What follows is one of the most challenging things you’re likely to read in a newspaper. In late 2019, its author John Barrie approached me with a story pitch: During a bout of homelessness, he had slept in the same room—the same bed, in fact—as convicted killer Erick Virgil Hall, who had raped and murdered Lynn Henneman on the Greenbelt in 2000. Upon learning about this connection, Barrie began researching Hall’s case and digging up everything he could find about Henneman’s death.
The details of Henneman’s death are mortifying, and Barrie takes readers to the Greenbelt and courtroom for them, but he also brings readers the voices of others associated with the crime, enlivening his subjects and conjuring a compelling scene from the Boise of 20 years ago. He’s most interested in piecing together the events and personalities involved. Homelessness, mental illness and crime are just a few of the challenges this community faced then and continues to face today, and Barrie has examined them with an eye toward truth and humanity. The product of his labor is something that I hope will give readers cause to reflect.
“Do you remember the house on 13th Street?” This is how I introduce myself to Erick Virgil Hall, Idaho death row inmate #33835. He doesn’t know me, but I know him. I’ve thought of him often in the years since he was arrested for the murder and rape of two women, Boise resident Cheryl Hanlon and New York flight attendent Lynn Henneman. Henneman’s murder, which happened just three months after I’d moved to Boise, stunned the community and made national news. It is also the killing that Erick denies.
“I do remember that house,” he replies in his letter back to me. His handwriting is small and neat. “It wasn’t too far from Albertsons. It was a kindness done for me, as was done for you by a man who loved people.” The man he is talking about is Grant Bernhardt, an elderly gay man who once lived in a two-story house at the corner of 13th and State streets, next door to the vacuum repair shop. Grant had many flaws, but he would always help a person in need. He’d turned his apartment into an impromptu halfway house, and there was always a homeless person crashed out on the couch, or living in the basement. He’d help anyone, as long as they were willing to walk to the Chevron on 15th to pick up his cigarettes and Mickey’s Ice malt liquor each morning when it opened.
I was that person in the basement in 2003, when police finally arrested Erick after two years of dead ends. “He used to stay here,” Grant told me while we watched the news. He wasn’t a long-term guest. He’d only spent a couple of nights, tagging along with someone else, but he’d slept on the same stained basement mattress as me.
I got away from living on the streets, got married, went back to school. He was sentenced to death, twice, and Boise moved on from the terror of that summer and forgot. But it stuck with me, this loose connection between us, this overlapping of fates. If things had been slightly different, could he be the one on the outside, thinking about me? It was an illogical thought, but I couldn’t shake it and, in 2019, I decided to write him a letter.
The alarm came too early. It was 3 a.m., and Lynn Henneman got dressed quietly, trying not to disturb her husband. Husband, that was new. She and Walter Us had dated for six years; had in fact purchased this house together not long after they’d started dating, but the decision to finally get married had been a recent one. They hadn’t even gone on their honeymoon yet, but it was okay—she had one last trip to make, and then they’d set off to Bali.
She loaded her suitcase in the car and began the nearly two-hour drive to La Guardia. Why was she up at this God-forsaken hour? Her mom later told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that she’d thought about using her sick time to get out of it, but the same reliability that had allowed her to accrue so much time stopped her from ducking out of her responsibility. The same could not be said for the flight attendant whose shift she was covering. Lynn knew the trip came at a bad time, right before she and Walter were set to leave the country, but she had a hard time saying no when someone needed her help.
Lynn parked in the garage and made her way to the plane. She hadn’t met the pilot before—Ron Zook—or the other attendants she was working with on this flight, but they were a professional crew and the flight got off without a hitch. The passengers were the type that could have been rowdy, a college football team going home after a win, but it was dawn and they’d already flown down from Michigan. Seven hours later, they touched down in Boise.
Erick won’t talk about it. When I ask him about Sept. 24, 2000, in an email, he writes, “To be honest with you I don’t remember that day the way they said it went down,” and he doesn’t elaborate, other than to say that, “I was offended that every one seen me as someone undesirable [sic].” He tells me he resents the media portrayal of him as a transient. While he’d been homeless at one point, he had a place in 2000, and claims to have been working odd jobs for Barrett Business Services. He thinks they portrayed him as homeless because they wanted, “to make me into some monster, some vile evil creature.”
“That’s not the case,” he tells me. “I had and still have several women, normal women, who know and love me. I was involved with several of them sexually, that’s what I do for fun, I date women, some were married, some had children, a few were the church types. Me, I don’t believe in a god that allows us to be so narrow minded. I love women, and I can tell you that there are many who love me back, and wish I had settled down with them. I’m not tooting my own horn, not flexible enough.” This is followed by a smiley-face emoji. I do not ask if any of these women are the ex-girlfriends who testified at his trial, claiming that he would fly into a rage and choke them when angry, but I do ask for more information about the women who he claims still love him. He says that he doesn’t actually get letters or visits from them, but that he’s happier that way, because if they did come it would make him feel like he was in “one of those convalescent homes where older people are left to the will of those nasty people that abuse them, they can’t go home either, sad.”
It was a crisp fall afternoon in Boise, though not that much colder than the morning Lynn had left behind in New York. She’d made this trip before, several times, and she liked the small western town. It reminded her of going to college in Montana, and of the time spent living there during her first marriage. Still, something didn’t sit quite right this time around. She was unaware of the girls who had died there over the past two years: 22-year-old Kay Lynn Jackson, raped and stabbed on her way to church not far from the hotel where Lynn would be staying, or Cassandra Yeager, found the summer before at Lucky Peak Reservoir, killed by a single bullet, or Samantha Maher, a Boise State University student who also met her end on the scenic bike path that ran the length of the Boise River—unsettling crimes for a town that rarely had murders to report, let alone the kind where the killer remained unknown. Even if she had known, it wouldn’t have deterred her. She’d walked the streets in Los Angeles, Rome, and New York without incident, her husband would later tell the New York Post. Yet there was something that led her to call her mom the day before, expressing worry; to make the uncharacteristic suggestion that Walter accompany her. Probably it was just the honeymoon, waiting as it was on the other side of this detour.
According to Henry Guntrum, Erick always had girlfriends. “He was a real lady’s man,” he tells me over the phone. Henry—JR to his friends—used to run with Erick on the streets in the early ‘90s, and the two friends even got arrested for burglary together. He says he was shocked when Erick was arrested for murder. He never saw him as violent. “He hated conflict,” he tells me. He also claimed to hate men who hurt women, and he and Henry once got in a fight with Henry’s stepdad over the way he was treating a woman, although, Henry says, “He kicked both of our asses.”
He blames what happened to his friend on drugs, coke and heroin, although when I say that Erick still denies murdering Lynn, he quickly pivots to taking his side. “It’s plausible,” he says when I tell him that, in one of our email exchanges Erick claimed the police falsified DNA evidence. “If Erick really did it, I don’t think they would have found the body. He would have disappeared it.” I don’t mention that Erick left Cheryl Hanlon’s body in a child’s playfort off of Fifth and Alturas streets. Erick doesn’t deny his role in her death, merely intent—rough sex gone wrong, followed by panic—but he most assuredly did not “disappear” her.
I do mention the strangulation, though: how it tied together not only Lynn and Cheryl, but the 17-year-old girl Erick raped in 1991, back when the two men were hanging out regularly.
“Oh, he didn’t do that,” Henry says, although he admits his friend liked rough sex, and would tell him about it. But Henry thinks the girl’s claims were prompted more from shame and regret than a lack of consent. Even in the context of this conversation—talking about a convicted double murderer—Henry still saw Erick as a gentle soul, a peacekeeper. He couldn’t separate the Erick on death row from the romantic image of the life they’d had on the streets. They were Robin Hoods, breaking into vending machines to steal drinks and change. They’d redistribute their wealth at the park, then they’d play on the playground equipment. Sometimes they’d go snowboarding.
It was a rosier picture than the one Erick remembered. The first time I wrote to him, I told him that I’d been homeless too, and he replied, “So you were the unseen for a while? So you know how hard it is to stay on top of life and hold on to your humanity?”
The flight crew arrived at the Doubletree Riverside, where they were greeted with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and after they’d all checked in Ron pulled them aside. It was standard stuff; they made a plan to meet back up in the lobby at seven fifteen the following morning, and he invited them to join him for dinner at Bittercreek Alehouse. Lynn declined, as did the other flight attendant, Diane.
Since Diane wasn’t doing anything, Lynn asked if she’d like to join her for a walk, but Diane just wanted to take a nap. It was unsurprising, given their early flight, but Lynn had her day mapped out. She loved art—part of what had drawn her to her husband, a painter—and each trip to Boise included a stop at the Boise Art Museum. The museum had just received a donation of 23 works of contemporary realism from wealthy donors, but she would have gone anyway.
She whiled away the afternoon there until it was nearly closing time and slipped into the gift shop on the way out. She had six nieces and nephews back home whom she was especially close with, ranging from 4 to 13, and she wanted to buy them gifts: glitter pens, window paint, and a book of brain teasers.
It was nearly sundown when she crossed the street to The Table Rock Pub and Grill and ordered a spinach salad with a mango chutney dressing, which she paid for with cash.
It was a salad she’d had on her first visit to Boise, and she’d become obsessed with replicating it for Walter. It had Golden Delicious apples, currants, peanuts, and jack cheese to accompany the dressing. She’d written the ingredients down the last time she was here, but something still wasn’t right, and she was determined to find out what it was she’d forgotten.
After dinner she crossed Ninth Street and headed down onto the north side of the Greenbelt, opposite of where she’d traveled earlier.
During the trial for Lynn Henneman’s murder Hall’s original lawyer, Amil Myshin, never tried to argue that his client wasn’t at the scene of the crime, and—while Erick didn’t testify on his own behalf—the public defenders admitted that Erick was guilty of rape. As to the murder, Myshin floated several theories. One was that Erick lost control, and may have caused Lynn’s death, but it wasn’t premeditated. A lot had been made of Erick’s mental state during the trial. His sisters testified of abuse he—and they—had suffered at the hands of their older brother Shannon, their father, and later one of her mom’s boyfriends. Erick was a loner with imaginary friends, they said. He would wet the bed and his mother would wave the soiled sheets out of the window when the school bus dropped him off.
There was ample evidence that Erick was a victim as well as criminal, and Myshin likely hoped that having the sisters detail the depravity of their childhoods would engender sympathy for his client. Perhaps if he’d committed to that defense completely, it might have worked, not to get him off the hook but to spare him from the inevitability of lethal injection. But the lawyer also suggested that the other man who saw Lynn that night might have had something to do with her death.
Lynn was almost to Americana Boulevard when the guy on the bike stopped to talk to her. Christian Johnson. Chris. She’d given him a friendly smile and now he was hitting on her. She showed him her ring—a gold band adorned with sapphires and diamonds, a ring that she’d show no one ever again—and he apologized for flirting with a married woman. She did her best to make him feel better.
“Somebody will come to you,” she told him. Wasting no time, he wished her a lovely evening and took off down the path to find another prospective love interest.
The Main Street Bridge is just over 3,000 feet from Lynn’s room at the Doubletree. Ron and his co-pilot walked this same path, returned to the hotel, and prepared for their return flight. Lynn didn’t need to prepare. Her uniform was already laid out, her nylons hung in the shower to dry; everything else was packed except for the clothes she was wearing—a black shirt and matching sweater, tan shorts, flip flops—and the presents she’d purchased.
For unknown reasons, though, she didn’t return to her room at this time. She kept going, and ventured into Garden City. Back in her room, the phone rang. Walter, her husband, was calling. He would continue to call her room throughout the night.
Later that night, on the corner of 49th and Bradley streets, Lynn stopped and asked two women, Lisa Lewis and Peggy Hill, for directions back to the Riverside. A man named Pat Hoffert pulled up in his truck and offered to help, and shortly thereafter they were joined by a man on a bike. Erick Hall. Erick told Lynn how to get back on the Greenbelt from where they were, that it would be the quickest way back to the room. Lynn left, and the small group disbanded, but Lewis would later tell police that Erick rode off in the same direction he’d sent her.
According to forensics, Lynn didn’t fight back, but she lived through all of it. She lived through it as Erick Hall tore off her clothes and tied her arms, pulling so hard that her left arm broke. She lived through it as he raped her, leaving behind the evidence that would eventually place him on death row. She lived through lying face down in the mud as he tossed her things into the brush: Her purse. Her sandals. The glitter pens for Meghan. Her wedding ring.
Then Erick wrapped her torn black shirt around her neck, twisted, and pulled. Three minutes later—the prosecutor would set an egg timer so that the jury could feel each second viscerally—Lynn’s travels came to an end.
It’s hard to tell if Erick is bullshitting me or if he’s bullshitting himself. He says that there is no way DNA could survive in a decomposing body in the water. Why this is an issue when his own attorneys admitted that Erick had raped her, I do not know, but he is convinced this is proof he was set up. He is delighted when I say I’m surprised they didn’t use the DNA sample they took from him in 1991 to tie him to Lynn’s death, as if that helps to prove something. At the very least, it’s another angle he hasn’t worked.
One of the arguments his defense made was that his childhood of abuse had left him mentally handicapped—not insane, but incompetent nonetheless—but this is never on display in my talks with him. The more agitated he gets in our correspondence, the worse his spelling becomes, but he never comes off as unintelligent. He has looked at every angle of his case. Even as his lawyers have changed, he continues to file appeal after appeal. The prosecution prejudiced the jury by showing them a picture of him that was a mugshot. His lawyer failed to adequately explore why Hoffert—the man in the pickup when Lynn was asking for directions—committed suicide the night of her death. His lawyer didn’t spend enough time on showing how Hall’s ex-girlfriends—who’d testified of his anger, his propensity for choking, and that he would force them to have sex—had a long list of drug charges, and might have been compelled to give testimony against him by the state. For every point made by the prosecution, he gave me a counterpoint.
All Erick has is time, and he uses it looking for any way to undo the knot in the noose. He tells me that they can’t kill his desire to fight. “I have many more appeals,” he says. “My cases are on hold at the moment, sort of hurry up and wait, I don’t mind though, the longer it takes the better it is.”
And I wonder, does he believe it? Reading the police report on the girl Erick raped in 1991, she describes a moment when, after he’d raped and choked her, he stated, “What have I done?” He then proceeded to sit there, as if in a trance, as if he was genuinely overtaken by the crime he committed.
Does he actually disassociate from his actions? Or is this just a story he’s telling for the benefit of me and the prison officials who read his mail? I don’t know, but I know any story the defense tried to tell about his lack of intelligence is a lie, and that—given that Idaho has only executed three prisoners since 1977—the chances that he might be able to stall things until he dies a natural death are high.
In April of 2019, I’m contacted by Jonah Horwitz, one of Erick’s current lawyers. He is a member of the Federal Defender Services’ capital habeas unit, a group that focuses on challenging death sentences. We arrange to meet for coffee to discuss the case.
We meet that Friday morning at Caffeina. He brings a colleague, Chris Sanchez, although Jonah does most of the talking. They tell me a bit about their organization and their work, but then the conversation turns. Jonah asks me not to talk to Erick about the case anymore. He tells me that what Erick needs is a friend, not to relieve the horrors of 20 years ago. They ask if I am Erick’s friend, and I cannot lie. I have sympathy for Erick, truly, but I have read the news clippings, court transcripts, police records, and his own increasingly erratic letters. He is not my friend.
Lynn Henneman and Cheryl Hanlon have faded from Boise’s collective memory, but I have not forgotten them. I think of them every time I cross underneath the Fairview overpass which separates Americana Boulevard from Main Street. There, along the river’s edge, is a marker placed by Lynn’s family in her honor. A relief of her face, crafted by her husband, juts out from the bronze plaque set in the stone. Underneath it is an excerpt from one of her poems.
“All things have a reason,
at a point in time we return,
whence we came.”
When I log back onto the Idaho Correctional Department’s J-Pay inmate email service again several weeks later, I find that I am blocked from contacting Erick. I think about sending him a letter through the mail, like I did the first time I wrote to him, but I decide to let it drop. I don’t know what I expected to gain by writing to him, but reading his letters always left me unsettled. He is angry, arrogant, unrepentant. Whatever sense of connection I’d felt from the coincidental overlapping of our life’s journeys, I’m free of it now. He didn’t kill those women because he’d had a rough childhood, or because he lived on the streets, or because he was high on drugs. He killed them because, like so many other serial predators, he hates women. He and I may have slept on the same mattress, stared at the same walls, eaten at the same soup kitchens, but the similarities end there.
It is time for me to move on with my life, but Erick will remain in his 12x7 cell, filing appeals and eating the same meals over and over again as he has for the last sixteen years, every day until he is dead. As he told me early in our exchanges, “The long and short of it is I am going to either die in prison from old age or be murdered by way of lethal injection. That’s my new reality, I only live to die.”
It is my hope that when he finally does, his victims will still be remembered.