COLUMBIA, S.C. – Hours before she killed her two sons, her ex-husband and her stepmother and tried to frame it on one of the slain children, Susan Hendricks gathered her family together to pray. She said she was worried about her older son, Matthew, because he seemed so down after several people forgot his birthday the day before.
"I know it sounds pretty fricking bizarre, but we pray a lot as a family," Hendricks told investigators in a room at the Pickens County Sheriff's Office, just hours after authorities discovered the bodies.
They all got on their knees and held hands, Hendricks said. Less than 12 hours later, she said, she found Matthew, 23, dead from a gunshot wound to the head. When paramedics who rushed to the home found the bodies of her other family members, Hendricks claimed Matthew had first killed them before turning the gun on himself.
In April, Hendricks pleaded guilty but mentally ill to all four of the Oct. 14, 2011, slayings and will spend the rest of her life in prison with no possibility of parole.
The audio of her three-hour interview with investigators, as well as 324 pages of documents and more than 600 crime scene photos, were released for the first time in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Associated Press.
The documents include details on Hendricks' suicide attempt behind bars nine months after her arrest, as well as the fact that her younger son, 20-year-old Marshall, had just moved back home two days before the shootings. They also revealed that Hendricks had papers from insurance policies and wills spread throughout her motel room at the time she was taken into custody.
Hendricks' acquaintances, whose statements are contained in the documents, said she kept large insurance policies on all the victims, fired gunshots at her sons' feet when she was angry, and would often remind people that she shot and killed a man who broke into her home in 2006. She claimed self-defense and was never charged in that killing.
The ballistics and other crime scene reports contained in the documents detail a quick, brutal ambush. Matthew and Hendricks' 64-year-old stepmother, Linda Burns, were killed in the Liberty home they shared with Hendricks, while Marshall and Hendricks' 52-year-old ex-husband and the father of her sons, Mark Hendricks, were killed in their own home next door.
Blood stains and three cartridge cases show Hendricks cornered Marshall in a hallway between his bedroom and a bathroom. He eventually got around her but she managed to fire one more shot that took him down. He died on the front porch, where he was covered with a sheet. Mark Hendricks was killed lying on the couch.
A report from the crime scene said Burns' body was covered up in her bed as if she were sleeping. Five cartridge cases were found in and around a closet in her room. Matthew Hendricks was found in his bed with one gunshot wound to his head. His body had also been covered up.
Hendricks' sister Evelyn Burns told police it was she who dialed 911 after Hendricks called her and casually remarked during what started as a routine chat that her son had shot himself.
In her interview at the sheriff's office, when she still was claiming Matthew committed suicide, Hendricks explained why she didn't call authorities immediately.
"I didn't want to call EMS," she said. "I didn't want to call anybody because I didn't want them to come take him. I know it sounds crazy. I just thought, well, if I can sit here with him, it will all be OK."
She didn't speak much about Marshall, Mark Hendricks or Linda Burns during the three hours of questioning, but instead repeatedly turned the conversation back to Matthew.
She told investigators she heard nothing during the night and had walked to the kitchen — past a trail of blood in the living room — to make coffee when she found a note from Matthew. She said when she read it, she became alarmed he had harmed himself.
In the note, which reads more like a kind Mother's Day letter, Matthew thanked his "mama" for making him the man he has become and said he couldn't ask for a better mother.
"I don't really know what else to say, but I know we have our differences, but I will always love you unconditionally," he wrote at the end.
Although handwriting experts confirmed the note was written by Matthew, authorities said they believe it had been written at a previous time, and that Susan Hendricks saved it, then retrieved it at the time of the killings.
In the audiotaped interview, Hendricks doesn't cry much and her voice sounds flat, emotionless and tired much of the time. Most of the sobs come at the end of the questioning when she says she can't give a written statement and wants to go home.
"I'll have to help you another time, OK. I need to go. I need to see my family," Hendricks said. "I need to see somebody that I know. I haven't seen anybody I know. I don't know what's going on. I don't know where my kids' bodies are at. I need to get out of here, OK? Please?"
Detectives fanning out across Pickens County gathered dozens of statements detailing a fractious relationship between Hendricks, her sons and her ex-husband.
Mark Hendricks' sister, Rhonda "Suzy" Chappell, told deputies that Marshall lived with her for two months after his mother kicked him out, and that at his father's request, he had moved back two days before he was killed.
"This has been a very dysfunctional home for many years and she saw that the boys were working their way out and she was losing her grip," Chappell wrote in a statement to investigators.
Mark Hendricks' second ex-wife, Barbara Hendricks, told investigators Susan Hendricks followed the couple to Myrtle Beach and had told people she wanted to kill them.
An ex-boyfriend of Susan Hendricks, Rudy Parra, told deputies that Hendricks told him she had shot a man who came into her house uninvited in 2006. She then showed him three guns she kept in a safe in her closet.
In that same safe, detectives later found insurance policies for each victim, payable to Susan Hendricks and with a combined value of more than $680,000.
A Pickens County printing shop owner told detectives Hendricks came to his shop six days after the killings and asked him to notarize her changing the executor of her will from her sister to one of her brothers.
When she was arrested 10 days after the shooting, an officer noted numerous wills and financial documents on the floor.
Nine months after her arrest, Hendricks tried to commit suicide, according to a police report included in the cache of released documents. A female cellmate told authorities Hendricks squirreled away 40 pills she was given for her mental problems and tried to overdose. Hendricks left a note to her family telling them not to fight.
"I'll be okay with Mark and the boys," she wrote. "See ya another day."
During her plea hearing, a psychiatrist identified as David Price testified that she was abused by both of her parents, and that her parents also let others abuse her. Hendricks declined to speak at the hearing.
Price said Hendricks developed several personalities as a coping mechanism during the abuse. While the dominant one knew right from wrong, the one in charge the night of the killings didn't, he said.
Included in the crime scene photos are images of Hendricks' home, including her bedroom, which was clean and tidy and equipped with a disco ball that she said she used when she danced as part of a weight-loss program.
Other photos show the rest of the house in disarray.
And then there is image No. 84, a photo of a photo, tacked with a push pin next to a fly swatter, on a wall of what looks to be a kitchen.
It shows a smiling Hendricks in a dress standing next to her ex-husband in coat and tie, their two well-dressed sons flanking them on either side.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP .