Innocent Victims: The True Story of the Eastburn Family Murders

Innocent Victims: The True Story of the Eastburn Family Murders

by Scott Whisnant

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The riveting true account of a grisly crime and the unprecedented three murder trials faced by Fort Bragg soldier Tim Hennis.

On Mother’s Day, 1985, the bodies of Kathryn Eastburn and her two young daughters were found in their Fayetteville, North Carolina, home. Katie, an air force captain’s wife, had been raped and stabbed to death. Kara and Erin’s throats had been slit. Their toddler sister, Jana, was the only survivor of a bloody killing spree that terrified a community still reeling from the conviction, six years prior, of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald for the savage slayings of his pregnant wife and two daughters.
The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department soon focused its investigation on US Army soldier Tim Hennis. Detectives and local prosecutors built their case on circumstantial evidence and a jury convicted Hennis and sentenced him to death. But his defense team refused to give up. Piece by piece, they discredited the state’s case, exposing false testimony, concealed evidence, and prosecutorial misconduct. At a second trial, Hennis was found not guilty and released from death row.
But an even more stunning turn of events was yet to come. Twenty-five years after the murders, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation tested a crucial piece of DNA evidence from the crime scene. The shocking results led to an unprecedented third trial to determine Tim Hennis’s guilt or innocence.
From the initial discovery of the horrifying scene at 367 Summer Hill Road to the controversial change of jurisdiction that allowed Hennis to be prosecuted for an astonishing third time, author Scott Whisnant chronicles every development in this intricate, disturbing, and still-evolving case. Has the mystery of who killed Katie, Kara, and Erin Eastburn been solved beyond a reasonable doubt? Read Innocent Victims and decide for yourself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504039147
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 382
Sales rank: 26,888
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Scott Whisnant is a former editor and writer for the Morning Star (Wilmington, North Carolina). As a courtroom reporter he covered the case of Tim Hennis, who had previously been convicted of murder and was sentenced to death before the state supreme court awarded him a retrial. Whisnant is the author of Innocent Victims, which details the historic case.

Read an Excerpt

Innocent Victims

The True Story of the Eastburn Family Murders

By Scott Whisnant


Copyright © 1993 Scott Whisnant
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3914-7


The phone rang early Sunday morning at an hour when nothing good ever came from a ringing phone. Bob Seefeldt groaned.

Just as he expected. One of his soldiers was in jail. An argument with his wife had gotten out of hand, greased considerably by liquor. She wasn't about to bail him out. His sergeant would have to.

"This shouldn't take long," Seefeldt told his wife as he climbed out of bed. He trudged to the car, flipped on his headlights, and drove the half-mile to Fort Bragg, the largest military base in the nation. Seefeldt found his man sulking in the brig. God, he was sick of that look. He haggled with the MPs and shepherded the kid to daylight. Irritated and needing a shave, Seefeldt pulled into his driveway just before noon. Jennette waited in the yard.

"What's going on over there?" Seefeldt asked his wife.

No one stirred next door at the Eastburns' house. Their Toyota station wagon hadn't budged for three days. Katie Eastburn hadn't taken her three girls to church or even bothered to pick up the Fayetteville Times that morning. The Sunday paper lay rolled up in the front yard beside two others.

Seefeldt thought that was strange. A day didn't go by without him watching those girls romp on their backyard jungle gym. Katie would watch from the back steps, waving at Seefeldt as he came home from work. "Hey, Bob," Erin would holler, "look what I can do."

Seefeldt would look up and find the three-year-old, a persistent climber, perched high in the backyard dogwood tree. Jana, her toddler sister, would stand by the fence that separated the two yards and hold out her arms until Seefeldt picked her up and hugged her.

"Want a cookie?" he'd ask. Katie would nod that it was all right and he'd take the girls inside, where he and Jennette would let them pick their favorite kind.

He thought back to Thursday, the last time he'd seen Katie. She'd come over just after dark to borrow milk, bringing Erin and Jana and leaving Kara asleep in bed. Bob offered the girls some popcorn, and Katie wound up staying 30 minutes before checking Kara. He remembered how she sat in the corner rocking chair, talking about missing her husband the last two months. The girls finished their popcorn and Katie got up to leave, Jana in one arm and a glass of milk in her free hand. That was the last he'd heard from her.

By Saturday, Seefeldt mentioned it to Jennette, but they let it drop. Katie had talked about taking the girls to see their father, Captain Gary Eastburn, at Air Force officers' school in Montgomery, Alabama. "She must have put them on the bus," Jennette said.

That night, Cumberland County Sheriff's Deputy Brenda Price shook Seefeldt awake as he dozed on his couch. Had he noticed anything unusual next door? Seefeldt, too groggy to ask why, said no. Nothing was the matter. The deputy left and a weary Seefeldt turned off the light and went to bed.

But by Sunday morning, he was worried about those newspapers piled up, the car in the same place, and the stroller next to the side door, where it had been for three days.

"I'm going over there to see if anyone's home," he told his wife.

He picked up the Sunday paper, dated May 12, 1985, and tossed it and the others into the carport. He sidestepped the baby's stroller and knocked on the side door. No answer. Then he rang the front doorbell a few times. Nothing.

He rang it again. A baby cried. Seefeldt thought it sounded like Jana, twenty-one months old. He rang the doorbell again. Another cry.

Katie Eastburn couldn't possibly have left her toddler alone in the house. Seefeldt wondered if he heard right. But what else sounds like a baby crying? He called Jennette over to see if she could hear the cry. He rang again.

"That's the baby," Jennette said.

"Call somebody," Seefeldt instructed with more confidence than he felt.

Jennette fumbled through the phone book, but the pages shook in her hands. She found a listing for Julie Czerniak, the Eastburns' baby-sitter who lived a few houses away.

"Julie, I think something terrible has happened," she said.

Julie gave her the Eastburns' number and Jennette called. The phone rang and rang. "Please let her answer," Jennette whispered. She let it ring some more. She next tried the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department. At 12:53 P.M., the dispatcher relayed a child-neglect call.

Deputy William Toman was patrolling nearby on Sante Fe Drive, checking stores along Bragg Boulevard until his shift ended. He heard the call and figured he was closer to Summer Hill than anyone. Toman told the dispatcher he'd handle it and arrived four minutes later at 367 Summer Hill Road.

Julie beat Toman to the house. "Jana's standing there in her crib," she told Seefeldt. Why wasn't someone going in to get her? Julie ran to the back of the house and tried to open a bedroom window.

"Don't touch nothing," Seefeldt hollered.

"Just go on," Julie told him. "I want to get in and find out."

Deputy Toman showed up in no mood for nonsense. The sheriff's department had procedures to follow on child-neglect calls, and Toman was not one to stray from procedures. He tried to make sense of what Julie was saying, then dismissed her as loud and irrational. Something about a child in a crib. Seefeldt was still irritated that Julie was trying to break into the house. "All right. I'll handle it from here," Toman said before they could worry him further.

Toman checked all the doors and windows. No forced entry. He found a note jammed inside the storm door. "Mrs. Eastburn, get in touch with your husband by phone. Deputy Price."

Toman shrugged and rang the doorbell. No one stirred. No baby cried. Seefeldt felt a little foolish.

Neighbors began to gather in the street.

Toman's sergeant drove up and was talking to the young deputy on the front porch. "What do you think we should do?" the sergeant asked. Toman wasn't sure.

Then he heard the crying. He leaned over the porch railing, pressed his nose to the bedroom window and cupped his hands at his temples. Little Jana Eastburn stood in her crib, her arms outstretched to anyone. "I've got no choice," Toman told his sergeant. "I've got to go in."

Toman stepped over the railing, sliced the screen, and lifted the window. He poked his head in and smelled death.

Jana wanted out of that room. Her white pajamas with blue and yellow flowers reeked. She was pale and gaunt, her eyes puffy from so much crying. A slew of stuffed animals and toys had been placed in her crib, as if someone expected Jana to need entertaining for a while. She had tossed them onto the floor.

Jana wrapped both arms around Toman's neck, digging her tiny fingers into his back. "It's all right," he told her. "It'll be all right."

He passed Jana out the window to Seefeldt and found a neatly stacked pile of Pampers next to the crib, along with a bottle. He handed the diapers and bottle to Seefeldt and turned to face the rest of the house.

The smell was getting stronger. He steeled himself for a grisly body count. "It didn't matter how many bodies I found," he would say later. "I was more worried about what I was going to find alive."

Toman drew his gun and opened the door. He looked to his right, toward the master bedroom.

Three-year-old Erin Eastburn lay beside her parents' bed, the bottom half of her body protruding from under a white nightgown with delicate lavender stripes and bows. A pillow leaned against her face. The nightstand beside the bed had been knocked over.

The knife had nearly severed the child's head.

Toman walked around the edge of the bed. A hand reached from behind it, grasping at nothing. He looked over the bed and saw Kathryn Eastburn — nude, stabbed, and dead.

A pillow covered her face. Toman lifted it and saw the thirty-one-year-old mother's throat had been slashed in the same manner as her daughter's, her chest wounds an angry afterthought.

Toman backed out of the room and into Jana's bedroom, where no one had died, a room he could trust. He leaned out the window, a handkerchief over his face, and called for an ambulance.

The stench had filtered outside the window. "Is it what I think it is?" Seefeldt asked.

He recognized Jana's pajamas as the ones she'd been wearing in his living room Thursday night. Has that baby been alone three nights? he wondered.

"I'm not going to discuss it until the detectives come," Toman told Seefeldt.

The deputy walked through the living room, where a laundry basket filled with folded clothes had been overturned. Some newspapers were scattered about. Kathryn Eastburn's sneakers, still tied, were in the middle of the floor. Her pink blouse was crumpled on the floor. There had been a struggle, Toman thought, but not much of one. The furniture was still in place, and even toys on the floor had not been disturbed.

Three miles away, a group of paramedics and firemen huddled around a television at the Yadkin Road Volunteer Fire Department to watch a Celtic-'76er playoff game. The call came just before tipoff. One DOA, the dispatcher said solemnly.

"Some ol' boy had a heart attack," William Huggins, chief paramedic on duty, told his partner. But there was more. Now the dispatcher was saying "two DOA." That's not good, Huggins thought. Two people don't usually die in the same house at the same time.

Huggins's ambulance pulled in the Eastburn driveway without sirens blaring or tires screeching. An ashen Toman greeted him by the side door. The senior paramedic, Toman announced, would have to go inside. Huggins realized that would be him.

Huggins followed Toman inside to the back bedroom, where he saw the lifeless body of Erin Eastburn. It was his job to officially declare the obvious.

Erin had been yanked off her parents' bed and onto her back, her knees up in the air so that, as Huggins said later, "it looked like sex." She'd been there a long time. In ten years as a paramedic, Huggins had gotten used to gruesome sights, but this child — angelic face, sparkling brown eyes, and throat hacked to pieces — was something he'd never forget.

Huggins put the back of his hand against Erin's mouth. Then he picked up her pale, cool arm and checked for a pulse. He finally found a place between wounds on her chest for the stethoscope.

He nodded to Toman and went through the same routine with her mother. Then he turned, got out of the house, dropped to his knees, and gagged. "Has everybody in there been accounted for?" he asked no one in particular, still on his knees.

"There's three children and the mother," Seefeldt said.

"I've only seen two."

"Then there's another one that's been kidnapped or something," Seefeldt said.

Toman ran back inside the house and came back seconds later. "I've found another one."

Huggins went inside, this time to the bedroom across from Jana's. He sidestepped a plastic buggy full of toys, a copy of Raggedy Ann lying on top, and a toy piano. He moved past Erin's bed, empty except for Big Bird tucked under a sheet, and approached the bed against the far wall.

Underneath a Star Wars bedspread, Kara Eastburn stared blankly at the ceiling, her throat cut.

Everyone was accounted for.

The somber news spread quickly outside the house, more with nods and sighs than words. Toman helped another deputy roll crime-scene ribbon around the Eastburns' lawn. Detectives called away from Sunday dinners with their families met in the driveway.

The nondescript three-bedroom house, red brick with black shutters and ornamental iron railing, was now a curiosity. Neighbors walked over, children stopped in the street on their bicycles and leaned on one foot. Television crews started filming. Most of the neighbors knew the Eastburns lived there, but not much else. In this tranquil, tree-lined military neighborhood, just off a main road into Fort Bragg, families transferred in and out at the whim of the federal government.

Some knew the Eastburns as that nice young family. The mother was quiet and reserved, always tending to her blond, brown-eyed daughters. They never harmed anyone.

The Fayetteville-Fort Bragg part of North Carolina has always had a high murder rate. The area teems with teenage boys away from home for the first time. They go to bars and get in trouble. They commit violent crimes. The residents are almost used to it. But not in Summer Hill, an upper middle-class neighborhood usually reserved for higher-ranking officers. And not this kind of crime. Nobody gets used to that anywhere.

Cumberland County Sheriff's detectives met and discussed what they had: a military captain's wife and two young daughters stabbed to death in their home.

Fort Bragg has been the site of the same kind of family slayings, four and a half miles down the road, 15 years earlier. Onlookers began to buzz before the stretchers had taken the bodies out of the house.

"Oh my God, this is just like the MacDonald killings all over again," one said to another.

Just two months earlier, Jeffrey MacDonald had attempted another appeal for a new trial, still claiming drug-crazed hippies had killed his pregnant wife and two daughters. But a federal judge had disagreed and ruled that the Green Beret doctor was right where he needed to be — in prison for three counts of murder.

Interest in the MacDonald killings had peaked in the mid-1980s with the release of the movie Fatal Vision, based on the book of the same name. For millions of television viewers, the slayings had represented a debate of whether a man who appeared so good could be so evil. But for people living in the Fort Bragg area, the slayings had meant locked windows, bolted doors, and raw fear.

As neighbors watched the ambulances arrive at the Eastburn home, they looked at each other and wondered. How could the same barbarous act happen again in this town? What if the killer lives in the neighborhood? What if he's among us now?


Detective Jack Watts knew his assignment — find the killer and find him quickly. Sheriff Ottis Jones, in the midst of a reelection bid, didn't need an unsolved triple-murder case to drag around the campaign trail. He put Watts and three other detectives on the Eastburn case full time, and asked his 29 other detectives to start checking their sources. Seven agents from the State Bureau of Investigation were called to help.

Sheriff Jones wanted the answer to have nothing to do with Jeffrey MacDonald. The sooner his detectives made an arrest, the less likely rumors of a MacDonald copycat murder would turn to full-scale hysteria.

Detective Watts ran his fingers through his graying hair and looked around the Eastburn crime scene. In 14 years with the sheriff's department, he'd seen the military youth of this town do some strange things. By day, they were nothing more than walking wallets to merchants, the lifeblood of the economy of Fayetteville, a city of 60,000. At night, many of those dollars went to beer joints and topless bars. For these young boys taught to fight by the military, many of them away from home the first time, the combination could have shattering results. Watts had seen one awful murder after another. But slitting a three-year-old child's throat was beyond their drunken brawls. Watts had something different this time.

A group of detectives and ID techs huddled in the Eastburns' front yard. Watts knew the killer was already days ahead of them, so their search of the house would be crucial. "It's bad in there, fellas," he said, trying to brace them for the grueling task ahead.

ID technicians usually practice dark humor at the murder scene, stopping at times to speculate whether the body had fooled around once too often or tried to fleece his drug dealer again. But no one would joke inside 367 Summerhill Road this Mother's Day.

They got on their hands and knees and picked over the house. For four hours, they worked over and around the bodies, collecting pieces of the family's final night together — Katie's sock, Erin's pillow, Kara's bedspread. Conrad Rensch was the photographer of the group. He took pictures of the girls from several angles, then of Katie's nude body. He grimaced when it came time to move their bodies and look underneath. Perhaps he'd uncover some part of the killer — a strand of hair or a piece of skin.

Disturbing five-year-old Kara was bad enough. The killer had found white quilt batting and placed it on her chest. ID tech Bruce Daws lifted it, getting cotton fibers on his hands. He couldn't touch it without fibers coming loose. Then Daws looked down and noticed Kara had been stabbed until her organs broke through her skin.


Excerpted from Innocent Victims by Scott Whisnant. Copyright © 1993 Scott Whisnant. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Innocent Victims: The True Story of the Eastburn Family Murders 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent . Imagine being innocent and not being believed . Imagine an entire community framing you,knowing you are innocent but not wanting to admit being incorrect . Scary .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written and with a twist in the addition to the original book I never expected.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
NikkisNovelNiche More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I've always been a fan of true crime novels and I felt Scott Whisnant did a good job of portraying the facts while leaving his personal feelings and opinions out of his presentation of the case. These kind of books can be difficult to enjoy when the author shoves their personal beliefs down your throat and you end up only getting a skewed version of the "facts". I had the advantage of never hearing of this case so I went in with an unbiased view of the circumstances. I was immediately sucked into the plot from the moment the Eastburn's neighbors, Bob and Jenette observed the lack of movement at the house next door. Mr. Whisnant's portrayal of the events left me feeling empathy for both the victim as well as the defendant and his family which I believe truly shows that this novel was written on a completely level ground for both sides. I was enthralled with the retelling of the courtroom drama and and sympathized with the defense and the hoops they had to jump through in the first case. I truly believe the first case was unjust due to the location and the incompetence of the judge. Interwoven between all of the courtroom drama is the back story concerning Katie Eastman's husband and surviving daughter Jana as well as what Tim Hennis' wife, daughter and parents go through while he is on death row. This is where I became a tangled ball of emotions as I did not know whether to feel worse for the Eastman or Hennis families. Eventually I came to terms with the fact that there are no winners in this case and it was OK to feel equally bad for everyone. This is a must-read for anyone who is a fan of true crime, courtroom procedural books or just a good mystery in general. Mr. Whisnant expertly keeps his readers engaged weaving in and out of the courtroom and into the lives of all parties involved in this case. I recommend re-reading this book even if you read the original 1993 publication as this version is updated with more current information.
Jwylieallen More than 1 year ago
WOW! I've read a lot of true crime over the years, but I can't remember any previous reads, that hit me like this one. Laid out in a no nonsense manner, makes this all the more horrifying, upsetting and infuriating. I don't remember this case, so I was going in blind, and was walloped around ever corner. Truly, a disturbing case, but truly an extremely well researched and brilliantly laid out book!