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Twin sisters are murdered and their brother is the prime suspect.
Willow Creek, California, is about 250 miles north of San Francisco. Hans and Betty Hansen moved to this quiet community in 1971, three years after they were married. Hans operated a logging supply business in a warehouse next to the couple’s mobile home. The Hansen family grew to include four children, Donny, Becky, and two twin girls, Jill and Julie. According to Hans, his twin daughters were kind to everyone:
For Betty and Hans, life was close to perfect, until the night of November 14, 1986. At around 11 PM, the 16-year-old twins were in their room, preparing for bed. Their half-brother, Donny, age 21, was visiting from the town of Fortuna, 70 miles away. He planned to sleep on the living room couch. Then at around 3:00 AM, Betty Hansen suddenly awoke. She smelled smoke and woke up Hans. Their mobile home was on fire. Hans grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to put out the flames:
As Betty ran up the hallway to warn her everyone of the fire, the first person she saw was her son, Donny:
Betty ran to the warehouse, where several fire extinguishers were stored. She was met first by Donny, then by Hans. Hans searched for a ladder:
According to Hans, Betty and Donny continuously returned to the warehouse for fire extinguishers:
Fire trucks responded to the scene within 15 minutes. Minutes later, a neighbor noticed a crumpled figure in a vacant lot across the road. It was Julie Hansen and she was nearly dead, bleeding from a gaping wound in her stomach. Hans recalled the terrifying moments that followed:
Hans claimed that it was only after Julie was discovered, that Donny took credit for having pulled her from the fire. But according to Betty Hansen, that apparent discrepancy was quickly overshadowed by concern for Julie:
Emergency personnel rushed Julie to the hospital, believing her stomach injury had been caused by some kind of fire-related explosion. But in surgery, doctors made a shocking discovery. Julie Hansen had been shot in the abdomen at point blank range with a 12-gauge shotgun. Hans was shocked when he heard the news:
Daylight brought still more unbearable news. Jill’s body was found in the ruins. An autopsy later confirmed that Jill had also been wounded by shotgun fire. Unable to flee, she had perished in the flames. Authorities recovered three shotgun shells and another five-gallon gas can from the ashes.
The Hansen’s warehouse was untouched by the fire and investigators examined every square inch for clues. Behind some boxes they found a 12-gauge shotgun. Ballistics tests later proved it was the weapon used to shoot Jill and Julie Hansen.
The entire Hansen property was cordoned off and kept under round-the-clock surveillance. Two days after the fire, in the early morning, the officer on duty caught a prowler outside the warehouse. It was Donny. Detective George Gatto of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department was called to the scene. Donny told Detective Gatto that he had come to feed the family dog:
Three days before the fire, Donny had borrowed the shotgun from a friend and kept it in his car. Unspent shells found in the car matched those used in the attack. Donny had purchased the ammunition the very evening Jill and Julie were shot. Also, a credit card statement verified that two days before the fire, Donny had purchased five gallons of gas at a local station. Witnesses confirmed that the container Donny filled was identical to one of those found at the scene.
There was only one person who could confirm the growing suspicions—Julie Hansen. Approximately two weeks after the fire, she had recovered enough to tell her parents what had happened. According to Hans, Julie recalled being shot, but not seeing anyone:
As Hans and Betty asked more questions, Julie had a chilling flashback. She claimed to have seen Donny’s face before being shot. Two weeks after the fire, Donny Hansen voluntarily met with Detective Gatto for further questioning:
The interrogation lasted two hours. When Donny emerged, he was in handcuffs, facing trial on charges of arson and murder. Betty Hansen was stunned:
But the nightmare was far from over. On December 19, 1987, Julie suddenly died in a freak medical accident. An air bubble entered her bloodstream through an intravenous tube and stopped her heart. Julie’s death was another devastating blow to her grieving parents. It was also a major setback to the prosecutors. Julie’s eyewitness statements would now be inadmissible as evidence, since she could not be cross-examined by defense attorneys.
In April of 1988, Donny Hansen went on trial for the murders of his half-sisters, Jill and Julie. Terry R. Farmer, the Humboldt County District Attorney, was confident enough to ask for the death penalty:
However, Donny’s lawyer introduced testimony from the Hansen’s’ neighbors. They claimed to have seen two unidentified men near the trailer while it was on fire. Their sighting became the cornerstone of a defense theory designed to show that Donny Hansen was innocent. William Bragg was Donny’s attorney:
Bragg claimed that around 3:00 AM, two intruders approached the Hansen’s trailer:
According to the defense, at least one of the assailants was still in the trailer after Hans, Betty, and Donny escaped. It was only then that Jill was shot.
Terry Farmer and the prosecution disagreed with that theory:
However, the jury believed it did make sense and they found Donny Hansen not guilty. For Hans Hansen, Donny’s acquittal was a crushing blow:
Since the trial, Donny has moved and changed his name. His account of the events that took place the night of his sister’s murders is still the subject of debate. Although his attorney claimed Donny was awakened by the shotgun blast, Donny now has since changed his story and said he never heard the shot:
Another nagging question is why Donny removed the shotgun from his car before anyone knew that a shotgun had been involved, or even that a crime had been committed:
However, with all the circumstantial evidence against him, Donny still maintained his innocence:
The whole truth about this hideous crime may never be known. A jury has acquitted Donny Hansen, but his mother Betty has not: