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David Hendricks authors somebody else’s story while reconciling his

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012 7:57 a.m. CDT

(MCT) CHICAGO — With all the turbulence David Hendricks has endured in his life, it may come as no surprise that he has written a book.

A Chicago-area native, millionaire businessman and fundamentalist Christian, Hendricks was convicted nearly 30 years ago in one of the Illinois’ most notorious crimes — the knife and ax murders of his three children and wife in their spacious, new Bloomington home. He spent seven years in prison before an unexpected court review of the case led to a new trial and his acquittal.

After building and selling two lucrative businesses, Hendricks is on his fourth marriage. He’s lost his religion but found a quiet, comfortable life in a gated community in Florida, where he enjoys a pool in the backyard and a golf course view. Until a short time ago, Hendricks, 58, buzzed around the country piloting his private plane.

But he hasn’t written a book about his tumultuous life. He’s written a book, to be released in paperback, about the life of a largely forgotten murderer who makes greeting cards from a cell in Menard Correctional Center.

It is the latest turn in an odyssey Hendricks is still trying to reconcile. As he briefly resurfaces in public view, the book also serves as a reminder of a heinous crime, his unsettled place in it and how a life once in ruins rebuilds itself unevenly.

“As a person, I think I’m pretty much what I was before, again,” Hendricks said by phone recently. “There was about a decade when I wasn’t like me.”

That decade started on the night of Nov. 7, 1983, when Susan Hendricks, 30, and the couple’s three children — Rebekah, 9; Grace, 7; and Benjamin, 5 — were savagely attacked and killed in their beds. Hendricks, who possessed a 130 IQ and ran a successful back-brace business, told authorities he had embarked on a work-related trip that evening.

But authorities pegged him as a prime suspect early and charged him with the murders Dec. 5.

Almost a year later, a jury convicted him, based largely on analyses of the stomach contents of the children that indicated they were killed before Hendricks left on his business trip. Prosecutors also emphasized Hendricks’ intimate conduct with women who modeled back braces he designed as evidence that he felt trapped and was desperate to escape his fundamentalist Christian lifestyle.

Yet in sentencing Hendricks to natural life in prison, the judge stopped short of giving him the death penalty. He said he wasn’t convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Hendricks was guilty. Hendricks appealed.

———

By late February 1985, he was in Menard, where he met Henry Hillenbrand, then in his late 30s. Hillenbrand had arrived there a few months earlier after a delay in serving a murder sentence. The reason for the delay: After pleading guilty to the 1970 slayings of his girlfriend and another man in Streator, Hillenbrand escaped from the LaSalle County Jail by shimmying down a rope of bed sheets. He lived as Tom Elliott for 13 years, mostly in Missouri.

While a fugitive, Hillenbrand married, had two children, divorced, became a born-again Christian, remarried the woman he’d divorced, then divorced her again.

But in late 1982, border authorities apprehended him almost accidentally when they found a bear hide he’d harvested and failed to claim while returning to the U.S. from a hunting trip in Canada. After the justice system caught up to him, Hillenbrand was sentenced to 440 years.

In Menard, he was one of the first inmates Hendricks met, and the two quickly became friends, Hendricks said. Hillenbrand, he said, was “a good person ... a guy who went around among the worst of the worst, and everybody got along with him. I never saw anybody like that.”

Hendricks decided Hillenbrand’s story would make a great book. Hillenbrand, known as a raconteur, agreed. The two acquired a tape recorder, and for the two years they were cellmates, Hillenbrand talked; Hendricks recorded, then transcribed.

Meanwhile, Hendricks’ appeal was stymied when a state appellate court upheld his conviction in 1986, about the same time that his romantic prospects brightened, after a Toledo, Ohio, woman began to writing him. On Dec. 20, 1988, while he was in prison, they married. A day later, the Illinois Supreme Court kept his murder conviction intact.

Hendricks appealed, and seven months later was surprised to hear that the state high court had tossed his conviction. In March 1991 a jury acquitted him, and he moved to Ohio to get his derailed life back on track.

It was a rocky restart. A psychologist told him he hadn’t fully grieved and advised him to replay family memories, a painful exercise that gradually made Hendricks stronger, he said. He created and grew a business in his specialty of prosthetics and orthotics.

But his marriage fell apart less than a year after his release, he said. He remarried but that union, too, ended in divorce.

He sold the business, moved to Tampa in 1995, then to Atlanta before returning to Florida and starting a company that designed spinal braces. While on vacation in the Philippines in 2001, Hendricks met the woman who became his wife in 2003.

“I have enough experience in life,” he said, “that I know it’s possible we’ll split up, but I don’t see that happening.”

‘Probably innocent’

He stayed in touch with Hillenbrand and about three years ago circled back to the book project. By the time he’d finished, he’d interviewed more than 50 people and written 1,100 pages, he said.

About 11 drafts later, Hendricks completed “Tom Henry: Confession of a Killer.” The estimated 300-page paperback, print-on-demand book is in production. An e-book version is available now.

Hillenbrand has a parole hearing set for March, and “I’m hoping the book will help him,” Hendricks said, adding that the story will “humanize” Hillenbrand to people who know him only as a murderer.

Hillenbrand declined to speak publicly about the book “so I don’t say anything out of line that comes back to bite me in the ass,” he wrote to Hendricks a few weeks ago.

Hendricks — who was born in Morton Grove and raised in Oak Park, where he graduated from high school in three years — said he’d avoided writing his personal story for a number of reasons. He felt a sense of duty to finish his friend’s memoir, he said, but also feared reliving the horrific ordeal of losing his family.

Hendricks’ story was a best-seller for Steve Vogel, who as a Bloomington newsman covered the case and wrote the book “Reasonable Doubt” in 1989. Now semiretired, Vogel said the community is divided in thirds over Hendricks: One-third thinks he’s guilty, one-third thinks he’s innocent and one-third is unsure.

For his part, Vogel said he’s “more inclined now to believe that (Hendricks) is probably innocent of the crime,” something he suggested when he wrote the book.

“It’s not easy,” he added, “to overlook that his family and his dead wife’s family stood beside him.” His mother-in-law “was his strongest advocate,” Vogel said.

Ron Dozier, the McLean County state’s attorney who won Hendricks’ conviction in 1984, is unshaken in his belief that Hendricks killed his family.

“I’ve never seen anything to make me doubt that he’s guilty,” said Dozier, who went on to become a judge and served as interim state’s attorney last year before retiring. “But I don’t lose any sleep over it.”

For a time after his release, Hendricks said, he thought he needed to share his past with prospective employers, new friends, customers, physicians, even women he dated. But that obligation faded, he said. When he completed the book and printed promotional bookmarks, he gave them to tennis friends in his Orlando neighborhood, one of whom bought the e-book, then called Hendricks.

“Dave,” Hendricks recalled him saying, “I nearly fell out of my chair when I read the first chapter.”

Beyond that, Hendricks said, his past has no effect on his relationships, although he said, “I am not a man of faith anymore,” and his politics have turned to liberal Democrat from conservative Republican.

The murders remain unsolved. In court filings, Hendricks has pointed to a former brother-in-law angry about Hendricks’ religious beliefs and jealous of his business success, but authorities have dismissed the man as a suspect.

As might be expected, birthdays and anniversaries are tough to endure. Hendricks returns twice a year to Bloomington, last visiting in September when wrapping up work on the book. He visited the graves of Susan, Rebekah, Grace and Benjy, and he said he did the same thing he does every visit. He brought some flowers and a spade to clear weeds from the edge of the stone.

“Then I sat on the ground and talked to them,” Hendricks said, his voice shaking. “I know they can’t hear me. I guess I’m doing it for me.”

“There are some things,” he said, his voice trailing off “... that just aren’t logical.”

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