Woman can no longer flee
A DEAD-END LIFE | KC native’s troubled past lands her on death row
Only clemency or action by high court will spare this murderer but boy's parents seek final justice
Posted on Sun, February 25, 2007
By Tony Rizzo
The Kansas City Star
Cathy Lynn Henderson forged the instinct to run at an early age.
As a child, she ran from bullies in a Kansas City housing project. As an adult, she ran from the responsibilities of motherhood.
And with her panicked final flight from the horror of holding a little baby’s lifeless body, she ran herself onto death row in Texas.
It likely will be the last stop in her tumultuous journey.
Henderson is scheduled to drift into death sometime after 6 p.m. April 18 when an executioner unleashes the flow of poison into her slender arm. Only a governor’s grant of clemency or intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court can save her.
She is to die for the 1994 murder of a 3-month-old boy she was baby-sitting. She will be only the 12th woman put to death in the nation’s modern era of capital punishment.
The self-described “nobody” maintains that the crushing skull fracture suffered by Brandon Baugh was the result of a terrible accident. Her story has attracted a nationwide network of supporters that includes Sister Helen Prejean of “Dead Man Walking” fame.
In the only media interview she has granted, Henderson told The Kansas City Star that she hopes her life might yet be spared. The U.S. Supreme Court could announce as soon as Monday if it will agree to hear Henderson’s case.
But to the parents robbed of a lifetime of memories, Henderson’s execution will be well-deserved justice. The sad circumstances of her life are no excuse for the violent circumstances of their little boy’s death, Eryn and Melissa Baugh said.
“This will never be over until she pays for it with her life,” Eryn Baugh said.
Nothing but crumbs
Born Cathy Lynn Stone at Kansas City’s old General Hospital two days after Christmas 1956, Henderson’s earliest memories are a fuzzy collage of the faces of men who drifted in and out of her mother’s life.
To the pretty little blond-haired girl, those strangers passed out on the couch when she woke up in the morning were actually a welcome sight.
“I think they felt sorry for me,” she said. “They always gave me change out of their pocket so I could go to the store and get something to eat.”
Hunger was one constant in her early years. It drove her to neighbors’ doors to beg for cookies and to a Kansas City park to scrounge for clover that tasted like pickles.
Henderson’s brother, Robert Wright, who is four years younger, summed up her life in three letters.
“B-a-d,” he said.
They are unsure how many children their mother had.
Their mother, who lives in a Franklin, Texas, nursing home, declined to be interviewed for this story.
“She dated a lot of men and had a lot of kids,” Wright said. “She would leave us in the house with nothing to eat but crumbs. Cathy would watch us. She was a little kid watching kids.”
It was not unusual for their mother to vanish for days, Henderson said. “I was used to not knowing where she was or when she would be back.”
Her mother moved often to avoid social workers and bill collectors. Henderson can’t remember ever attending the same school for an entire year.
She does remember the beatings — whipped with a belt for not washing the dishes properly, spraying too much water on clothes she ironed, not cleaning the house well enough. Sometimes she came to school with makeup on her face to hide bruises, according to friend Debra Huffstutter.
“She never wanted to talk about her life,” said Huffstutter. “But there were days you could tell she had been through hell the night before.”
Huffstutter lived in Trenton, Mo., northeast of Kansas City, where Henderson and her mother moved when Henderson was about 12. They lived in a run-down hotel frequented by railroad workers, according to Huffstutter. Henderson’s mother worked in the bar, and Henderson sometimes worked 16 hours a day in the restaurant.
When Henderson was 15, her mother and a younger sister disappeared in the middle of the night. By then, Henderson’s brothers lived with their father. Henderson never knew for sure who her father was.
She moved between foster families before briefly living in her own apartment. She enjoyed high school and friends. Reminiscing about those good days, Henderson mentioned: “I got to eat lunch every day.”
As high school graduation approached in 1975, she and best friend Mary Fries took the test to join the Navy.
“I really didn’t have anyplace to go,” Henderson said. “But I flunked the test.”
Henderson yearned to be with her mother, Fries recalled.
“She always really loved her mom, regardless of what happened,” Fries said. “I just think she had this idea they were all going to be a family.”
After high school, Henderson followed her mother to Texas, hoping she had changed.
“You always want to have a bond with your mother,” she explained, “and you keep on hoping things will be different.”
They shared an apartment briefly in the Houston area before her mother left to attend a relative’s funeral. She never came back, according to Henderson, who was stuck owing several months of back rent.
At age 20, Henderson became pregnant. Her boyfriend wanted her to get an abortion. Instead, she enrolled in a church-based program for unwed mothers and moved into the Austin-area home of Gloria and Joe Walther.
“We fell in love with Cathy as soon as she walked in our door,” Gloria Walther said. “She was a very pretty little girl.”
The boyfriend “abandoned her,” Walther said. After a daughter was born, Henderson wrote the boyfriend’s parents, but they never responded.
In 1978, Henderson began working at a newly opened factory in the Austin area.
Fred List, the plant’s technical director, remembers Henderson as “this little bitty person” operating large cranes and other equipment. She became his secretary. Her intelligence and ability to foresee problems and suggest solutions impressed him.
In 1982 she married a plant supervisor and had another daughter. But the marriage was rocky, and she was fired after she punched another plant employee.
“From then on Cathy had it rough, rough, rough,” said List, who has spent six years researching Henderson’s story and assisting her defense.
The familiar parenting pattern of Henderson’s youth began to repeat in her adulthood. Allegations of abuse and neglect prompted Texas authorities to terminate her parental rights to her older daughter.
She lost custody of her second daughter to her husband after assaulting him with a knife during a fight.
Those two violent instances — as well as a criminal history that included public intoxication, giving false information to police, possession of drugs, shoplifting and driving under the influence — would be recounted at her trial.
Losing her children, her job and her marriage led to a downhill slide of drug abuse and running with “the wrong crowd,” Henderson said.
But by 1993, she had remarried, delivered a third daughter and opened a day care in her home near Pflugerville, Texas.
One of the children she cared for was 3-month-old Brandon Baugh.
An agonizing wait
A poster offering child-care services caught the attention of the Baughs, who had a boy and a girl.
Henderson’s home was immaculate, and her “bubbly” attitude impressed them. She prominently displayed a home day-care certificate from the state of Texas.
The certificate was not signed, however — a fact the Baughs would not realize until the trial.
And Henderson never mentioned she had lost custody of two children, Eryn Baugh said.
For four months, things went fine. But when Melissa Baugh arrived at Henderson’s house to pick up her children on Jan. 21, 1994, nobody was there.
Puzzlement slowly gave way to panic. Henderson’s husband tried to reassure the Baughs that she probably had just gone shopping with the children.
Later that night, the husband showed up at the Baughs’ home with their 2-year-old daughter, whom Henderson had left with relatives. He had no idea where Henderson or Brandon Baugh were.
The Baughs endured 11 agonizing days with no news.
After “America’s Most Wanted” broadcast the story, a tip led the FBI to an Independence apartment, where agents arrested Henderson on Feb. 1.
“She didn’t look like the type to have done anything horrible or bad,” said her landlady, an elderly widow who asked not to be identified.
Henderson used a phony name to rent the apartment.
In a written statement to the FBI, Henderson said she “panicked” and fled after she dropped the baby and could not revive him.
“I want to emphasize this was an accident and that I am truly sorry for Brandon’s death,” she wrote.
Henderson said she tried to turn off the answering machine while holding Brandon.
“He pushed out of my arm and flipped over,” her statement said. “Brandon landed on his head. The kitchen floor is tile over concrete.”
She wrapped his body in a blanket, put it into a cardboard box and buried him near Waco, Texas.
‘I was panicked’
To this day, Henderson can’t fully explain why she ran.
“At that time I think I went through so many different emotions,” she told The Star last week. “I was horrified. I was terrified. I was depressed. I was panicked.”
She said she didn’t think about how fleeing would make her look guilty or cause the Baughs extra pain.
“I think back on that day and it’s like I want to go back and talk some sense into myself to make me think,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking that day. All I knew was that I was so horrified that I couldn’t bear to face anybody.”
She admits that her lousy upbringing and the penchant to run instilled by her mother at an early age are not excuses.
“There are a lot of kids who have bad childhoods, but they don’t run away from accidents.”
Sentenced to death
After her arrest, Henderson refused to tell authorities where she buried Brandon.
But she drew a map for her attorneys, who turned it over when ordered by a Texas court. After investigators found Brandon’s shallow grave, authorities charged Henderson with capital murder.
Eryn Baugh said that when they were given their son’s remains, they learned how severely he had been injured.
“The back of his skull was crushed in,” he said. “Picture an eggshell shattered.”
He never believed it was an accident and said Henderson gave too many versions to be believed.
“Her stories don’t wash.”
Prosecutors told the Baughs it would be difficult to get a woman sentenced to death, even in Texas. The Baughs insisted that they try.
At trial, doctors testified that Brandon’s head injury could not have been an accident. One said it was comparable to a fall of more than two stories. She was convicted and sentenced to death.
Henderson never contacted the Baughs or directly offered an apology. Eryn Baugh said there was only one thing he wanted her to do.
“Drop the lies and tell us what really happened.”
Henderson remains hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree to hear her appeal.
Facing death, Henderson said she felt “incredibly blessed” that she had Prejean’s love and support.
“She gives me a lot of strength, faith and hope.”
Prejean has met with Henderson at the prison where she and nine other women live on Texas’s death row. Prejean, who thinks that Brandon’s death was an accident, helped find Henderson her current legal team and urged hundreds of other nuns across the country to write Henderson.
People need to understand that Henderson is not a monster, said Prejean, who has agreed to be Henderson’s spiritual adviser and be with her if she is executed.
“It’s easy to kill a monster,” Prejean said. “It’s hard to kill a real human being.”
In her interview with The Star, Henderson said she wanted to tell the Baughs that she was sorry and that she felt regret every day for the pain she caused them.
“I wish there was something I could do to comfort them,” she said, “and if it’s going to comfort them to end my life for an accident, I hope that gives them comfort.”