Case summary: On May 12, 1985, the bodies of Katie Eastburn and her daughters Kara and Erin were found slain in their home just outside Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The youngest Eastburn daughter, 20-month-old Jana, survived.
Gary Eastburn, husband to Katie and father to the girls, was away at a military sponsored school in Alabama at the time of the murders.
Shortly after the bodies were discovered, Fort Bragg soldier Tim Hennis was charged with three counts of murder and one count of rape (Katie Eastburn). He was convicted on all counts in 1986.
In 1988 the North Carolina Sumpreme Court granted Hennis a new trial, during which was acquitted.
Following the discovery of new evidence through DNA testing in 2005, Hennis, having retired, was returned to active duty and currently awaits a Court Martial that’s presently scheduled for February 2010.
Has there ever been a case so full of twist and turns as that of MSG Tim Hennis?
I was just a young girl when Hennis was first tried and convicted of the Eastburn murders; and just settling into high school when he was acquitted at a second trial.
So it’s not surprising that I wasn’t aware of this case until reading Scott Whisnant’s Innocent Victims and subsequently watching the movie by the same title.
But it’s a case with which I’m now obsessed.
Did Tim Hennis kill Katie Eastburn and her two young daughters? Leave a baby, not much older than his own daughter at the time, in a crib to possibly die from dehydration?
If you took Scott Whisnant’s book as the gospel, the answer would be no.
However, I prefer to form my opinions based on the evidence.
In the case of State of North Carolina vs. Timothy Bailey Hennis, investigators first became aware of Hennis when he, accompanied by his wife and daughter, appeared at the police precinct following a news report stating that officers were looking for the man who had recently purchased a dog from the Eastburn family.
Soon after the murders, but before Hennis approached police, an eyewitness by the name of Patrick “Pat” Cone claimed to have seen a man leaving the Eastburn home in the early morning hours of the murders; claiming, in fact, that the man had spoken to him. Cone worked with police sketch artist to create a composite of the man.
Katie Eastburn’s ATM card was used twice following her murder. Using bank records, police located the persons who used the ATM machine just before and after Katie. Lucille Cook, one of the bank patrons interviewed, stated that she had seen Hennis completing an ATM transaction on the day in question.
Mary Tillison claimed to have Hennis and his car parked in front of the Eastburn home on the night the homicides occured.
Cone changed his story multiple times even before the first trial. Then, just a few short months following Hennis’ conviction, Cone was seen and charged with attempting to use an ATM card that had been stolen.
AND, the defense went in search of a young man whose early morning walks was common knowledge throughout the neighborhood. John Rapuach appeared at the second trial, causing several of those inattendance to audiably gasp at the stunning similarities between he and Hennis.
Tillison died between Hennis’ conviction and the second trial. When the officer who took her statement testified to her claims at the second trial, he had to admit that Tillison had not reported what she saw until 11 months after the murders.
Lucille Cook confused herself with her own testimony during the second trial. It became clear that Cook had not recalled seeing Hennis, or anyone, when first asked by investigators; and it wasn’t until some ten months later that she suddenly remembered seeing Hennis at the ATM.
The Eastburns often used the services of fifteen-year-old babysitter Julie Czerniak, who had an odd fascination with Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald: a Fort Bragg Green Beret who, 15 years earlier, had been convicted of killing his pregnant wife and three daughters in an eerily similar scenario.
Lastly, it was learned in the course of the second trial that Prosecutor William VanStory IV had intentionally hidden important information from the defense during the discovery phase; a serious breech of ethics.
Taking all of the foregoing into consideration, I simply could not and would refuse to convict Hennis of these horrendous crimes.
And now along comes new DNA evidence that is supposed to tie Hennis, beyond a doubt, to the crimes; said to have come from DNA that could have only been transferred during the rape of Mrs. Eastburn.
Yet for three years the case has continued to be delayed.
IF the DNA was highly conclusive, I would have to – even then - give a conviction very serious thought.
Why? Well, first you have almost 30 years between the taking and testing of the DNA; the methods of obtaining and preservation would have to be scrutinized, especially considering that it was done before DNA became a means of identifying suspects. And secondly, we have obvious prosecutorial misconduct from the first two trials; it wouldn’t be beyond the scope of reasoning to think investigators and/or prosecutors are intent on proving themselves right about Hennis with falsified (for lack of a better word) DNA samples.
Did Tim Hennis kill the Eastburns? No one (living) but Hennis and God knows the answer.
However, the evidence DOES NOT prove his guilt to me. As a juror, I would vote NOT GUILTY.
I live by the old adage that it is better to set ten guilty men free than to put one innocent man to death.
If Hennis is guilty, I could live with knowing that he will have to face his maker one day and will be rightfully judged.