It was three days before Christmas in 1985 when John Ruthell Henry stopped by his wife’s duplex apartment in Zephyrhills to talk about presents for his 5-year-old stepson.
Henry and Suzanne Henry, 29, had split up a month earlier. They had what relatives later would describe as a rocky, sometimes violent, relationship.
At some point that day, the holiday chat turned into an argument that became deadly. Authorities said an enraged Henry stabbed his wife 13 times.
Then Henry stood alone in the apartment with the boy, Eugene Christian, and made a decision.
A decade earlier, Henry had stabbed to death his common-law wife, Patricia Roddy, a crime for which he served seven years in prison. He left behind unharmed her two children who witnessed that slaying.
This time that would not happen.
Henry grabbed Eugene Christian and drove off with him. Sometime later Henry crossed into Hillsborough County and in a field near Plant City stabbed the boy to death.
The legal journey from Dec. 22, 1985, has been a long one. At 7:43 p.m. Wednesday, Florida executed John Ruthell Henry, 63, by lethal injection.
His death came nearly three decades after the double murder that crossed county lines and happened at a time when Pasco County was still a mostly rural area that had not seen the rapid growth of housing developments, schools and shopping centers that since then has displaced citrus groves and ranch land.
“Zephyrhills was a lot smaller then and that kind of thing didn’t happen here,” said Steve Spina, the city’s interim city manager who worked for the Zephyrhills News at the time Suzanne Henry and her son were killed. “It was shocking to find out he had done it before and was in prison for such a short time.”
Jurors at two trials — one in Pasco for Suzanne Henry’s killing and one in Hillsborough County for the boy’s death — recommended the death penalty. A series of appeals delayed the date with the executioner.
More recently, so did a botched lethal-injection execution in April in Oklahoma that caused nine executions nationwide to be stayed or postponed.
Those postponements came to an end this week with executions in Georgia and Missouri, as well as Henry’s in Florida.
His death brings to a close a saga that began that yuletide season in 1985.
Bonnie Cangro became worried that day when she learned her sister, Suzanne Henry, didn’t show up for work. Cangro went to her sister’s apartment. The front door was locked, but she could hear the television and see that a bedroom light was on. There was no sign of Suzanne.
Cangro left, but returned the next day to find the scene unchanged, the door still locked, the light still on, the television still playing.
She unlocked the door with a passkey and let herself in.
Not long after that, a court document said, Cangro ran inside a convenience store, screaming hysterically that she had found her sister dead.
By that time, Eugene Christian also was dead. After Henry carried the boy out of the apartment, he drove around with him for hours. Near Plant City, Henry became convinced that police were chasing him. He abandoned the borrowed car he had been driving and carried the boy through the fields. He stopped, cradled the boy in his arms, stabbed him five times in the throat, and held him while he died, according to statements he later gave investigators.
Detectives said Henry told them he planned to kill himself but could not gather the nerve.
Henry, 34 at the time, was arrested on Christmas Eve in a Zephyrhills motel room where he was found with his girlfriend. He confessed and led detectives to the boy’s body.
That set the stage for two trials more than one year later.
In court in Pasco County in 1987, Henry’s attorney pushed his claim that his wife had tried to stab him first and he killed her in self defense. He had made the same claim years earlier about Roddy, who was stabbed 25 times.
During testimony, Suzanne Henry’s sisters acknowledged she was a tough woman who got into fights and wouldn’t hesitate to use a weapon if necessary. Dorothy Clark testified that she saw Suzanne Henry threaten people with a gun on more than one occasion. Cangro said she once saw her sister threaten John Ruthell Henry with a knife.
The prosecution countered by getting the sisters to say that Suzanne Henry would fight, but in self defense.
Jurors did not buy John Henry’s self defense claim.
In the Hillsborough County trial, Assistant State Attorney Cass Castillo told jurors that Henry killed 5-year-old Eugene Christian because the lesson he learned from his first murder conviction was don’t leave small children behind as witnesses.
“He (Eugene) was taken from that house to be executed,” Castillo said. “When Henry got down to the issue of whether it was going to be ‘him or me’ he said, ‘me.’ ”
Witnesses testified Henry had a mental disorder from birth. There were also contentions that he had been using cocaine. Assistant Public Defender Brian Donerly asked jurors to take his mental capacity into consideration and recommend life in prison instead of death for the boy’s killing.
“He did not ask to have the devil within him that, when unleashed, would kill,” Donerly told the jurors 27 years ago. “All his life, John Henry has been fighting his genes — and he lost.”