rather, Katie and Hennis had consensual sex a couple days before the murders and some unknown person slaughtered the family.
The military jury rejected the defense’s arguments. In April 2010, they found Hennis guilty on three counts of premeditated murder. He now sits on death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while his lawyers plan his appeal. The case could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
While the case goes on for Hennis and his family, it’s finally over for Gary and Janna Eastburn (now 27 years old).
“My heart goes out to them,” said Gary. “I can certainly relate to the pain they’re feeling. I…hope none of you feel that I’m gloating over this…I just feel that justice has finally been done.”
This was the first case of a defendant being tried three times for the same crime.