Shortly before midnight on November 8th, 1983, the bodies of four out of five family members were found brutally murdered in their Bloomington, Illinois home. The crime was particularly gruesome in nature and extraordinarily violent. Susan Hendricks, age 30, and her three children, Rebekah, age 9, Grace, age 7, and Benjamin, age 5 had all been murdered in their beds. David Hendricks, Susan’s husband and father of the children, had been away on a business trip in Wisconsin. However, investigators quickly determined things were not as they seemed with David Hendricks. This is the twisted tale of the Hendricks family murders.
David Hendricks was born in northern Illinois and raised in the Chicago suburbs. He was one of seven children and his family belonged to a non-denominational Christian fundamentalist group known as the Plymouth Brethren. The members attend meetings as opposed to mass or church service and do not have brick and mortar churches or ordained ministry. However, the church taught old school values and principles of Christianity. David eventually met a young woman named Susan Palmer who also belonged to the same religious group. They fell madly in love and married soon after.
David Hendricks had always been a successful student and was able to graduate high school after his junior year. Encouraged by a family friend, David sought higher education in the field of prosthetics. He attended Northwestern University medical school’s prosthetics program, graduating after a year. By June of 1973, he had completed his education and was employed in his field of study. David and Susan were married in July of 1973.
The family, who seemed picture perfect to their friends and family, welcomed their first child in September of 1974. Rebekah Karen Hendricks, a daughter, was the first to arrive. Another daughter, Grace Esther Hendricks, arrived in May of 1976. Finally, the couple welcomed a son, Benjamin Caleb, in June of 1978. Due to medical issues, Susan had a hysterectomy and was unable to bear any more children. The couple wanted a big family, however, and considered adopting another child.
Between 1973 and 1983, David Hendricks had built quite a successful career for himself. He had started his own company and invented several prosthetic devices including a back brace. In the fall of 1983, David was hard at work marketing the CASH brace, his latest invention. On November 8th, 1983, he was in Wisconsin making sales calls. His wife and children were back home in Bloomington and expected to attend a dinner party at Susan’s sister’s house.
However, David had tried to call his wife several times that day and did not get any responses. He attempted to call his in-laws, but they had not seen Susan either. Before the days of cell phones, it would not be uncommon to not be able to reach someone if they were out of the house for whatever reason. By that evening, however, David was beginning to get worried. He called his in-laws again and his neighbors, but no one had seen Susan or the kids. The neighbors claimed no one was home at the Hendrick’s house. Susan and the kids failed to show up for the dinner party. Something was definitely wrong.
Hendricks left his hotel room in Wisconsin on the evening of November 8th and headed back towards Bloomington to check on his family. Before departing, he called the county sheriff to inquire if there were any accidents in the area. There were none. He called his neighbors once more at a rest stop on his way back towards Bloomington. There was no update. When he arrived at his home in Bloomington just before midnight, police were at the house, and it was blocked off as a crime scene.
Police had been notified earlier that evening by both David and Susan’s family that a wellness check was needed at the home of the Hendricks family. When police arrived that evening, they found a scene they will never forget. The home was eerily dark and quiet. Immediately they noticed some drawers pulled out and items scattered like a possible burglary had occurred. Upstairs, they found the bodies of three children and a woman.
Rebekah’s body was found in her bed with a huge gash from her left eye to her hairline. Grace and Benjamin were found in Grace’s bed. Grace’s face was lacerated from her eye to her ear and had another laceration revealing a hole in her skull. Her throat had also been slashed. Benjamin’s face had been attacked so badly it looked as if he had been mauled by an animal. His jaw hung loose with deep gashes all over his face. He too had his throat cut. An ax and large butcher knife were found on the bed and had hair and blood on it. Susan was found in her bed with a blanket covering most of her body. She too had been attacked by the ax and butcher knife.
When David arrived at his home, police met him outside to break the awful news. According to David’s neighbors, he was devastated and hit his knees. However, police recall that moment differently, stating Hendricks was calm and did not seem surprised to hear his family had been brutally murdered. Before CSI could even process the crime scene, the detective leading the case announced to his co-workers that he firmly believed David Hendricks was guilty of murder.
The evidence collected from the crime scene and autopsies included two footprints, one small and one larger. These could not be connected to any shoes from the Hendricks family including the victims and David Hendricks. Investigators found no blood evidence in the sinks, bathtub, or p-traps from the home’s plumbing. There was no bloody clothing found in David Hendrick’s travel bag, car, hotel room, or in the home. There were no fingerprints or evidence on the murder weapons either. Authorities checked rest stops along the highway David Hendricks traveled looking for evidence but came up empty.
According to David, on November 7th, 1983, Susan went to a baby shower in a nearby town, which family members confirmed. During that time, he took the children to the mall to see an art project Rebekah had done for school that was on display. Then, he took the children to Chuck-E-Cheese. They ate a vegetarian pizza and then ran around playing for a while. According to David, they were in such a hurry to resume playing, they chomped their food down without hardly chewing. They then left the restaurant at 7:45pm and went to the book mobile. After checking out some new books, they returned home and he readied the children for bed, claiming they were in their rooms by nine o’clock. Susan arrived home shortly after and the two talked for a while and spent some time together. David kissed her goodbye just after 11 pm and headed towards Wisconsin.
Apparently leaving in the middle of the night for sales trips was not uncommon for David. He was making sales calls, all cold calls with no appointments, by 8 am on November 8th. Hospitals and agencies he visited all verified his presence and stated that cold calls were the norm as sales appointments were not normally accepted. He checked in early that evening to the hotel and made several phone calls trying to reach his family. He checked out early and headed back home when he was unable to reach his family.
The autopsies revealed large identifiable pieces of vegetables and pizza in the stomachs of the Hendricks children. There were no identifiable contents noted in Susan’s stomach. The stomach stops digesting food at the time of death, so stomach contents are sometimes used to narrow down a time of death. According to the pathologists that examined the stomach contents, most people digest a meal within 4-6 hours. According to the State’s pathologist, the stomach contents of the children suggest that the children likely died between 2-4 hours after their last meal, which was known to be 7 pm. This implied that the children died between 9pm-11 pm, when David Hendricks was still home.
Despite those in his religious group, workplace, and family having complete faith in David’s innocence, authorities were convinced of his guilt. He obtained legal counsel quickly and declined to take a polygraph examination, which enhanced suspicion. David did talk to the media quickly after the murders and made comments that some found disturbing. He mentioned that his children and wife were “in a better place”. When asked about what should happen to the perpetrator, David responded by hoping that the murderer would find Jesus and be saved. David was deeply religious, which could explain these comments, but authorities thought something more sinister was going on. They arrested David for murder two weeks after the crime.
David’s trial began in November of 1984. The prosecution painted a picture of a man who was trapped in a marriage he didn’t want to be in but was forbidden to divorce due to religious beliefs. Several women, who had been models for David Hendrick’s advertising campaigns, took the stand. The models testified that David insisted they be nude or topless for brace fittings, although the brace didn’t require that to be fit properly. He had at times groped the women and attempted sexual advances towards several women. All of the models denied that he was forceful or that an actual affair had occurred. Many, however, felt very uncomfortable around Mr. Hendricks.
The forensic evidence showed that Susan and the kids had been murdered by an ax and butcher knife. Hair on the ax was identified as Rebekah’s. The axe and knife both belonged to the Hendricks family, eliminating the possibility that an intruder brought the weapons in. There were no signs of forced entry in the home. No blood evidence was found in the bathrooms, but one bathroom lit up when sprayed with luminol. The stomach contents of the children proved to be very strong evidence, suggesting the children died before David left for his business trip. In general, there was very little forensic evidence and none that directly linked David Hendricks to the crime.
The prosecution also called several witnesses that spoke of the religious beliefs of the Plymouth Brethren and what would happen to those who divorced. Susan’s sister had recently divorced and was ostracized from attending any social events outside of worship meetings with other members of the group. This included the baby shower that Susan attended the evening of November 7th, 1983. The prosecution theorized that David wanted to avoid the social stigma from divorce and instead opted to hack his family up with ax so that he could move on from his unhappy marriage.
David Hendricks had made a great living and had developed expensive tastes for vehicles, planes, and the finer things in life. He had also recently lost weight and started cutting his hair different. Along with the testimony of the models, this was presented as evidence that David was seeking a new life, one that would not include Susan and the children.
The defense, however, countered much of the testimony and evidence. First, they claimed that David was performing research for development of another brace, which is why he needed to measure the models topless. Not denying that he made sexual advances, the defense claimed that it was not relevant to the murders.
The defense claimed that several family members, friends, and neighbors were aware of the ax and would have been able to utilize the weapon. They claimed David may have left a door unlocked, explaining the lack of forced entry. They stressed the fact that absolutely no blood was found on any of David’s clothing, shoes, in his car, or his hotel room. Cross examination of an expert revealed that the luminol staining could have been from a reaction with bleach, not blood. Susan frequently used bleach to clean the bathroom. There was no blood evidence found in the sinks, tubs, or p-traps of the plumbing, which would be highly unusual if someone had cleaned up.
The defense also called their own pathologists to the stand to challenge the stomach content evidence. According to their experts, stomach contents are unreliable at determining time of death as several factors can affect digestion including physical activity. This would be a hot button issue in this trial. A study published in the American Journal of Forensic Medical Pathology in 1989 states “the inspection of the contents of the stomach must be part of every postmortem examination because it may provide qualitative information concerning the nature of the last meal and presence of abnormal constituents. Using it as a guide to the time of death, however, is theoretically unsound and presents many practical difficulties, although it may have limited applicability in some exceptional instances. Generally, using stomach contents as a guide to time of death involved an unacceptable degree of imprecision and is thus liable to mislead the investigator and the court” (Jaffe, 1989).
The defense also challenged the theory that David’s religious beliefs led him to murder. They called witnesses that claimed that the penalty for divorce was not as severe as the prosecution witnesses had led the jury to believe. They also stressed that murder was against those same religious beliefs. David’s comments after the death were explained as a testament to his faith in God and not a as a lack of emotion.
Several family members, business associates, fellow Brethren members, and even Susan’s family testified that David Hendricks was not capable of murder and that the couple had a wonderful marriage. Friends and family were convinced of David’s innocence, but the jury was not. The jury found him guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to four life sentences after stating “based on the evidence admitted on trial against the defendant, I am not personally convinced that he had been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” (Smith, 1991). For this reason, he declined to sentence Hendrick’s to death.
However, on July 3rd, 1990, David Hendrick’s conviction was overturned on appeal. The higher court found that his first trial was unfair because evidence from the female models was irrelevant and should not have been permitted. Additionally, the higher court found that David’s religious beliefs were not relevant either and should not have been admitted as evidence against him. By this time, David had remarried while in prison and had two stepchildren.
David’s second trial began in 1991. However, this time evidence about his actions with the women who modeled for his company would not be presented. The prosecution was also not allowed to use his religious beliefs to establish a motive. This stomach contents remained a fiercely debated issue, with experts from both sides reaching different conclusions about the time of death. One expert for the defense explained that the children’s physical activity as well as rushed eating at Chuck-E-Cheese would have likely slowed their digestion. Additionally, the defense explained that Susan ate later than the children at the baby shower, yet no visible food was present in her stomach.
The prosecution presented a last-minute witness, a former cell mate of David Hendrick’s at Menard prison. The man claimed that Hendricks had confessed to the murders while in prison. However, the defense presented several other witnesses including other prisoners that claimed the witness was a pathological liar and that Hendricks had maintained his innocence during his incarceration. Based on this and the lack of forensic evidence and motive, David Hendricks was acquitted of all charges in 1991.
David said he thought he knew who may have killed his family. Remember Susan’s sister who had divorced? Her ex-husband apparently had brought her bloody clothes that night for her wash. She claimed she didn’t think anything of it because he worked as an orderly at a hospital. However, he was always jealous of David due to David’s wealth. Additionally, Martha was upset because she was not permitted to attend the baby shower that evening. Many people believe that Martha’s ex husband may have killed Susan and the children as revenge against the family. No charges have ever been filed against him or anyone else.
It’s now been nearly thirty-eight years since the murders of Susan, Rebekah, Grace, and Benjamin Hendricks. David Hendricks rebuilt his life and now lives in Florida with his fourth wife and two young children. He has a successful prosthetics company and is a published author of a book about one of his former prison cellmates entitled “Tom Henry: Confessions of a Killer”. Susan’s mother, Nadine Palmer, told the Pantagraph newspaper in 2003 that she remained convinced of David’s innocence (Richardson, 2003). Police and prosecutors who worked the case remain equally convinced that David Hendricks got away with murder.
(David Hendricks present day, above)
Vogel, Steve (1989) Reasonable Doubt; St. Martin’s Press Paperbacks
Richardson, Scott (2003) What might have been; The Pantagraph; 7 Nov 2003
Flick, Bill (2003) Still no other suspects; The Pantagraph; 9 Nov 2003
Holliday, Bob (1990) The Hendricks decision; The Pantagraph; 4 Jul 1990
Jaffe, F A (1989) Stomach contents and the time of death. Reexamination of a persistent question; AM J Forensic Med Pathol. 1989 Mar; 10(1):37-41; doi:10.1097/00000433-198903000-00010; Retrieved at: Stomach contents and the time of death. Reexamination of a persistent question - PubMed (nih.gov)
Smith, Wes (1991) Hendricks is happy but bitter man; Chicago Tribune; Retrieved at: HENDRICKS IS HAPPY BUT BITTER MAN - Chicago Tribune
Smith, Wes (1989) ‘Upright’ dad or ax murderer?; Chicago Tribune; Retrieved at: `UPRIGHT` DAD OR AX MURDERER? - Chicago Tribune