Sunday, November 2, 2008

Cecil Henderson Jr. - Pedophile Child Molesting Grandfather backed by enabling wife and church

Cecil Henderson Jr. could spend the rest of his life behind bars and estranged from several members of his once close-knit family.

Henderson, 74, of Woodstock, is in jail and waiting to be sentenced on charges that he molested two of his grandchildren, one from the age 3 to 5 and the other from age 7 to 9.

A third relative, a niece, testified at trial that Henderson, a former home remodeler and church usher and basketball coach, had similarly abused her more than 40 years ago.

“He robbed his grandchildren and niece of their innocence —- and he robbed his family,” Assistant District Attorney Holly Varner said. “Because of his selfishness, the whole family is destroyed.”

Henderson’s attorney, Ronnie Knighton of Marietta, said Henderson will appeal his September conviction on 15 felony charges.

“His defense was: It never happened, and he didn’t do it,” Knighton said.

How it came to light

For four weeks in the late summer of 2006, Brett Henderson pondered what to do after his youngest boy and girl confided to their big sisters and then to him that their grandpa had been molesting them. He talked to some of his six brothers about it but couldn’t bring himself to tell his wife or confront his father.

Cecil Henderson and Brett Henderson had worked side by side as home remodelers. Grandpa had been the one Brett and his wife, Jennifer, depended on when the kids needed to be picked up from school or church, and his home was party central for every family birthday, graduation and barbecue.

Brett Henderson said that when he finally went to his father, Cecil Henderson crossed his arms, chuckled and said ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

“I said, ‘Dad, these are my kids,’ ” Brett said. ” ‘I believe my kids, and you need some help.’ “

His father’s next response was to punch him in the face. A physical fight ensued that had to be broken up by two of Brett’s brothers.

“And my mother told me to leave,” Brett said.

Later that night, Jennifer finally heard why, for the past few weeks, Brett had been drinking and distant, but yet doing all he could to keep Cecil Henderson away from the couple’s two youngest children —- even going to the school to take him off a list of relatives approved to pick them up.

“I remember sitting on the back porch, crying,” Jennifer said. “We practically lived there [at Cecil Henderson’s home].”

Within a day, Jennifer said she had wormed a few details out of her daughter and began raging inside.

“I was on my way to that house, but my brother wouldn’t let me go,” she said.

Within 24 hours, Jennifer was telling the police —- something she says her mother-in-law, Sandi Henderson, had asked her not to do.

“As a mom, I needed to,” she said.

But it wasn’t easy. “How do you go to the police about somebody that you love and care so deeply for? And at the same time, I wanted to kill him.”

Brett also was conflicted. He felt it was his father and his duty, yet he hadn’t been able to make the call to police.

In hindsight, he said: “I’m glad that she went. That was the first step on the road to recovery.”

The trial

On Sept. 22, jury selection began in Cherokee County Superior Court for Cecil Henderson’s trial on 15 felony charges: five counts of enticing a child for indecent purposes; five counts of child molestation; four counts of sexual battery; and one count of aggravated sexual battery.

“It was a very volatile, emotional trial for everybody involved,” said Varner, the prosecutor. “You could physically see it in the courtroom. It [the family] was split down the middle.”

Extra deputies were on hand.

The prosecution called 12 witnesses, including Brett Henderson’s two children and Cecil Henderson’s niece from Ohio. All three gave similar accounts of being alone with Cecil Henderson and of being touched inappropriately or being forced to touch him, Varner said.

The two youngest grandchildren described sleep-overs where Grandpa would slip into their beds or follow them into the bathroom, she said.

Varner called a third grandchild who had gone to police 13 years ago about Cecil Henderson. But the girl claimed no recollection on the witness stand, the prosecutor said.

“She [the third grandchild] had been molested when she was 7 to 9 in the same type of circumstances,” Varner said.

Cheryl Turner, a 49-year-old working mother of four from near Akron, Ohio, testified that Cecil Henderson, whom she called “Uncle Jr.,” molested her on a trip to Georgia about 1964. The AJC routinely does not name victims in sex crimes, but Turner agreed to be identified.

“He [Cecil Henderson] has just been doing this to generation after generation,” said Turner, who acknowledges that she never went to the police or publicly discussed what happened until Henderson’s arrest in Woodstock in 2006.

Cecil Henderson’s wife took the stand. So did several prominent members of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, where Cecil Henderson had ushered and served as coach and coordinator of the basketball program.

The church members testified they knew Cecil Henderson as a truthful person, Varner said.

The grandmother, Sandi Henderson, tried to discredit the youngest children of Brett and Jennifer Henderson. “She said they had vivid imaginations and liked to tell stories —- a polite way to say they were lying,” the prosecutor said.

Cecil Henderson told the jurors he didn’t do it. He also told them he loved his children and his grandchildren, Knighton said.

The trial lasted a week, and deliberations took about four hours, Varner said.

The jurors found Cecil Henderson guilty on all charges and were escorted to their cars at the end of the trial because of concerns for their safety, she said.

For Knighton, the jury verdict was a personal blow.

“It hurt me to lose this one because I sure believe he wasn’t guilty,” he said. “I’ve known the man for 25 years. I always knew him to be an honorable man.”

What lies ahead

A pre-sentencing investigation has been ordered. Sentencing is likely sometime this month.

Varner said she knows she’ll ask for a lengthy prison sentence —- just how much she’s not sure.

“I think the only way the children can be safe is if he’s in custody,” she said.

The aggravated sexual battery charge alone requires a minimum 10-year prison sentence, Varner said.

Turner, the niece from Ohio, said she submitted a written statement to the court, recommending that his sentence be at least 25 years.

“I am really traumatized now,” she said. “I always felt I should have told someone, and now I think, if only I had …”

Cecil Henderson III, son and namesake of Cecil Henderson, said the seven brothers, once so close, now have virtually no contact.

“It wouldn’t be good —- seven brothers full of mad and hurt,” he said. “The next thing you got seven brothers beating the crap out of each other.”

Cecil Henderson III said he feels bad for his mother. But he said, “I believe my brother [Brett] and his kids. I’ll stand behind them 100 percent.”

Sandi Henderson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Brett and Jennifer Henderson say that two years into it, their minds are still spinning. Why didn’t they see the signs or ask more questions, like when their young daughter was vomiting at school with some regularity? Why, when their daughter had a skin abrasion, did medical professionals suggest discontinuing her bubble baths?

“I tell my kids every day I’m so sorry we didn’t know,” Jennifer Henderson said.

Both parents said they hope talking about what happened in their family will help others.

“My husband has lost his mother, his dad and his brothers,” Jennifer said. “But he loves his kids.”

Brett Henderson knows his children may have to spend years in counseling. “Maybe into their teens, maybe after they marry.”

He said he hasn’t forgiven his father.

“I hope it won’t be too late before I can forgive him.”

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