SPRING LAKE — Gary Eastburn has questions for Timothy Hennis, the man sentenced to death Thursday at a court-martial for murdering Eastburn's wife and two of his daughters 25 years ago.
"I always wondered: 'What the hell were you thinking when you did that? What could any of them done to cause that?'" Eastburn said.
Kathryn Eastburn, Kara, 5, and Erin, 3, were stabbed to death in their home in the Summerhill neighborhood in Fayetteville in May 1985. A third child, 22-month-old Jana Eastburn, was left alive.
Hennis, then a sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg, was convicted in a civilian trial on rape and murder charges in summer 1986. He won a new trial on appeal and was acquitted in April 1989.
After previously untested DNA evidence connected him to the killings, the Army called him out of retirement and court-martialed him at Fort Bragg this year for the murders.
Hennis continues to maintain his innocence.
Eastburn, now 61, still has mementos of his lost family - pictures, one of Kathryn's nightgowns - but he thought he had buried the pain of his wife and daughters' murders 21 years ago when Hennis was acquitted.
It all came back in spring 2006 when Eastburn received a call from investigator Robert Bittle of the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office with the news of the DNA evidence.
"When they called me, it almost knocked the air out of me. It was amazing," Eastburn said Friday morning in an interview at a hotel in Spring Lake. He said he was stunned at the sadness and other emotions that welled up.
Eastburn's eyes shone with tears at the memory.
"I thought I had pretty much, kind of put that away and was dealing with everything OK, and it just, like out of nowhere, hit me like a ton of bricks," he said.
'A glimmer of hope'
Eastburn was glad, too, he said, because there was a third chance to take Hennis to trial. "It was a glimmer of hope that we could right the wrong," he said.
Hennis was a retired Army master sergeant living in Lakewood, Wash., in September 2006 when the military told him to return to duty at Fort Bragg. The civilian prosecutors were barred by the U.S. Constitution from trying Hennis again for the crimes, so the Army pulled him back into the service to be court-martialed.
Eastburn, now a resident of Puyallup, Wash. - about 10 miles from Hennis' home - has stayed in hotels since the beginning of March to attend the court-martial.
The third trial was the most difficult of the three, Eastburn said. His testimony on April 9 about the loss of Kathryn, Kara and Erin left him exhausted for two days. He wept on the stand, and many spectators cried in sympathy.
Hennis is appealing the conviction. If the appeal results in a new trial, Eastburn doesn't think he could go through the ordeal again.
"No. Don't want to," he said. "It would have to be very compelling. I'm kind of just beat up. And I don't say that to get sympathy, I just - after a while you just get tired of it.
"And of course, the further away you go, it seems like, 'Really, does it matter now?' It does. But do you want to pay the price?"
Hennis defense lawyer Frank Spinner tried to explain the DNA evidence during closing arguments by saying Kathryn Eastburn could have had consensual sex with Hennis several days before she was killed.
Offended and angry at the premise - "I still think it was a cheap parlor trick" - Gary Eastburn said that would never have happened. "It is unlike Katie. That's not Katie Eastburn," he said.
Eastburn's fury with Hennis doesn't extend to Hennis' family.
After Hennis' sister-in-law pleaded on Monday for the jury to spare him the death sentence, Eastburn spoke briefly with her outside the courtroom.
"She was sitting there crying, and she was obviously upset, and I said, 'I'm really sorry for your pain, and I understand what you're going through.' And she kind of reached out and gave me a hug," Eastburn said.
"His whole family's going through some tremendous pain right now, and it's probably going to get worse before it gets better, if it ever gets better for them," he said. "But they didn't do anything to me, or my family. I certainly sympathize with them and my heart goes out to them. A loss is a loss."
Yes to death penalty
But Eastburn wanted Hennis sentenced to death. He wanted to ensure that Hennis never gets out of prison. If Hennis had been sentenced to life, he would have been technically eligible for parole within seven years, although as a practical matter, the Army says, he likely would be incarcerated 25 years at least.
"If he does get executed, he deserved it, but I wouldn't be a person to jump up and down and demand it," he said.
But Eastburn thinks he wouldn't attend the execution. "I'd just kind of like to move on, I guess," he said. "I would say most likely not."
With the conviction, Eastburn is again moving on.
Jana Eastburn, now 26, is contemplating a career as a radiology technician, he said. She testified that she has no memory of her mother and sisters. Gary said testimony about Kathryn, Kara and Erin helped Jana get a fuller picture of them than she had before.
Next month, Gary Eastburn and his wife, Liz, plan to visit England and look for a new house. Gary and Liz Eastburn met when he was stationed with the Air Force in England in 1990, and they married in 1991. They plan to retire there next year.