25 years later, widower recalls slain family

SPRING LAKE, N.C. (AP) — When he moved to Washington state in 1998, Gary Eastburn put the three shoe boxes filled with photographs on the shelf of a closet in a spare bedroom.

Each box was labeled with a daughter's name — Kara, Erin, Jana — scratched in ball point pen by their mother, Katie, who intended to put together a scrapbook for each girl.

One small family project among many ended by a slaughter — a symbol of the memories and the burdens Eastburn has carried since his wife and two of his daughters were cut down by a killer's knife 25 years ago.

Eastburn thought he'd never have to look at those photos again unless he wanted to. A man had been convicted in 1986 of killing Katie, Kara and Erin at their home near Fayetteville. Then, at a second trial in 1989, he was acquitted.

"I just didn't think anything would happen," Eastburn said. "It was done."

Except it wasn't.

In June 2006 a detective from the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office called Eastburn at home in Puyallup, Wash. Are you sitting down, Detective Robert Bittle asked. No, Eastburn replied.

"And then he told me," Eastburn said. "And I sat down."

Bittle's news: Authorities had new evidence against the man convicted, sentenced to death and then acquitted in the murders. This time, they had DNA evidence.

The suspect, Timothy Hennis, could not be tried again in civilian court because of double jeopardy. But Bittle said the military might take the case because Hennis had been in the Army when Eastburn's wife and daughters were slain. By now, Hennis had retired from the Army as a master sergeant.

The Army did recall Hennis to active duty and court-martial him. In an odd twist, it turned out that Hennis was living in Lakewood, Wash., about 15 miles from where Eastburn and his now-wife, Liz, had settled. They had never run into each other, as far as Eastburn knows, although he says he wouldn't have recognized Hennis from those long-ago days in the courtroom.

Government lawyers came to the Eastburn home. They shuffled through the pictures and took some with them. Eastburn went through them again and chose others to bring with him for Hennis' court-martial. Opening arguments began in mid March.

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More than 20 years earlier, a phone call from another detective had turned Eastburn's world upside down. Then an Air Force captain, he was about a week away from completing squadron officer school in Montgomery, Ala., on May 11, 1985, and hadn't heard from his wife. The pay phone outside Eastburn's dorm room didn't ring at 8 a.m. that Saturday with a call from Katie as it was supposed to. Eastburn tried calling repeatedly but failed to reach her. The sheriff's department left a note on the door, asking her to call her husband.

When the pay phone rang on Sunday, the call was for Eastburn.

Is it my wife, he asked? No, it's some detective, a trainee answered.

His first words to the detective: "Are any of them still alive?"

Eastburn was considered a possible suspect at first, but authorities verified he was in Alabama when his wife and daughters were killed. Then Hennis came to their attention, because he had bought the family's English setter, Dixie, a few days before the murders.

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There are other photos of course: crime scene photos so gory that their use as evidence helped convince the state Supreme Court to overturn the original guilty verdict against Hennis. The victims were repeatedly stabbed, their throats cut many times. Katie Eastburn was raped.

Gary Eastburn doesn't think about those. He concentrates on the happy family photos that were displayed on two screens in court and on individual screens for each member of the military panel. Among his favorites is one of Erin, age 3 when she died, in a red gingham dress, smiling and standing on one foot as she always did in photos.

Or one of her in Texas, barefoot and standing in the dog's water dish, as she did when she was hot.

Another is of Kara, one week shy of 6 years old when she died, in a fishing boat. And one of her wearing her beloved cowboy boots, the ones her father buried her in.

Authorities believe the mother and two daughters were killed late on May 9, 1985, or early on May 10, 1985. The bodies were found May 12 — Mother's Day — when a neighbor called for help because they heard the cries of Jana, the only survivor. The 22-month-old was in her crib, sweaty, dehydrated, suffering from diarrhea. Doctors told Eastburn that his only surviving daughter was about eight hours from death.

Jana, now 26, works in a veterinary office and hopes to go to school to become an X-ray technician. She testified at the sentencing that she used to feel guilty when visiting the grave site of her mother and sisters because everyone else cried and she didn't — she doesn't remember any of them.

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After a three-week trial, Hennis was found guilty of premeditated murder. The prosecution asserted that the rape and murders all happened after Hennis came to the home of the Eastburns — whom he barely knew — looking for sex, The Fayetteville Observer reported.

During the sentencing hearing, defense attorneys showed pictures of Hennis and his family — Hennis reading to his daughter and son as the family dog watched, or Hennis and family in front of a Christmas tree.

Hennis, who testified at his second trial, didn't take the stand at this one. Neither did his wife, Angela, nor his son, Andrew.

Hennis' 25-year-old daughter, Kristina Mowry, testified that her father was her hero. His cousins talked about family trips where Hennis, the oldest of the group of children, made sure the younger ones were safe. Co-workers testified about his work ethic, his punctuality, his commitment to Army values.

Gary Eastburn isn't unsympathetic to their pain — he, of all people, understands what loss means. He even talked with Anita Pellot, Hennis' sister-in-law, outside the courtroom after she testified.

"She was standing against a wall, crying," Eastburn said. "I told her, 'I'm really sorry for your pain.' She kind of gave me a hug. We just talked a few more minutes. I don't dislike any of his relatives for what they believe or do. I could relate to the pain she was feeling."

Jurors sentenced Hennis to death on April 15. Hennis' attorneys plan to appeal both the conviction and the sentence.

Eastburn doesn't think Hennis will be executed, considering that the last military execution was in 1961. "I wouldn't jump up and down and say that he should be," Eastburn said. "I'm perfectly happy if he spends the rest of his life in jail. However, if they did execute him, it was no more than he deserved."

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Eastburn retrieved the family photos, now in a manila envelope, from the Fort Bragg courthouse on Tuesday. Now, he must separate them and place them back in the shoe boxes that their mother labeled for them — Kara, Erin, Jana. A casual storage system for a project that Katie Eastburn expected to complete later.

Eastburn imagines that he, too, will delay his task.

"We'll just let them sit awhile," Eastburn said. "I'll do it later."