Survivor of Triple Murder Grapples With Guilt: 'Why Didn't He Kill Me?'

Jana Eastburn recalls 25-year nightmare odyssey to convict family's killer.

ByABC News
September 15, 2010, 5:04 PM

Sept. 16, 2010— -- Questioned by a police psychologist, Jana Eastburn burbled the only thing she could recall about the night in 1985 when her mother and two sisters were murdered in their home.

"Hide from the burglar ... he's going to come get me," said Eastburn, at 21 months old, according to notes taken by a child psychologist who was helping in the investigation. Shown a picture of her mother to spur her memory, the traumatized infant kissed the photograph.

For the next 25 years, Eastburn would endure a nightmarish odyssey through a legal system that convicted and then freed the accused killer, only to put him back on death row on the strength of a newfound prosecutorial tool: crime scene DNA.

In 1985, Jana Eastburn, not yet 2 years old, was at her family's Fayetteville, N.C., home with her mother, Katie, and young sisters Kara, 5, and Erin, 3. Former Air Force Capt. Gary Eastburn was away for 10 weeks of training at Maxwell Air Force base in Alabama.

In the era before cell phones and e-mail, Gary Eastburn kept in touch with his family through nightly telephone calls. When he couldn't reach his wife for more than two days, he knew something was wrong. With newspapers piling up at the door and what sounded like a baby crying inside, the next door neighbors called the police.

Inside, police found Kathryn Eastburn next to her bed, raped and murdered -- her throat cut. Kara and Erin had each been stabbed to death as well. Tiny Jana had somehow escaped the killer's reach and was left alive in her crib in a room down the hall, where she lay for nearly three days before she was carried to safety.

After days of uneasiness about not being able to reach his family, Gary Eastburn remembered his reaction to the detective's call. "When I answered the phone, the first thing I said was, 'How many of 'em are dead?' He wouldn't tell me anything. He just said there'd been a death in the family and that I needed to get home as soon as possible."

Toddler Questioned About Mom's and Sisters' Murder

Investigators frantically gathered evidence and scoured the neighborhood for anyone who might have seen something. Desperate, the police even turned to baby Jana, the only survivor, to see if there were clues she could offer. They brought in child psychologist Helen Brantley to question Jana and show her pictures of her family and police photo lineups. According to her summary report, Brantley was not certain that Jana had seen what happened that night, but had clearly heard things. Still, it was nothing that could conclusively help the investigation.

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Although baby Jana couldn't help, in the days after the killings police found someone who could. A young man came forward and said he saw a white male leaving the Eastburn's home near Fort Bragg at 3:30 that morning. He remembered the man getting into a white Chevy Chevette and driving away. The witness helped police create a composite sketch of the suspect.

Police also learned that Katie Eastburn had recently met with a man who adopted the family's dog, Dixie. With the family soon to be relocated, the military spouse had to find a new home for Dixie and placed an ad in the local newspaper.