The murder of a military wife and two of her young daughters in Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1985 was still making headlines twenty-five years later. The loss of his children and his wife Kathryn would forever haunt former Air Force Captain Gary Eastburn. Katie captivated him from the moment they met and the two got married shortly before Gary joined the United States Air Force. Eleven years later, Captain Eastburn was stationed at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina as an Air Traffic Control supervisor. By then, the couple had three daughters: five year old Cara, three year old Erin, and Jana who was just under the age of two. They lived on Summerhill Road near the Fort Bragg Army post.
In the spring of 1985, Gary Eastburn was nearing the end of a training program at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Every Thursday night, Gary called Kathryn from the barrack’s payphone. One week, he couldn’t reached Kathryn and after frantically calling her for a couple days unable to reach her, Gary asked a neighbor to check in on his wife. The neighbors had grown concerned as well when they noticed that the newspaper had not been picked up for a couple days and they heard a child crying. They called the police who went into the Eastburn’s home and discovered Kathryn, Cara, and Erin had been murdered and the youngest toddler, Jana, was crying and severely dehydrated. They would learn that the baby was only hours from death.
The Fayetteville Police Department investigators discovered that Kathryn Eastburn had been raped and murdered. Her underwear had been cut off her, her blouse and bra were ripped opened, her throat was slit, and she had multiple stab wounds. Erin was found in her mother’s room stabbed to death and her throat slashed. And Cara was found in her own bed as if she was hiding underneath a blanket. She too had been stabbed multiple times and her throat was cut. Police believe the surviving toddler was in her crib for nearly three days before neighbors found her. Gary Eastburn received the dreadful call that there had been a death in the family while he was still at Maxwell. Investigators asked him to return home immediately because detectives wanted to give him the news in person.
Desperate police turned to the only living witness, Jana, to see if she remembered anything. The police took Jana to a child psychologist to determine what, if anything, she might know. The police deduced that the child heard the killer but could not identify him; she was just too young. An older Jana admits that she doesn’t remember anything now either. Police theorized that the baby was young and couldn’t identify the intruder which is probably why she was spared. In the meantime, a neighbor came forward claiming he saw a man leaving the Eastburn residence around 3 a.m. and was able to give a description of a suspect who drove a white Chevrolet Chevette. Kathryn also told Gary about a man who came and looked at the family dog they were trying to find a home for. His name was Timothy Hennis and the composite drawing inspired by the neighbor looked just like him.
Timothy Hennis was questioned and asked to give hair, blood, and fingerprint samples. When the detectives escorted Hennis back to his car, they discovered he drove a white Chevrolet Chevette. Later that night, Timothy Hennis was arrested. Hennis was an Army Sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg. Someone had used Kathryn’s stolen ATM card and a witness identified Hennis as the person who used the ATM right before she did at the time of the transaction. At every turn, the evidence overwhelmingly brought them back to Hennis. The prosecutors were puzzled why Hennis would commit such a heinous crime given he had no history of violence. They learned that he had approached a woman for sex that same night and theorized that when he was rejected, he decided to target Kathryn Eastburn.
A trial began roughly a year after the murders in 1986. Hennis’ attorney was quick to point out that the prosecution didn’t have any physical evidence linking Hennis to the murders to include fingerprints, hair, and foot prints. This was at a time before there was any routine DNA testing, therefore even semen found in Kathryn’s body led police nowhere. There was a significant amount of physical evidence showing that a male suspect was in the Summerhill Road house and it wasn’t Gary Eastburn or Timothy Hennis. Hennis’ attorney also pointed out that there was no possible way someone could leave that house without transferring evidence to their personal belongings. On July 4, 1986, the jury returned it’s verdict and Timothy Hennis was found guilty on all counts. Four days later, Hennis was sentenced to death.
While Timothy Hennis was sitting on death row, he received a letter from someone claiming to have committed the crimes. This person appeared to show remorse because Hennis was serving time for his crimes. In spite of the verdict, Hennis’ attorney and wife Angela continued to claim that Hennis was not the killer. As a result, Hennis’ attorney fought to have the murder conviction overturned and filed an appeal. The attorney felt he did not provide adequate representation in the first case and admitted that it was a heavy burden to carry. In a precedent setting decision, the Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict. It found the prosecutors used information to inflame the jury, a graphic parade of disturbing images taken at the crime scene. After two years on death row, Hennis was awarded a new trial.
The second trial began in 1989, four years after the murders. The prosecution’s case was still strong and the star witness was back to swear that he saw Hennis leaving the Eastburn home on the night in question. In this new trial, the defense delivered compelling theories of their own. They produced a witness who claimed to have seen another man (not matching the description of Timothy Hennis) near the Eastburn home. The defense also reminded the jury there was no physical evidence connecting Hennis to the murders. Additionally, they opined there were others who could have committed the crimes including the person who wrote to Hennis while he was in prison. And in this case, Hennis took the witness stand and denied having anything to do with the murders. On April 19, 1989, a jury found Timothy Hennis not guilty on the triple murder charges and set him free.
Gary Eastburn wasn’t convinced of Hennis’ innocence because he never once apologized to the family for their loss. The verdict just didn’t sit right with Gary and he strongly believed that Hennis was guilty despite the jury’s decision. Gary admits he was angry after the verdict but he knew he had to let it go for his health. A month after Hennis was released from prison, ‘A Current Affair’ paid Hennis and his wife to appear on the program. Hennis suggested the prosecution wanted to pin the murder on anyone so they could get it out of the news; he also denied committing the murders. Timothy Hennis was free and for over twenty years no new suspects emerged. Whoever committed the murders in Fayetteville had gotten away with murder until one day a cold case detective took another look at the case.
After the murders, Gary Eastburn was transferred to a military base north of London, England where he met an English nurse and married her in 1991. Jana was 8 years old and now had a step-mother. Timothy Hennis returned to his family and resumed a career in the Army which often took him away from home. He served in the first Desert Storm war, he served in the war in Somalia, he got promoted multiple times, and had nothing but good marks from military leadership. Journalist Scott Whisnant wrote a book called ‘Innocent Victims’ which was later featured as a television movie. The point of view of the book was that Timothy Hennis was not guilty of these crimes. Investigators never read the book or saw the show. They claimed they were not interested in fiction; instead they were annoyed and pissed.
Twenty years later, new detectives were working on cold cases and decided to take a second look at the Eastburn murders. A cold case investigator found the one clue that could lead them to the killer, a vaginal swab from Kathryn Eastburn. In the 1980s, DNA testing was not available but now it was and they sent it to the lab. The lab testing revealed that the vaginal swab from Kathryn was a match to Timothy Hennis’ DNA. Still, Hennis’ attorney wasn’t convinced because he didn’t understand how someone could commit such a heinous crime then go twenty five years without committing another one and also lead an exemplary life. Billy Richardson believed the sample may have been contaminated and he pointed out that the lab that conducted the testing had been called into question on numerous occasions.
Author Scott Whisnant also believed that something was wrong and Hennis couldn’t have committed these crimes. He asked: “How could he be guilty of this? How could he fool everyone all these years?” Meanwhile, investigators contacted Gary Eastburn to inform him they got a match to Timothy Hennis. Eastburn admitted he had given up hope and the new information was overwhelming. But one thing stood in the way of justice: the Constitution. Hennis had been found not guilty by the State of North Carolina and they were prohibited from trying him a second time because of the double jeopardy clause. But the State found a loophole and because Timothy Hennis was a retired Army soldier, the Army could try him. They ordered Hennis out of retirement and back into uniform to stand trial in the military justice system.
Hennis retired in Washington state in a community near Seattle which was a shock to Gary Eastburn because that’s where he and his wife had settled and Jana and her boyfriend had settled. They learned that Hennis lived 30 minutes away from them. Jana was shocked he lived so closely to them because he was walking free in a community near her. But the Army would soon move Hennis; he was ordered back to Fort Bragg to face triple murder charges. After two decades of freedom, Hennis was being tried for the murders of Kathryn, Cara and Erin Eastburn, a third time for the same crime, except this time in a military court martial. If convicted, Hennis could again face the death penalty again. Hennis’ attorney was stunned that in America, Hennis could be charged for a third time for the same crime.
Billy Richardson referred to the double jeopardy clause in the US Constitution and reminded the public it doesn’t say anything about jurisdiction. He tried to get a federal court to intervene on the issue but failed. And in this third Hennis trial, there would be a new witness, Jana, the only survivor that night. She wanted the jury to know how this crime impacted her life. The trial began in the spring of 2010 and Timothy Hennis’ wife and grown daughter continued to stand by his side. They believed he was innocent. Hennis’ new attorney, Frank Spinner, argued at trial that the facts of Hennis’ life do not paint the portrait of a man who could commit such a heinous crime. He questioned how a man who led such an exemplary life could be the same person who would commit three murders in one night.
Timothy Hennis served his country with distinction, raised his family, and never committed another crime in the twenty five years after the Eastburn murders. And yet on one single night, Hennis slaughtered a family? The prosecutors said the motive didn’t matter because there was DNA linking Hennis to the murders. Spinner reminded jurors that DNA does not mean a case is open and shut. He argued that the DNA does not mean Hennis raped and murdered Kathryn Eastburn because Hennis admitted to consensual sex with her. Hennis suggested Kathryn was lonely while her husband was away at training. Gary Eastburn was angry the defense would have the audacity to suggest that Kathryn was a ‘whore’. Hennis’ old attorney Billy Richardson shared that Hennis denied having sex with Kathryn twenty years ago.
The military panel didn’t believe Timothy Hennis and they found him guilty of the murders of Kathryn, Cara and Erin Eastburn. Hennis was lead away in handcuffs and for the second time in his life, he was sentenced to death. Timothy Hennis maintains his innocence, filed an appeal, and is fighting for a reversal of his conviction. Gary and his daughter Jana spoke to the press minutes after the verdict and expressed empathy for Timothy’s family despite their belief that justice was finally served. Jana Eastburn admitted she feels more at peace knowing that Hennis is behind bars. As of 2011, Timothy Hennis appealed his conviction and challenged the federal ruling regarding the double jeopardy clause. Timothy Hennis remains on military death row at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
Source: 20/20 on ID ‘Witness’
Air Force Spouse Kathryn Eastburn & Daughters Cara & Erin Found Murdered in Fayetteville, NC Home; Youngest Toddler Jana Discovered Unharmed (May 9, 1985)
A Military Jury Delivered a Guilty Verdict in a Death Penalty Trial to Retired Army MSG Timothy Hennis for the Triple Murders of Kathryn, Cara & Erin Eastburn (April 8, 2010)
In 3rd Trial, Retired Army MSG Timothy Hennis Sentenced to Death by Military Court Martial for the Murders of Kathryn, Cara & Erin Eastburn in Fayetteville, NC (April 15, 2010)
Four Service Members on Military Death Row at Fort Leavenworth, Army Private John Bennett was Last Military Execution by Hanging in 1961
Violent Crime, Non Combat Death and Suicide at Fort Bragg, North Carolina (US Army)
In 1985, a young military wife and two of her three little girls are viciously murdered in their home. In a twisted case filled with unusual suspects, the man who gets convicted goes free. But nothing is what it seems. -20/20 on ID
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Tim Hennis and the Eastburn Murders
Episode 3: The Case of Timothy Hennis | Death’s Door
The Many Trials of Tim Hennis
Episode 28: The Eastburn Family Murders | In Sight Pod
028 The Eastburn Family Murders | In Sight: A True Crime Podcast
United States v. Timothy Hennis | US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
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Death Penalty Information Center:
Description of Cases for those Sentenced to Death in U.S. Military
Former Death Row Inmate Acquitted in One Court, Now Convicted in Another
3 People on Death Row Who May Be Innocent Part 2
Unusual Suspects: Mother’s Day Murders (Investigation Discovery)
20/20 on ID: Witness | Investigation Discovery
Death Row Stories: Hennis Trailer | CNN
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Timothy Hennis Double Jeopardy | Death Row Stories | CNN
Timothy Hennis | Death Row Stories | Netflix
Innocent Victims | ABC Television Movie