Jim Dey | Decades-old murder mystery back before public

Jim Dey | Decades-old murder mystery back before public

The case has long since been closed. But more than 30 years later, the identity of the killer of four family members of a house located in a prosperous Bloomington neighborhood remains officially undetermined.

Did successful businessman David Hendricks kill his 30-year-old wife, Susan, and their three children — 9-year-old Rebekah, 7-year-old Grace and 5-year-old Ben?

Or was Hendricks, who was first convicted of murder and then found not guilty in a retrial, falsely accused of the November 1983 killings?

All these years later, public curiosity in the case remains significant in the Bloomington area. But it has increased recently because the Hendricks' murder case will be the subject of the "Homicide" series on the Investigation Discovery network at 7 p.m. Saturday.

"It's never stopped being a subject of discussion. I get asked about it all the time," said Steve Vogel, who covered the case as the news director of WJBC-AM radio and later wrote a book about it.

Now viewers will have a chance to review the strange and horrible facts of the case through documentary filmmaker David Perozzi's 60-minute program titled "The Darkest Night."

"It's revisiting an unsolved crime in the heartland of America," said Perozzi, who stumbled across the story when a friend from Peoria told him about it.

Much has changed since the brutalized bodies of Mrs. Hendricks and her children were discovered.

The police who investigated the crime are either retired or deceased.

David Hendricks, now in his 60s, lives in Orlanda, Fla., with his fourth wife. The parents of a boy, they are expecting a second child — a girl.

The case exploded on the national scene when Hendricks, a successful businessman, told police that family members were alive when he left on a trip to Wisconsin about 11 p.m. Nov. 7, 1983. Their bodies were discovered after Hendricks called relatives to say that he was not able to contact his wife by phone and asked them to check the family residence.

But skeptical authorities immediately focused on Hendricks as the leading suspect. They ultimately argued Hendricks killed his family so he would be free to pursue other women while escaping censure from fellow members of the fundamentalist church, the Plymouth Brethren, to which he belonged.

Perozzi said his efforts to re-create the case for viewers was greatly assisted because the news media in East Central Illinois closely covered the story. He said he found "an amazing amount of film footage" from the funeral and the two trials. Plus, he gained access to investigators' pictures from the crime scene.

The Saturday night program "really for the first time constructs the crime," he said.

While Hendricks adamantly maintained his innocence, prosecutors convinced jurors in the first trial that the millionaire businessman, one who had built his fortune on his successful design of back braces, was an unfaithful husband. They presented testimony that Hendricks made sexual advances on women who modeled the back braces he was marketing.

Although the alleged motive was speculation, it proved to be effective speculation. But there was no physical evidence — none — linking Hendricks to the crime. The murder weapons — an ax and butcher knife — were recovered from the crime scene.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty after Hendricks' conviction. But Circuit Judge Richard Baner instead imposed four life sentences. He generated headlines with the following comment, Hendricks "probably did commit these offenses, and I must emphasize that I intend no criticism of the jury or its verdict by this sentencing order. Based on the evidence admitted on trial against the defendant, I am not personally convinced that he has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

Citing the "totality of the facts," a state appeals court affirmed Hendricks' conviction.

That was followed by the Illinois Supreme Court's 4-2 decision affirming Hendricks' guilt. Signaling problems with their decision, it took the justices more than 18 months to issue their decision after they heard oral arguments.

The high court subsequently and unanimously reversed its decision in July 1990 and ordered a new trial. After further review, the high court concluded prosecutors improperly presented evidence of Hendricks' conduct with the models and religious affiliation.

Finding that its prejudicial effect on the jury outweighed its probative value, the court barred that evidence from the second trial.

The first trial, held in 1984, was moved to Rockford because of the extensive pretrial publicity in McLean County.

The second trial was held in 1991 in McLean County, but jurors from Macon County were brought in to hear the case.

The second time around, prosecutors were forced to rely solely on time-of-death expert testimony, focusing on undigested food in the children's stomachs to show they were dead before Hendricks left for Wisconsin. In what amounted to a battle between prosecution and defense experts, jurors were left with conflicting opinions and found Hendricks not guilty.

Vogel, whose 1989 book "Reasonable Doubt" was a best-seller, said the public remains conflicted about Hendricks' guilt or innocence. He said it's his opinion that Hendricks "probably didn't do it."

"But I can't be sure," he said.

Perozzi said his documentary will leaves it to viewers to decide, that he has no opinion on guilt or innocence to express because he "wants to be fair to David."

"Only he knows what happened or did not happen," Perozzi said.

Hendricks spent roughly eight years behind bars. At Menard penitentiary, he worked on the prison newspaper, writing stories about issues like rehabilitation and publishing poetry relating to his incarceration and his family's death.

He married an Ohio woman while behind bars, but divorced her after his release. He also was married briefly to a third woman before his current 15-plus-year marriage.

He continues to be successful in business, a website identifying him as president of Blue Diamond Orthopedic.

Perozzi said that he talked with Hendricks while making the documentary during the summer and fall of 2017, but Hendricks declined to be interviewed.

"He was very nice," said Perozzi. "He was not hostile."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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