Runaway Ran to a Rotten Death

Heather Marie Catterton was pretty, 17-years-old and unfortunately, a very troubled young woman. She had a tumultuous relationship with her father Nick and often ran away for days at a time to escape household tension. This time, however, Catterton would run into a fateful end, one that, in spite of having street smarts, the unhappy young girl could never have predicted or prevented.

York County-  South Carolina – October 29, 2009.. Police attended a “country, gravel and dirt road” to investigate the finding of a young woman’s corpse. She had been dumped on an obscure lonely road where few people would notice her. There was a striped sock on her toe and Heather-Cattertonher naked calf protruded from a brush. The body was white with blue veins visible beneath the skin.  She had a long, deep gash in her side from a claw, perhaps. There were more scratches along her body. Perhaps the body had been dragged. She was naked from the waist down, and except for a hoodie that was pulled up to expose her breasts, and the socks, that was all she wore. Several metres down the road from the body was her diamond-studded blue jeans. Stuffed inside the jeans was a red bra and a pair of black underwear.

After fingerprinting the body, police determined her identity.Catterton had been charged with possess of cocaine and marijuana with intent to distribute. The charges were pending and Catterton didn’t have a criminal record.  Catterton had lived in Gastonia, North Carolina. Catterton wasn’t enrolled in school. frequently stayed with friends for weeks at a time. She had been in and out of the foster system for five years.

Family Response
It’s interesting that most families of murdered people claim that their family member was untroubled and led a wonderful life. Nick Catterton said he was encouraging Catterton to study for a GED. Catterton had several drug arrests in Gaston County to which Nick Catterton attributed heaththe company his daughter kept.  “She’s always been a good girl. She just got those teenage genes in her. Teenagers nowadays think they can do anything and they’re all grown up.” I’ve never heard of teenage genes in my life but apparently that explanation made sense to Nick. Catterton often lived on the run, staying at home sometimes, with friends sometimes and at other times no one knew where she was.
She wouldn’t even tell me who she was with because she knew I would come right then and get her,” Nick Catterton said. “A father and mother can tell about their kids more than anyone in the world. Parents know the signs. A lot of time they don’t believe the signs, but the signs are there.”He insisted that his daughter was self-aware and strong, and she would have tried to fight off her attacker and escape. “She was a very smart girl — she was street smart. That’s what made me think that couldn’t be her, because at the first sign of trouble, as soon as the opportunity hit, she would have run like a rabbit. She would have done something.” Nick may have been right about seeing the signs in his daughter’s behaviour but this didn’t help him to get his child under control. He was an inadequate parent in need of counselling to establish realistic guidelines for Catterton.

hemNick Catterton stated he would have sacrificed his own life to protect her, something I highly doubt. “I would definitely trade places with her. Anybody would for their kid that they love. It just breaks our hearts….“Whoever (did) this couldn’t have been in their right state of mind. They had to be some kind of monster, maniac.” He made a strange appeal to the public: Please come forward and give peace of mind who everyone who loves her. Whoever it is, they’re going to catch you anyway.”

The Department of Social Services took over custody of Catterton when she was fifteen. “They would say activity has gone on,” Nick Catterton explained. One night at their previous home in Grover a shot was fired and Catterton was placed in DSS care over child endangerment concerns. Social services finally released her from its custody when she was sixteen because, “They couldn’t control her from running away from these homes,” Nick Catterton said. He called his daughter a “daddy’s girl. She got into trouble because of her “free-spirited” nature.” Apparently Nick’s definition of free=spirited included drug possession and sales and being in the custody of Social Services.

Her brother, Barry Holland, stated “she was a joyful person, high-spirited… got along with everyone, and everyone liked her. She always had a smile on her face.” If Catterton’s father and brother were speaking truthfully about her then her history of running away and dealing drugs was extremely contradictory. Clearly the family was unaware of the significant contradiction in what they told the media and what actually happened in Catterton’s life.

National Runaway Switchboard
According to the National Runaway Switchboard, between 1.6 million and 2.8 million youths run away from home each year. Maureen Blaha, a national children’s expert of the Switchboard, stated, “It’s alarming. It’s a silent crisis in this country. The public needs to realize we have a serious problem in this country that needs their attention.” The hotline received more than 100,000 calls each year with fifty percent of the calls from youth who had left their homes, and the other half from parents looking for support. Not surprisingly, family dynamic issues were the No. 1 reason youth called the switchboard. Those problems ranged from:

  1. inability to cope with current family struggles
  2. wanting to flee the situation making them feel upset
  3. inability to fit into a new family structure

hem“They don’t know how to cope and may flee,” Blaha said. Catterton was reported missing at least five times in one year. Oftentimes, officials found her in Gaston County not too far from her biological family’s home. She wanted to be accepted and to adjust to her family’s circumstances but Catterton was unable and she paid with her life.

Blaha is correct in stating that runaways lead difficult lives and are ill-equipped to cope with their personal problems. However her statement that “the public needs to realize we have a serious problem in this country that needs their attention” doesn’t carry any merit. What will the public do with this information? What does the public do when it discovers that yet another child who has been placed in Child Protective Services and died at the hands of perverse foster parents? Nothing. We’re outraged and talk about the headlines for a while and then the stories slip to the back page of a newspaper until they disappear and we forget about them. It isn’t right but it’s a fact.

The Killer
Police didn’t take long to determine the killer’s identity – In a bizarre twist of fate, a man named Danny Robbie Hembree Jr., 47,  who was dating Catterton’s sister, Nicole Catterton at the time of the murder. There was no explanation offered as to why Hembree killed Heather Catterton. They had a mutual sexual encounter, possibly fueled by drugs. Perhaps Catterton threatened to tell her sister for some reason, so Hembree killed her. However Hembree also raped and brutally killed Catterton so this motive isn’t entirely rational.

Danny Hembree,is seen in an undated photo provided by the N.C. Department of Public Safety. Hembree, a death row inmate accused of killing three North Carolina women, has written a taunting letter to his hometown newspaper, saying he’ll spend many years as a gentleman of leisure, watching color TV and enjoying frequent naps. “Kill me if you can, suckers,” Danny Robbie Hembree Jr. wrote in a letter to The Gaston Gazette. A story about the letter and its contents was published on the front page of the Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 edition. Hembree is on North Carolina’s death row for suffocating Heather Catterton, 17, in 2009. He's also accused of killing two other women. (AP Photo/N.C. Department of Public Safety)

Danny Hembree,is seen in an undated photo provided by the N.C. Department of Public Safety. Hembree, a death row inmate accused of killing three North Carolina women, has written a taunting letter to his hometown newspaper, saying he’ll spend many years as a gentleman of leisure, watching color TV and enjoying frequent naps. “Kill me if you can, suckers,” Danny Robbie Hembree Jr. wrote in a letter to The Gaston Gazette. A story about the letter and its contents was published on the front page of the Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 edition. Hembree is on North Carolina’s death row for suffocating Heather Catterton, 17, in 2009. He’s also accused of killing two other women. (AP Photo/N.C. Department of Public Safety)

At any rate, Hembree was eventually charged with three counts of  first-degree murder around the time that he murdered Catterton. After the Catterton murder, Hembree was also charged in the 1992 murder of Deborah Ratchford, 30, whose body was found in the woods near Oakland Street Cemetery, according to police. He was also accused in the Nov. 11 death of Randi Dean Saldana, 29, one of Heather’s friends. Police linked him to Saldana’s rape and murder since she and Catterton had been good friends. Why he killed Saldana, only Hembree knows.

Krystal Wylie, a decade-long friend of Catterton’s said she first met the man accused of killing Heather at the teen’s funeral. “I went to the funeral. He was there.”  Wylie said she was in shock when she found out Hembree was arrested and couldn’t believe someone now accused of killing her could attend Catterton’s funeral. “Nicole left the gravesite with Danny. It’s shocking. Everybody walked up [to the closed casket]. I don’t recall him walking up there.” He should have been locked up and held without bail.

The Trial
According to an affidavit in Hembree’s court file, police said that on Dec. 5, 2009, Hembree confessed to killing Catterton and Saldana in his mother’s house at 2304 Oakstone Drive, Gastonia. The affidavit says the two bodies were stored in a closet in the house’s basement and later dumped in York County. Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell took less than 10 minutes to tell the jury about the day Catterton was killed. Hembree admitted to smoking crack and having sex with Catterton before she died but denied that he killed her.

The state argued that Hembree came up from behind the teen, placed his hand over her nose and mouth, and suffocated her. Suffocation can take up to 90 seconds to kill someone. It’s a torturous death. Hembree on the other hand, stated he used a cord to strangle the teen. “and then I released the cord because I didn’t want to bruise her up or hurt her, I just wanted he to go quick.” Such a humanitarian. He also showed detectives Saldana’s boots that he’d kept in his mother’s basement. “I left her in here. Randi stayed 2 or 3 days here.”

Much of this information was stated in front of the jury in court. Hembree stated he hadn’t meant to kill Saldana but had choked her in a moment of passion. He told the jury, “I was pissed off at Randi for dying.” Intelligent comment to make during a murder trial. Of course, he also hadn’t meant to kill Catterton. He insisted he found her dead in his bed the morning after they had consensual sex and smoked crack together. The jury didn’t buy it. Hembree was found guilty of first degree murder in Catterton’s death and sentenced to death row. He pled guilty to Saldana’s murder.

lettLest you think that’s the end of the story, Hembree, who clearly had little self-control, wrote a letter to his hometown newspaper, stating “kill me if you can, suckers.” By the age of 53, North Carolina’s highest court ordered Hembree a new trial. The court agreed that he was denied a fair trial because of several errors, including the presentation of evidence from Saldana’s killing. He received the death sentence for this killing but if he is lucky enough, he may be able to extend his life on death row with continued appeals and trials, a la Rodney Alacala, The Dating Game Killer, who has been convicted of several rape-murders but 29 years later, is still alive due to appeals and new trials.

Hembree further taunted the public in his letter by stating, Is the public aware that I am a gentleman of lesiure, watching color TV in the A.C., reading, takeing naps at will, eating three well balanced hot meals a day. I’m housed in a building that connects to the new 55 million dollar hospital with round the clock free medical care 24/7.

I’m sure he is also corresponding with women who, for their own twisted reasons, become infatuated with prison inmates. It wouldn’t surprise me if he received a marriage proposal soon. A true crime account about Catterton’s killing, written by M. William Phelphs, entitled The Killing Kind, details the life and death of Catterton.

 

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