Murder in Bloomington: The Hendricks and S&S Cases
Bloomington, Illinois, is the county seat of McLean County, in the heart of Central Illinois farmland. The twin cities of Bloomington and Normal, with a combined population of about 132,000, have undergone many changes and much growth in the past 30 years, but the community is still best known as the home of State Farm Insurance Companies, headquartered in Bloomington, and Illinois State University, located in Normal.
As a resident there during the 1980s, I recall that crime in Bloomington was low. Murder, particularly involving multiple victims, was extremely rare. The murders of Susan Hendricks and her children in November 1983 left the community deeply shaken. Toward the end of the decade, another terrible blow was dealt in 1988 with the execution-style murders of two customers and a clerk at the S&S Liquor Store.
Both cases would take some unexpected turns.
The Hendricks Murders
The Hendricks murders are indelibly etched in the memory of anyone who was living in Bloomington at the time and old enough to be aware. On the evening of Tuesday, November 8, 1983, the bodies of Susan Hendricks and her three children were discovered in their home by police sent to check on them. All had been slain with an ax and a kitchen knife while lying in their beds. The news broke the next day with a headline story in The Pantagraph, the local daily newspaper. On Thursday, November 10, studio portraits of the victims accompanied a follow-up story titled "No Suspects in Brutal Slayings."
The brutality surpassed anything seen before in this town. Residents sensed that things would never be quite the same here again. Reportedly there was a scramble to install door locks in the days that followed.
It was difficult to grasp the reality of the situation. The most obvious question was why? Even if the house were being robbed, what purpose could possibly be served by murdering them all, especially if they were asleep?
It would not be long before the case began to take shape.
David Hendricks was a young entrepreneur. Just 29 years old, he had designed a back brace, called the CASH brace, which had been very well received by the orthopedic community, and he was on his way to greater success managing his own orthotics business. He lived with his wife, Susan, and their three children in a quiet subdivision on the east side of Bloomington, at 313 Carl Drive. Susan Hendricks did not work outside the home. The family belonged to a Christian religious organization called the Plymouth Brethren and led a very quiet life.
November 7, 1983
On the evening of Monday, November 7, Susan Hendricks attended a baby shower about 40 miles away in the town of Delavan, leaving the house shortly before 6 p.m. David took Rebekah, Grace, and Benjamin to the local Chuck E. Cheese, a pizza restaurant and amusement center, where the children played games while their pizza was being prepared. Around 8 p.m., they returned to the house in time to catch a bookmobile nearby, checking out some books before the bookmobile left at 8:15.
Susan arrived back home by about 10:30 p.m. David later stated that he left the house around midnight to begin driving to Wisconsin, where he planned to make unscheduled calls on medical providers to promote sales of his back brace.
November 8, 1983
After making several sales calls during the morning of Tuesday, November 8, David checked into a Red Roof Inn at Madison, Wisconsin. That afternoon he tried calling his home. Later, Hendricks made several more calls, to his office and to friends and relatives, including the home of Susan's brother, where she and the children had been expected for dinner. They had not arrived.
Bloomington police received the first phone call from David Hendricks about an hour after Susan failed to arrive at her brother's home. He reported his concern that his wife may have had an accident somewhere between Bloomington and Delavan. He checked out of the motel and began the three-hour drive back home. Susan's mother, Nadine Palmer, had spoken to David on the phone while at her son's house. She then also called police that evening to report that her daughter and grandchildren were missing.
The Crime Scene
Acting on calls from David Hendricks and his mother-in-law, police arrived to check the house at around 10 p.m. There they met Susan's brother and brother-in-law, who had driven in from Delavan. The police asked the two men to wait downstairs while they went to the second-floor bedrooms. Upstairs they discovered a bloody horror, with Susan and the children hacked to death and the apparent murder weapons displayed on a bed.
David arrived home to find police blocking off the scene. Upon being told what they had found, police noted his somewhat low-key response given the circumstances.
Under questioning at the police station later, Hendricks continued to demonstrate an unusual level of calm in the face of the awful news. He answered questions without hesitation and showed little reaction to accusations.
The Case Develops
Immediately placed under investigation, David hired Hal Jennings, a noted local criminal defense attorney. In the following days, Hendricks agreed to radio and television interviews, in which his emotions were generally deemed to be inappropriate to the gravity of the situation. Additionally, police believed the crime scene displayed no signs of forced entry, and that the evidence of ransacking was potentially staged. The setting seemed to indicate that Susan and the children had been murdered shortly after she returned home, and before David left for Wisconsin.
By early December, information had come out suggesting unbecoming behavior by David Hendricks with several women hired to model his back brace for advertising brochures. A theory was developed that Hendricks wanted to be free of his marriage but avoid divorce, as his religion would not condone it. On December 5, Hendricks was placed under arrest on murder charges.
Trial and Aftermath
A trial was held in October 1984, with a change of venue to Rockford, Illinois, in Winnebago County. Much of the evidence against Hendricks centered around the stomach contents of the children. Since they had eaten pizza for supper, and this was still identifiable in their stomach contents at autopsy, the prosecution argued that the children had likely died before Hendricks claimed to have departed for his business trip.
Hendricks was found guilty and received four life sentences for the murders. He served a total of seven years in prison, and remarried during this time. His conviction was upheld on appeal in 1988; however, in 1991 he was acquitted following a retrial in McLean County.
Steve Vogel, who worked for Bloomington's WJBC radio at the time, wrote a bestselling book about the case entitled "Reasonable Doubt," first published in 1989 by Contemporary Books, and later in paperback by St. Martin's Press.
David Hendricks later relocated to Florida, remarried once again, and resumed his work in the development of orthopedic appliances.
Hendricks Murder Victims
-Susan Hendricks, age 30.
-Rebekah Hendricks, age 9.
-Grace Hendricks, age 7.
-Benjamin Hendricks, age 5.
Law & Justice Center
The S&S Murders
The S&S Liquor store at 703 North Clinton Street in Bloomington was a clean and welcoming place, the employees friendly and helpful. The shelves were arranged in aisles, displaying an interesting array of wines and liquors, beer and snack foods.
On the night of Thursday, October 27, 1988, Scott Burton and Whitney Cole stopped at S&S near closing time around 10 p.m., and were inside when two men entered the store. The men walked down an aisle and returned with Burton and Miss Cole to the front of the store. When employee Robert Webb moved toward them, one of the men displayed a gun and they forced all three to lie down on the floor. Tracey Gault, another employee, had also been ordered to lie down, but the two men then ordered her to open the cash register. One of the men then accompanied her to the safe, where he demanded that she empty it. He then struck her in the head with a gun, after which she heard three shots. The men left the store, and after finding that the other three victims had been shot, Miss Gault called 911.
According to an article by Scott Richardson in The Pantagraph, Scott Burton had been planning to move from his parents’ home to share an apartment with a coworker at a car dealership where he worked as a mechanic. He and his friend Whitney had planned to visit a Halloween program at Eastland Mall and meet her boyfriend later.
Inside the store that night, clerks Robert Webb and Tracey Gault were on duty. Robert Webb, Scott Burton, and Whitney Cole were shot in execution style. Tracey Gault was injured when she was struck with a gun, but survived and was able to describe what had happened inside the store.
Scott Burton was found dead at the scene. Whitney Cole and Robert Webb survived the shootings, but Whitney died the next morning. Robert, a father of two young children, died on Friday night.
McLean County Coroner William Anderson had just been in S&S Liquors right before the shootings occurred. He was a short distance away when he was paged to return to the store. He had been handing out campaign pencils previously, and had given some to store employees. He was a friend of the Burton family, and it was he who later delivered the tragic news to Scott’s parents.
Two suspects were being sought, based on descriptions by Miss Gault.
Investigation, Arrests, and Convictions
Long, frustrating weeks and months dragged by following the murders, with no apparent leads in the case. It was speculated that the men may not have been local residents, that they were passing through town and had chosen to rob the store at random, and they might never be found. It appeared that the case had gone cold.
However, in June 1989, a man named Glenn Wilson was arrested on unrelated charges. He spoke to authorities of having information about the S&S case, but the information turned out to be self-incriminating. His girlfriend later testified to driving one of the getaway cars, while his brother Howard Wilson drove the other.
Eventually it came out that half-brothers Alvin Alexander and Glenn Wilson were the two men who entered the store and ordered the two clerks, Tracey Gault and Robert Webb, and two customers, Scott Burton and Whitney Cole, to lie down on the floor. Burton, Webb, and Cole did so, but Alvin Alexander ordered Miss Gault to give him the money from the register and then from the safe. Meanwhile, it was Glenn Wilson who executed Webb, Burton, and Cole by firing a single bullet into each of their heads. Glenn and Alvin's other brother, Howard, apparently remained outside.
Glenn Wilson was tried in 1991 and sentenced to death. Judge Charles Witte presided over the trial at the McLean County Law & Justice Center. Wilson's death sentence was later lifted when Governor George Ryan suspended capital punishment in Illinois.
In 1992, Alvin Alexander also stood trial for his involvement in the case, and was sentenced to life in prison.
Howard Wilson attempted to make deals with the state, but was eventually tried and convicted in 1993.
S&S Murder Victims
-Scott Burton, age 30
-Whitney Cole, age 24
-Robert Webb, age 31
After the convictions came a long series of appeals by the defendants, but all were denied.
Undoubtedly affected by the long, sad shadow of the senseless murders, the S&S store went out of business at the beginning of January 1993.
Glenn Wilson sought clemency at a 2002 hearing, and family members of victims testified against it. Governor George Ryan subsequently commuted all death sentences in 2003.
The death penalty was finally abolished in Illinois by Governor Pat Quinn in 2011.
- Vogel, Steve. Reasonable Doubt. (1990). St. Martin's Press Paperback Edition.
- Richardson, Scott. (1988, October 29). Friend's Knock Brings Shock of Son's Death to Parents.The Pantagraph, pp. A1, A3.
- FindLaw http://www.findlaw.com.
Photos by Author