- By Tony Plohetski American-Statesman Staff, KVUE News
Phil and Jill Henderson feared something was wrong when they woke up in the middle of the night to find a new voicemail from the U.S. Embassy in Greece.
“Bakari must have lost his passport,” Phil Henderson remembers thinking.
“Or somebody found his wallet,” Jill Henderson insisted.
But in the wee hours of July 7, the couple was scared enough that before returning the call, they clasped hands and begged God for their son to be safe.
“I just prayed that everything was going to be OK,” Phil Henderson said. “That he was out of harm’s way. Protected.”
But a world away, the voice on the other end of the line told them their 22-year-old son, an honor student who grew up in Austin and graduated from Hyde Park Baptist High School, was dead.
Then came the ghastly details – that Bakari Henderson had been killed, beaten to death by a gang of young men on a street in a popular entertainment district of the Greek island of Zakynthos.
Nearly four months later, at their home in Austin’s Northwest Hills, the couple struggle to comprehend how their son fell victim to a violent mob, a crime that shocked the world and raised questions about why an American tourist would be attacked.
They are also confronting fears that justice may be elusive in a country with what some consider a lax approach to incarceration. The Hendersons say they can’t help but wonder how seriously authorities will treat the case after releasing two of the nine suspects on $5,700 bail each, which allowed them to return to their native Serbia.
What little they know about what happened they have pieced together through news reports and information presented by U.S. officials in Greece. Henderson, a budding entrepreneur with a lifelong adventurous streak, took a photograph with a woman inside a bar — an action authorities think offended the group of nine suspected attackers.
In the absence of any further explanation, the Hendersons, who recently granted a series of interviews to the American-Statesman, think it is possible their son was attacked because he was an American and, maybe, because he was black.
Perhaps the most compelling and disturbing evidence in the case is a clear, but graphic, black-and-white video played around the globe. It shows Henderson in full flight, being tackled so he falls against a parked car and getting beaten and kicked repeatedly as he tries to stand. About 20 seconds after the violence erupted, the men leave Henderson collapsed on the street with fatal head injuries. Someone performs CPR.
Phil Henderson has watched the video frame-by-frame — “I wanted to know how they took my son’s life,” he said – but Jill Henderson can’t bring herself to see his final moments.
As painful as it is knowing that their son’s last minutes were shared online for all the world to see, the couple also hope that the footage is helpful to prosecutors in building a case against the attackers.
“It’s kind of comforting to know there is a video, so people can’t say, ‘Oh I wasn’t there,’” Jill Henderson said.
The suspects charged with intentional homicide in Bakari Henderson’s death include seven Serbians and two workers from the bar, according to published reports. One of them has told Greek media that he was attempting to break up the attack.
With a bundle of newly amassed case files and attorneys they have hired in the United States and Greece to guide them, the Hendersons say they will push for Greek prosecutors to vigorously pursue the case and called upon U.S. officials to do all they can to help ensure a reasonable resolution.
Only when they see justice, they say, will they begin to feel as though they can properly grieve the loss of their son and begin a new life without him.
A selfie, a scuffle, and a mob
The last time Phil Henderson talked to his son was July 6. Bakari, the middle of three children, called via FaceTime to wish him a happy birthday.
“He woke me up that morning,” Phil Henderson recalled. “He said he wanted to make sure he was the first to tell me. He was having a good time, and he was laughing and joking as usual. You could hear in his voice that he was excited, and we were excited for him.”
“When we would communicate, he would say, ‘It’s amazing, it’s beautiful and we are having a good time,’” Jill Henderson said.
Bakari Henderson had arrived in Greece a couple of days earlier, and he had already peppered his parents’ inboxes with videos, including one in which he is seen playing ball on the beach in a postcard-perfect setting.
He had graduated about six weeks earlier from the University of Arizona, which he attended on a full academic scholarship, with a degree in business finance and entrepreneurship. He was in the midst of an ambitious enterprise: He wanted to launch his own fashion line of sportswear, an idea he had nurtured since high school because of his love of athletics.
Bakari Henderson had told his parents a few weeks earlier that he wanted to go to Greece. He informed them days before he left that he had college friends who were traveling there – one of them had access to a family home — and he thought it would be a scenic place to arrange photo shoots with models posing in his mock-ups against idyllic backdrops.
Before he left, Jill Henderson helped him craft a pitch for potential models.
He also was in the process of looking for a manufacturer and had created social media accounts to help advertise and build a customer base.
“He had a timeline for what he wanted to do for the launch,” Jill Henderson said.
On the night of the attack, Henderson was taking a break to be with other friends on the island.
They were on a strip known for its nightlife and club scene. Some have suggested the confrontation started after Henderson and some friends set down their drinks at the end of a table where two men were sitting. A friend of Henderson’s said in media reports that the two men grabbed the beers, smashed them on the table and brandished the shattered bottles as weapons.
A Greek newspaper later published video that appears to show Henderson posing for a selfie with a 20-year-old woman, who the media outlet said did public relations for the club called Bar Code.
Reports have said video footage shows a security guard walking up to Henderson and shouting at him. A man slaps at Henderson’s head before Henderson throws a punch, the footage shows.
Jill Henderson said she doesn’t need to know every detail of what led to her son’s death, but she wants an explanation of how a group of people could act so violently toward a stranger.
“What could be so egregious to cause you to murder someone?” she asked. “I just don’t understand what kind of background you have to do that kind of brutal act. It wasn’t just one or two people. Someone was able to rally a whole group of people.”
Whatever happened spilled outside onto the street, where the mob chased him down.
The Hendersons said no matter what occurred in the chaotic minutes leading up to their son’s death, they are certain that he and his friends did not do anything to start or escalate a confrontation.
“I can guarantee you these men did not do anything disrespectful or to deserve this kind of treatment,” Jill Henderson said.
‘He loved adventure’
The Hendersons moved to Austin in 1992 from Dallas.
Phil Henderson worked as an account executive for AT&T and is now a life coach. Jill Henderson is a contracts manager for a software company. Bakari’s older brother, P.J., is 26, and his younger sister, Jory, is 19.
As a child growing up in Austin, Bakari Henderson was active in an array of local sports leagues. He played soccer, tennis and basketball.
“He loved athletics from the time he could walk,” Jill Henderson said.
As a teen, he attended Anderson High School, but transferred to Hyde Park his senior year to bolster his academics, his parents said.
Bakari Henderson developed a fascination with international travel as a high school student and embraced it even more after enrolling in college. By then, he had learned Spanish and had begun studying Arabic, thinking he might one day want to live in the United Arab Emirates.
After graduating from high school and enrolling in college, Henderson was one of only 30 students invited to study in China as part of a pre-MBA boot camp. The next year, he went to Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Colombia.
“He loved the adventure, meeting new people,” his mother said. “That’s just the kind of spirit he was. He loved to talk to people.”
Jordan Zylberberg, 22, who recently graduated from the University of Texas with an engineering degree, invited Henderson for a European trip last year. The two met as students at Austin’s Hill Elementary School and had remained friends.
“The first person I asked was Bakari, and he immediately said, ‘yes,’” Zylberberg said. “I knew my other friends would say it’s too much work or it’s too much money, but Bakari loved to explore.”
As his graduation loomed in May, Henderson told his parents that he was still hatching his post-college plan and told them he would almost certainly be moving abroad. He turned down job offers and shunned the notion of working in corporate America.
“He had prepared us that he was not going to live in the States,” Jill Henderson said. “He said, ‘As soon as I figure it out, I’ll let you know first. But I do plan to live outside the United States.’”
Because of his vast travel experience, the Hendersons did not particularly fear the prospect of him living abroad.
“Bakari was strong and independent,” Phil Henderson said. “We had faith he would be all right. We wanted him to be happy, and that is what was most important to us. He had worked really hard.”
“I always told him, you have to be aware, wherever you are,” Jill Henderson said. “And he said, ‘Yes, mom. I understand.’ I don’t think it was him letting his guard down. He just felt good about where he was.”
Where prisoners go home for weekends
On the morning they learned of his death, friends and neighbors saw what had happened in news reports and started showing up at the Henderson home.
Reporters from across the world called for interviews, but the Hendersons were too grief-stricken to go public. But in recent months, attention to the case has faded, and the couple fear the case against the perpetrators could be resolved quietly.
“All we know is that the people in Greece felt bad,” Phil Henderson said. “Being an American, and being a black American, they are just sad this would happen on their land.”
Dimitrios Ioannidis, a Boston attorney who specializes in the Greek criminal justice system, said the men face life in prison under charges of conspiracy with intent to commit murder. However, prosecutors may seek lesser charges such as negligent homicide, depending on the strength of evidence against them.
“Given my experience in several cases in Greece involving Americans, I believe that the Greek prosecutors will see the case through and take every step necessary to seek the appropriate punishment for this crime if there is a conviction,” he said.
However, he said, the penal system is different in Greece than in the U.S.
“Greece, as many other EU countries, allow prisoners to visit families during holidays, to have weekends off, privileges that prisoners in the USA do not enjoy,” Ioannidis said. “These principles stem from the historical social norms and values that may be different from ours, all of which affect the notion of justice.”
In recent weeks, elected officials, including U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, have reached out to State Department officials for updates about the case and are evaluating what steps they can take to ensure justice.
The Hendersons have launched a new campaign called #justice4bakari to help keep attention on the case. They started a weekly prayer meeting by phone on Tuesday nights for people all over the world for the next seven weeks.
“We want people to be comforted the way we are comforted, and that is through prayer,” Jill Henderson said.
They said they will travel to Greece for the trial, which has not yet been set. They will stay as long as it takes.
“We are just holding on to hoping, and with our faith, that justice will be served,” Phil Henderson said.
Bakari’s room, as he left it
Bakari Henderson’s bedroom was on the second floor of his family’s home overlooking Loop 360. His parents have left it as he did — his walls covered with sports posters, ESPN magazine covers and lined with academic awards.
His father said he sometimes goes there to feel close to his son.
“I think about the times we had in here,” he said, gazing at all the mementos from his son’s life. “It connects me to him.”
Jill Henderson visits less often.
“It kind of takes me to a sad place,” she said. “It just makes me miss him more.”
After he was killed, Bakari Henderson’s friends in Greece packed his belongings from the home where they were staying. They gave them to friends of his parents after his funeral.
To this day, they can’t bring themselves to unpack the duffel bag that sits in his room. They are saving that for after his killers have gone to trial.
The Hendersons pray that a sense of justice, whenever it may come, will give them the strength to take another step in saying goodbye.