Eastburn Murders Expose a Loophole in the Law

Eastburn Family

Credit: http://militaryjusticeforall.com

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.

Eastburn family

Credit: http://militaryjusticeforall.com

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.”

file000899100633Investigators conducted Luminol testing at the crime scene. They collected latent fingerprints and searched for clues to the assailant’s identity.

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.

The babysitter and MacDonald were excluded as suspects. fingerprint

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.

Timothy Hennis - Eastburn murders

Credit: http://militaryjusticeforall.com

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. death row

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.

MilitaryHennis, 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.

Yeah, right.

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.

For more on jurisdiction, see Crime Writer Boot Camp: Jurisdiction and Crime Writer Boot Camp: Jurisdiction Part II.

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, multi-published author in numerous anthologies, and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue’s a radio show host—check out "Partners In Crime" in the menu bar—the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She lives in rural New Hampshire where she's surrounded by wildlife...bear, moose, deer, even mountain lions have been spotted. Course, Sue would love to snuggle with the animals, but her husband frowns on the idea.

42 Comments

  1. I have just watched about this crime on Deathrow stories I believe Mr hennis is innocent. If the whole reason he ‘got away’ with the murder the first time around was through not processing the swab evidence then why when the case was tried through the military, was the dna from under the fingernails and the blood found at the crime scene not allowed to be processed. I came to the same conclusion that maybe Hennis had had consensual sex
    with the victim and the results from the fingernail dna might have produced another suspect. In my opinion not all avenues of investigation were followed how they should have been.

    • You’re certainly entitled to your own opinion. However, I featured this case as a way to show a loophole in the law, not to discuss the merits of the case. This is a crime resource blog.

      • A good article.
        ..
        Although I’m not sure that the military angle was the ‘only’ loophole for a federal trial in this case. Although ‘murder’ itself isn’t a federal offense in most cases for civilians……it is a federal offense when a murder happens in relation to a rape (18 U.S.C. 2245 — Murder related to rape or child molestation).
        ..
        So I’m pretty sure that even if the military loophole wasn’t present, the US Federal Government (as a separate sovereign) could have still prosecuted him as a civilian for a murder that happened after raping the victim. Especially with the semen/DNA evidence (and his changing story of sex) which kinda proves beyond a ‘reasonable’ doubt that he raped her before killing her.
        ..
        I know that your article is about the loophole and not the evidence itself, but to address some of the doubters… Many people confuse the phrase “beyond reasonable doubt” with “beyond all possible doubt” (but the word “reasonable” is there for a reason; it’s just another word for using “common sense” to evaluate the doubt).

  2. Some of the facts here are not quite accurate. This case is so convoluted though it would take forever to explain everything in detail. Like it or not, skin under the nails of 2 victims did not match Hennis, nor did the footprints that were in cleaned up blood but were related to the crime as they were outside in blood too. And the blood had dried (remember it had been 3 days) so it wasn’t police or CSI who left them, plus they wouldn’t be cleaning up the evidence for the killer. They said in the 2nd trial the sample was completely used up, but then they suddenly found a new one on a shelf of evidence after 35 years, non refrigerated. Lucky, lucky. Note that the box of victim evidence has SUSPECT HENNIS written on the box so the lab workers know who they want. The lab in NC got in huge trouble for unethical things, so bad it was audited by the attorney general and the one who did Hennis’ case was fired for her part in the corruption. They were proven to falsely convict at least 2 people of murder in the scandal. The Fayetteville Observer did a long series on this crime lab fiasco. The DNA results were vastly different in the state lab than in the army lab.

    There had been a DEA set up drug deal using Julie at the victim’s house that very weekend. Julie’s mother stopped it from happening but that’s when the murders occurred. There is also the phone calls. Eye witnesses saw a van and a blonde stringy haired man who was short coming down the drive. It would take all day to present the conflicting evidence, but at the very least even if people want to believe Tim is guilty there is still another perp who was at the scene. The evidence says so. Why is no one at least interested in finding him?

    As I said, it would take a book to catalog all the facts about this case, and the shows on TV are presenting facts that are leaving things out and coloring it to favor the prosecution. There is more to be known about this case is all I’m saying.

    • You premise your argument with “some of the facts aren’t quite accurate” and yet, I didn’t read anything that shows why you made the statement. Sure, it’s a convoluted case, but that doesn’t mean this information is inaccurate. If you’ve spent any time on my blog at all, you’d know I don’t get my facts from TV. Ever.

      Sounds to me like you’re hurting over Tim Hennis’ conviction (maybe you’re a family member or close friend), and I feel for you. I really do. It can’t be easy seeing someone you care about in prison, or admitting they might be guilty. However, the DNA did match Hennis’. That’s hard evidence to dismiss.

      I should add…my motive for writing this article was to show a loophole in the hole (in that regard this is a landmark case), not to argue the points on whether Hennis is guilty. This is a resource blog for crime writers/readers.

    • I just watched this case on Death Row Stories and there is too much doubt for this man to be convicted.

  3. Hey Sue. Wow, righteous breakdown of a killer story. You’re great at taking a reader down the rabbit hole. Thanks for the solid write up and for sharing this.
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  4. Chilling, Sue. Thanks for sharing this case.
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  5. Excellent!!! Short but very compelling! The DNA came to change many things. If isn’t for that detective a crime will be lost

    • Thank you, Eve! Yes, thank goodness for the cold case detective or that poor family would’ve never received justice. In all the interviews I saw, Gary still sobs over the crime. Heartbreaking.

  6. What a bizarre turn of events. Without the blood, fingerprint or fiber evidence I really thought he was in the clear. It’s amazing none of that was left, but I’m so glad the cold case detective didn’t let this one sit.

    • It sure is, Mae. If he didn’t rape Katie, he could’ve easily gotten away with a triple homicide. The detectives say he was in a blind rage and by the time he entered Janna’s room, the rage had subsided. Which is why he left her alive. Scary, huh? If someone can do this once, they can do it again. Good thing he’s locked away.

  7. If they have loopholes to do anything they please then the law is a meaningless concept and your rights have no protection whatsoever.

    • That’s why this case is so unusual, Kaiser. There aren’t many loopholes in the law. Murderers walk free all the time because the law can be limiting. If Hennis wasn’t in the military and hadn’t committed murder on military land, there would be nothing the prosecution could do.

  8. This is an awesome run down. True crime is fascinating. As another commentator mentioned, you can’t make this stuff. As writers, we strive for the bizarre, yet plausible. Some of this true crime just doesn’t seem plausible. And yet…

  9. Fascinating article, Sue. I hadn’t heard of this case and using the military loophole to circumvent double jeopardy – very clever. But the circumstances of Katie corresponding with Jeffrey McDonald (whose case is well known) then ending up like this at the hands of someone else is just plain weird.
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    • No, Katie wasn’t corresponding with Jeffrey MacDonald. The babysitter was. Still strange, though, especially with the similarities in the way both families were killed. Gotta love a prosecutor who’s well-motivated. 😀

      BTW, I just watched a Dateline (or Unusual Suspects; one of the two) about the 1400 murders on the Highway of Tears. Immediately I was reminded of your post. Weren’t you on the task force?

  10. Never heard of this before, great rundown, Sue.
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  11. So interesting. The question, “How many are dead?” Seems like he had prior knowledge somehow.

  12. I’m glad I’m too old for the Army to call me out of retirement. Not that I killed anybody recently. Heh heh.
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  13. There is no way we can make these stories up. I just finished a serial killer novel (first person POV, female killer) and used many things I read in the papers. I devour true crime, so I have a shelf of material waiting for me to pluck a tidbit or two. Thanks for this terrific post. I’m glad the family has justice.

    • You bet, Betsy. The truth really is stranger than fiction. Good luck with your new novel! I’ve always wanted to write a 1st POV serial killer. Once it releases, can you let me know the title so I can read it?

  14. This is so interesting, Sue! I am glad that those people finally got some closure, and that loophole is brilliant.

    • The case was so heartbreaking the prosecutor couldn’t let it go. Thank God, too, or Hennis would be free. I love when the law works in the victims’ favor. Glad you enjoyed the post, Margot.

      • But did it. The miss handling of the DNA in itself gives reasonable doubt. Is there any evidence the was in fact the actual DNA that came from the victims or a plant from the DNA that Hennis gave?

        • Conspiracy theories aside, there’s no evidence the police planted DNA.

          • Why the “yeh right” comment with referral to the consenting sex? Typical female reaction I assume. It’s not so far fetched and in fact quite a reasonable interjection. You didn’t know this woman, nether did I, or the Police. I’m not saying Heness is innocent, or guilty for that matter, but snide comments like “yeh right” do nothing for your credibility as an objective writer. It immediately sways your readers to either agree with your opinion, or, as I have done, want to question why the suggestion of consenting sex is so bizarre.

            For that matter, why couldn’t the babysitter have committed this crime? She certainly had all the time in the world to do it. She was very familliar with the McDonald case ie: modus operandi, AND had bizarre stories about weird phone calls etc. She desperately wanted to prove McDonald innocent. Maybe she thought this was a way to cadt doubt on HIS guilt. Surely, even in 1985 they could still trace phone records. I hear you ask “but what about the dna?” Good point. Couldn’t Heness have had sex with the babysitter, who then collected the seaman from that encounter and contaminated the body with said seamen post mortem?

            Now I agree these events are unlikely, but if somebody suggested it to me, I wouldn’t say “yeh right”. An open mind is a good thing.

            Regards
            An Aussie Cop

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