A Texas Massacre

AS WAS HIS HABIT, GEORGE HENNARD Jr. stopped at the Leon Heights Drive-In convenience store in Belton, Texas, before dawn on Oct. 16 for a junk-food breakfast. He had been going there on and off for more than a year—a young man always in a hurry. He was ominous and brooding, with an unsettling hostility simmering in his eyes. “He seemed like he had a lot of problems,” recalls cashier Mary Mead. “To be honest, I was scared of him.” But that Wednesday morning, Mead sensed something different as she rang up his orange juice, sausage-and-biscuit sandwich, candy bar, doughnuts and newspaper. “For some reason,” she says, “he seemed almost calm, almost friendly, for the first time I can remember.”

Seven hours later, Hennard arrived at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, 17 miles away. It was lunchtime, and business, as usual, was booming. The kind of community gathering spot where people come to plan weddings, cut business deals or just chat and gorge on rich desserts, Luby’s was packed with 150 people when Hen-nard’s blue 1987 Ford Ranger pickup truck crashed through the plate-glass front window. Almost immediately came the sound—POP, POP, POP—as Hennard, armed with two powerful 9-mm semiautomatic pistols, began the massacre. With cold-blooded efficiency, he stalked the restaurant and chose those who would die—most of whom were women. “All women of Killeen and Belton are vipers! See what you’ve done to me and my family!” Hennard yelled, calmly carrying out his executions, often at point-blank range with a single shot to the head. “Is it worth it? Tell me, is it worth it?”

Among his victims, actual and potential, the terror and feeling of utter helplessness was so great that people could do nothing more than duck under tables, chairs and benches, clasping each other’s hands and praying. There was no panic, no screaming, no mad scramble for the door—and the eerie silence persisted even during the lulls when Hennard paused methodically to reload his weapons and continue the slaughter. By the time police arrived, Hennard had killed 22 people at the scene; one more died later and 27 others were wounded. Exchanging fire with two officers for a few minutes, Hennard suffered four wounds before ending the madness: He dashed toward the rest rooms and, using the final bullet in his clip, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

Only 10 minutes had passed; still, it was the worst mass murder in U.S. history, and it left the people of Killeen (pop. 66,932) asking in anguish, Why? As investigators tried to piece together the fragments of Hennard’s life, they found few could remember anything about the man called Joe or Jo-Jo (to distinguish him from his father), save that he was a loner, withdrawn and sullen. From what people could recall came a dark portrait of a disturbed young man from a wealthy yet troubled family who was known for his hatred of women and minorities, his violent temper and the angry, piercing brown eyes that made people afraid. But no one pretended to know what triggered the bloody carnage at Luby’s.

Hennard was born in Sayre, Penn., where his father, Dr. Georges Marcel Hennard, was a resident in orthopedics. From the time he was 5, Hennard and his family—mother Gloria Jeanne and younger siblings Alan Robert and Desiree—were shuttled across the country as his father worked at various Army hospitals. “He was quite an outgoing kid,” recalls Lou Catoggio, who met Hennard when both boys were in grade school and lived at the White Sands Missile Range Army base near Las Cruces, N.Mex. “Everybody thought he was cool. He was a good-looking kid. Everybody looked up to Jo-Jo.” But all that changed the following year when Hennard got into a fight with his father, who had a reputation for toughness. “Joe came to school the next day looking like he’d been mauled,” says Catoggio. “It looked like his old man had taken a butcher knife and cut his hair. He was never the same after that. He was completely introverted.”

In fact, Hennard kept to himself throughout high school. “You never saw him with girls. He never hung around with anybody,” says Paul Crowe, a neighbor at White Sands. “His parents never did care and were hardly ever around.” After graduating in 1974, Hennard joined the Navy and three years later signed up with the Merchant Marine, working mostly in the Gulf of Mexico until 1981, when he set out on the first of 37 overseas voyages. As his sojourns multiplied, so did his troubles. He was arrested for marijuana possession in Texas in 1981 and had his seaman’s papers suspended after a reported racial argument with a shipmate in May 1982. “He hated blacks, Hispanics, gays. He said women were snakes,” recalls Jamie Dunlap, who briefly shared an apartment with Hennard in Temple, Texas, that year. “He always had derogatory remarks about women, especially after fights with his mother.”

In 1989, shortly after losing his seaman’s license again, for marijuana possession aboard a cargo ship, Hennard enrolled in a substance-abuse program in Houston. He began drifting from job to job, working on construction crews in South Dakota and Killeen and living part-time in Henderson, Nev., with his mother (she had divorced his father in 1983) and at the sprawling, redbrick colonial home in Belton that his family had bought in 1980 after moving to Fort Hood. In February 1991 he legally purchased two pistols—a Ruger P89 and a Clock 17—in Henderson. This past summer, his behavior became increasingly bizarre. Jill Fritz, 23, and Jana Jemigan, 19—two sisters who lived a couple of blocks away from Hennard in Belton and whom he had apparently been admiring from afar—received a rambling, five-page letter from him in June. “You think the three of us can get together some day [sic]?” he asked. “Please give me the satisfaction of someday laughing in the face of all those mostly white tremendously female vipers…who tried to destroy me and my family.”

A week and a half before the Luby’s massacre, Hennard picked up his paycheck at a cement company in Copperas Cove and announced he was quitting; he also wondered aloud what would happen if he killed someone. “He got to talking about some of the people in Belton and certain women that had given him problems,” says coworker Bubba Hawkins. “And he kept saying, ‘Watch and see, watch and see.’ ” On Oct. 15—his birthday—he spoke briefly with his mother on the phone. That evening, while having a cheeseburger and fries at a small grill outside Belton, Hennard exploded with rage as he watched television coverage of Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings. “When an interview with Anita Hill came on, he just went off,” said manager Bill Stringer. “He started screaming, ‘You dumb bitch! You bastards opened the door for all the women!’ ”

The afternoon sun was bright, the air festive inside Luby’s cafeteria on Oct. 16. It was National Bosses’ Day, and Sam Wink, 47, an attendance officer for the Killeen Independent School District, and some fellow employees were treating their boss to lunch. The group was seated at a big round table in front when Hennard’s truck crashed in, sending a wave of glass shards into the air. “I leapt into the aisle,” says Wink. “Then I heard sounds like light bulbs popping.” Hennard was shooting from inside the truck before he got out—a pistol in each hand, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, his shirt and pockets bulging with clips—and began firing methodically down the serving line of customers getting their food.

As people hit the floor, Hennard circled the room, slowly and coolly selecting his victims. Glaring at one woman, he said, “You bitch,” then shot her to death. To another, cowering under a bench near the serving line, he said, “Hiding from me, bitch?” Seconds later, she too was dead. “I heard him snap in his third clip,” says Wink. “He was about 12 feet from me. When he turned, our eyes met for a second. They were mean. There was a smirk on his face, as if he was thinking, ‘I’ve been waiting for this a long time.’ He was very intense, well-prepared, almost as if he had practiced at home. And even though he was yelling, he was very calm. The contrast between the fire in his eyes and the calm on his face was unbelievable.”

Dr. Shawn Isdale, 31, a chiropractor from nearby Harker Heights, who was there with his wife, infant daughter and parents, also noticed Hen-nard’s strange composure. “His whole face was completely relaxed, no emotion at all,” says Isdale, who watched Hennard approach Steve Ernst, a friend of Isdale’s who was hiding under a table, and shoot him. “I heard Steve yell, ‘Oh, God!’ and saw him roll over, grasping his stomach.” Hennard then shot Ernst’s wife, Judy, in the arm; the bullet went clean through and killed Venice Ellen Henehan, 70, Ernst’s mother-in-law.

Between gunshots there was an eerie silence among the diners. “It was the silence of death,” says Wink. “I guess everyone was waiting their turn.” Auto mechanic Tommy Vaughan, 28, was certain his was coming when, during a brief lull in the shooting, Hennard began approaching his table in the rear of the cafeteria. Huddled on the floor beside a window, Vaughan hurled his 6’6″, 300-lb. frame through the glass. Within moments, dozens of people were pushing, shoving and knocking each other down as they made their escape; by the time police arrived a few minutes later, a third of the lunchtime crowd had managed to escape. “As time goes by, I think about things I could have done that would have ended things more quickly,” says Vaughan. “I don’t know. But I’ll say this: I now understand what it means to be paralyzed with fear. That’s how we all were feeling.”

Killeen is struggling with its grief. Last week, flags were flying at half-staff and the city launched a 30 Days of Unity campaign, urging everyone to wear white ribbons; by assigning such a deadline, residents were hoping in time to put the tragedy behind them. Families of the slain, survivors and even policemen are receiving counseling for grief, shock and stress.

Still, the mystery of George Hennard Jr. persists. Both his mother and father have declined to speak publicly, other than to say they don’t know what caused the rampage; as of last week, no one had been able to locate Hennard’s brother and sister. Murder experts have theories about Hennard’s life of isolation and rejection and his pent-up rage at women and the world, but that offers cold comfort to the residents of Killeen. “We talk about it among ourselves, but I don’t know how we’ll live with it,” says Elaine Wood, 47, who survived the slaughter. “Nobody knows why it happened, and they are never going to have the answers.”



Related Articles