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Byers' Beat: 'After he made the worst decision of his life, he chose to own it.'

The father of Nathaniel Hendren, the former St. Louis police officer who played a deadly game of Russian roulette, writes a letter about his son
Credit: Hendren family
Nathaniel Hendren

ST. LOUIS — A few weeks ago, I told you I believed Nathaniel Hendren’s family didn’t have anything to be proud of on the day he was sentenced to seven years in prison for the Russian roulette-style killing of a fellow police officer.

I was wrong.

His father, Jimmy Hendren of Huntsville, Missouri, wrote me a 1 ½ page single-spaced letter to tell me so.

The opening paragraph includes: “I am again reminded of why so many people have a deep distrust of the news media and reporters in general.”

Hendren’s sister took to social media and wrote words: “Proud sister. Proud family. Print this” and included photos of her father’s letter.

In the column the family is referring to, I wrote about the victim impact statements the friends and family of Katlyn Alix read during the hour-long sentencing hearing – each of them conveying incredibly compelling, emotional and raw anger at times toward Hendren.

RELATED: Byers' Beat: Losses continue for families of officers who played fatal game of Russian-roulette

Katlyn Alix was 24. Hendren was 29 at the time. Alix was a newlywed and having an affair with Hendren.

On Jan. 24, 2019, while Hendren and his partner were on duty, he went to his apartment in another police district to meet up with Alix. At some point, Hendren left a bullet in his personal revolver, spun the chamber and fired it down his hallway. Alix grabbed the gun, pointed it at Hendren and fired it. He grabbed it back from her, pointed it at her, fired it, and killed her.

Though both families knew the facts that were to be read aloud that day, as is usually the case, I wrote that I couldn’t imagine how grueling it was for his parents and sisters to listen to the statements and facts as they were read aloud – some for the first time publicly. I felt for them then, and feel for them now, and I've told them I am sorry my interpretation of what unfolded that day caused their family any additional stress.

I wrote about how no one spoke for Hendren that day, even though I believed he was once the kind of kid his parents and family were once undoubtedly proud to talk about.

He was a Marine.

Graduated Magna Cum Laude from Columbia College in Missouri.

Completed the St. Louis Police Academy among the top of his class.

And wore the badge for the largest police department in his home state.

“I’m sure what they heard that day didn’t compute with the kid they once knew,” I wrote.

And that day, I noted, no one spoke for him.

No one was proud of him, I wrote.

I believed.

That’s the purpose of my column, to share my thoughts, observations and analysis of the stories I cover. It differs from the news story I wrote the day of the sentencing.

RELATED: 'My pain from what I have done will never leave me for the rest of my life'

But Jimmy Hendren wrote that he and his family were proud of Nathaniel Hendren that day.

And, had I asked, instead of using my “psychic powers,” to gauge whether they would be willing to comment, I would have learned that.

In reality, the Hendrens chose not to speak on his behalf that day because “It was a done deal,” Jimmy Hendren wrote.

“As you know, there had been a plea deal agreed upon by the prosecutor and the defense attorney with the approval of Judge Clark,” he wrote. “There were no surprises and no cause for family members to ask for leniency or other considerations from the court.”

RELATED: Nathaniel Hendren says Katlyn Alix 'assumed the risk,' family is owed no damages

That didn’t stop Alix’s family and friends from conveying their feelings to the court, the public, and Hendren.

I and the other reporters who covered the hearing that day asked Hendren’s attorney Talmage Newton if the Hendren family would be willing to comment.

He told us they wouldn’t.

As a reporter, I prefer to ask people directly instead of taking their attorney’s word for it.

In my column, I wrote that I interpreted the emotion all of their faces that day as an affirmation of their attorney’s words.

And Jimmy Hendren was right.

I didn’t ask them myself.

Instead, I watched them walk by after the incredibly emotional hearing, looked at their red puffy eyes and decided not to approach as did the other reporters – many of whom I greatly respect.

“Too bad you didn’t ask, for you would have learned that actually that is not the case, but I understand that some of the dramatic flair in your article would have been lost, and the truth can just be damned,” Jimmy Hendren wrote. “You see, we actually are proud of him in this regard, that after making the worst decision of his life, he chose to own it. I was proud of him for listening to the victim impact statements without argument or making excuses. And yes, proud of him for accepting the consequences without complaint.”

Jimmy Hendren criticized me for not mentioning his son’s apology.

“Of course that was not included in your article, and neither did you mention Judge Clark’s public commendation to my son for taking responsibility for his actions, and in accepting the consequences which spared the family of Katlyn Alix the ‘agony of a public trial,’” he wrote. “Judge Clark’s words, not mine.”

He also noted that the Hendren family didn’t see me there.

“What we do recall is a gaggle of photographers and reporters outside of the courthouse building, but no one approached us for a statement. Not saying you were not there, just that you were not noticed in particular. Perhaps next time you should use your words when seeking a comment.”

RELATED: City not liable for 'Russian-roulette style' killing of officer, federal judge says

As reporters, we have to make judgment calls in emotional situations like that.

Do we approach someone at the worst moment in their lives to give them the chance to tell their side of the story? Give them a voice? A chance to be heard?

Or, do we read the room and back off?

I chose the latter in this case.

I was wrong.

I should have asked – I think.

However, given what Jimmy Hendren wrote in his letter, I'm not sure I would have gotten a response on that day, in that moment.

“Aimee Wahlers and her family have endured the trauma that comes with the loss of a daughter and family member,” Jimmy Hendren wrote. “As a father, I cannot imagine the pain associated with that loss, nor the depth of brokenness that no parent should have to bear. Yes, my family has suffered, but theirs is the greater loss. As there is controversy enough surrounding this event, it is our intention to not add any additional stress to Ms. Wahlers by making statements that could be misunderstood, or even distorted by the news media.”

I made a call. I read the room.

I’m glad I didn’t ask. 

This is the letter Jimmy Hendren wrote, in full:

Watch for Christine Byers' column every Friday. She will go beyond the headlines of the top stories in St. Louis.

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