Early on July 3, 2017, before Bakari Henderson left home for a trip that would ultimately end in his death in Greece at the hands of an angry mob, he and parents Phil and Jill Henderson sat outside the airport and prayed.
The family had no idea that 22-year-old Bakari would be killed within days. But as a family of strong faith, prayer was a central feature of their home life. Jill and Phil saw their son one last time, on July 6, 2017, when Bakari video-called them to wish his father a happy birthday.
The following night, outside of a bar in Laganas on the Greek island of Zakynthos, he was fatally beaten by nearly a dozen people. Part of the fight was captured in video that soon circled the globe, though the exact details — what led up to the altercation, why it escalated to such violence — remain unclear and the subject of dispute.
“Nobody knows what happened, none of us were there,” says Jill, adding, “Bakari didn’t know the language they were speaking, so to have a verbal altercation would have been virtually impossible.”
Nine men have been charged in Bakari’s death, the Associated Press reports: six with murder and three others with less serious charges. On Friday, some 14 months after Bakari was killed, his alleged assailants went on trial in Greece. (European privacy laws have reportedly prevented the identification of the accused.)
Bakari’s parents were in the courtroom and plan to remain in Greece until a verdict is reached. Dad Phil, 57, was the first witness as testimony commenced on Thursday.
“Our family really just hopes that they will convict them and that they would all serve the maximum amount of time, which is a life sentence, and so that’s been our hope the whole time,” Jill, 53, tells PEOPLE. “We’re very hopeful.”
Jill says the arrival of the trial, at last, has brought a mix of emotions: relief as well apprehension about the Grecian legal process, which differs in some disorienting ways from an American court.
For example, the Hendersons arrived last Friday believing the trial would open and proceed day after day — instead, testimony was scheduled for Thursday, nearly a week later, and the future timeline is hazy.
Bakari’s parents saw his alleged killers in court — six of whom were present last week with the seventh expected to attend Thursday (two others left the country and are being tried in absentia) — but did not let that dominate their attention, Jill says.
“[We] were just trying to stay focused on the proceedings,” she says, noting that a translator was provided to assist them.
Details and Questions from Deadly Fight
The trial should help clarify much about what is unknown in Bakari’s death. Citing an indictment in the case, USA Today reported that the fight began after Bakari and a friend took a photo with a woman at a local bar.
The indictment alleges that another man became angry, telling her “there are so many Serbs in this bar, why are you talking to a black guy?” All but one of the suspected attackers in the ensuing brawl are either Serbian nationals or of Serbian descent, according to the AP.
“I would like to have the details just to kind of comprehend what would make so many people angry that they would kill one person,” Jill tells PEOPLE. “Truthfully, I can’t think of any reason that would justify it.”
“[Bakari] is not the type of guy who would get into a confrontation,” friend Astrid Von Ehren told PEOPLE last year. “What happened is unbelievable. He stopped confrontations. He was one of the last boys on Earth who would do something like that. There is no way. It is such a tragic story.”
Jill says it is unclear if any of the suspects will testify on their own behalf. An attorney representing one of them previously told USA Today that his client had struck Bakari using brass knuckles — but not fatally. (PEOPLE could not reach prosecutors or defense attorneys on Thursday.)
‘People Were Drawn to Him’
As the case continues, the Hendersons are not losing sight of the son they lost, a recent college graduate who was in Greece to work on launching a clothing line, Bakari Luxury Sportswear. Jill says it was the “first of many” plans for Bakari, a 2017 alumnus of the University of Arizona who earned his degree in business administration.
Entrepreneurial at heart — as a young boy he sold crystal-colored rocks, like jewels, to other classmates on the school playground — Bakari “was always one that had big dreams,” his mother says.
“He was our most outgoing son,” she says, describing him as a magnet, unmissable.
“Whenever he was in the room, he was a big shining light there. People were drawn to him.”
The absence created by his death has reordered his family — Jill and Phill and his siblings, brother PJ and sister Jory — but not destroyed them.
“Without our faith, I just don’t know that we’d be able to get tough it. … I just don’t know how any family or person can get thorough something this tragic without their belief in God,” Jill says.
The world has been kind to them in their grief, according to Jill, with supportive messages from friends as well as strangers from far-flung places.
Bakari’s parents are continuing to work on his clothing line and, on what would have been his 23rd birthday in April, announced the launch of a foundation in his name to provide “healing experiences” for those who have “suffered a loss.”
In a mark of Bakari’s effect on others, at that birthday celebration in the spring were several hundred people, when Jill says they expected no more than 100. A mural has also gone up in the Austin, Texas, area, where Jill and Phil live, painted by a woman they have never met.
Says Jill: “We feel blessed that it feels like his love has been spreading across the world.”