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.

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.

Tim Hennis, 27, who adopted Dixie days before the murder, was an enlisted serviceman who eventually rose through the Army ranks to master sergeant. Police alerted the public that they were interested in talking to Tim Hennis, and he came forward soon after. Investigators were immediately struck by the resemblance between Hennis and the composite sketch. After their witness picked him out of a photo lineup and police learned Hennis owned a white Chevy Chevette, they arrested him.

Hennis' first trial, in 1986, ended in conviction and he was sentenced to death. He won an appeal for a new trial. The second trial took place in 1989 and ended in acquittal. Tim Hennis returned to his life and to the Army.

Gary Eastburn tried to move on with his life too. Transferred to an Air Force base north of London, Eastburn met an English nurse and married her in 1991. Young Jana, then 8, now had a stepmother who began to fill the void left by the murders. "She really is the only mom that I've ever known, and I wouldn't want her to feel any other way about that," she said.

DNA Justice in 25-Year-Old Cold Murder Case

For years, Jana Eastburn struggled with feelings of uncertainty and guilt about not remembering her mother and sisters. "It's really hard to have feelings about somebody you don't know. I understand that they're my mom and my sisters, but I don't have any connection with them that I can remember," she said.

She eventually realized that the man many believed had killed them had been set free. She lived in fear that she would run into Hennis.

In 2005, Capt. Larry Trotter of the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office took an interest in the now cold case of the Eastburn murders. Sifting through an evidence box one day, he came across a vaginal swab that had been taken from Katie Eastburn's body. In the mid 1980s, DNA testing was not available in North Carolina, but Trotter knew that the semen on that swab could now be tested.

He sent it out to the state crime lab. The results showed, with 12,000 million to one certainty, that the semen from that swab belonged to Hennis.

Over the years, Hennis had retired from the military and settled with his family in Washington state. In a remarkable coincidence, Gary Eastburn and his family had also settled in Washington, a 30-minute drive from Hennis.

Double-jeopardy, prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, meant Hennis could not be retried by the state, but the Army ordered him out of retirement and back to active duty in a move that would allow for his military court marshal for the murders of Katie, Kara and Erin Eastburn.

Jana Eastburn, now grown up, was determined to be present at that trial. "I just want them to know how it's affected my life and how it's affected my dad's life and how I feel like I've been robbed of half of my life, half of my family. And I just want to have closure for them really. They deserve it." She said she hoped the accused killer, who has a daughter her age, "would feel that if that happened to his family, he would hope justice would come to him also."

Earlier this year, Jana Eastburn attended Hennis' third trial for the crime and watched as the court found him guilty and sentenced him to death. In her victim's impact statement, Eastburn tried to express the feelings of loss and sadness that she had struggled to understand for so long. "He took the opportunity from me to remember … or to have my mom at my graduation or my prom or anything like that."

This final conviction brought a sense of peace to Jana Eastburn. "It has definitely given me closure. It makes me feel like I am more emotionally connected to the whole situation. For me to be there and see all the emotion from everybody -- my dad, the whole courtroom -- that really helped me feel a lot more emotionally connected to my mom and two sisters."

Although she feels some sense of closure with Tim Hennis back behind bars, there will always be a lingering question. "My biggest thing is why didn't he kill me, why didn't he? I don't know," Jana Eastburn said.