COLUMBIA — A Missouri man sentenced to more than 200 years in prison for killing a 16-year-old girl execution-style and wounding two others has been freed, outraging relatives who expected the killer to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
The Columbia Daily Tribune reported Sunday that relatives of James Gant's victims weren't invited to attend a parole hearing or informed of his release last year.
They assumed he would die behind bars for killing Brenda Hendren and wounding James and Kathy Norman in January 1977 in Columbia. The families learned of Gant's release after conducting a court records search. Now they're angry that he served just 34 years and is free at age 54.
Under a law that took effect in 1969, anyone who served two-thirds of their sentence — or two years, whichever came first — was eligible for a parole hearing. The law has since changed.
"I had a sense of comfort knowing there was no way he was ever coming out," said David Hendren, the victim's brother. "That was our only comfort."
Gant, who lives in Kansas City, declined comment when contacted by the Columbia newspaper.
Former Boone County prosecutor Milt Harper, now a Columbia defense attorney, said Gant was part of a violent Kansas City-based heroin ring that sent Gant east to establish a foothold in the college town.
James Norman, Brenda Hendren's 22-year-old boyfriend, was meeting with Gant to purchase a small amount of marijuana. Brenda Hendren and her 19-year-old best friend, Kathy Spry, who later married James Norman, were also there. Gant was dispatched to Columbia by his uncle, the drug gang's leader, and showed up at the Tenth Street home with 29-year-old Keith Matthews.
Matthews later testified that he was talking to the two girls upstairs when he heard noises and found Gant holding a pistol to Norman's head in the basement. He testified that Gant's uncle ordered the killing and instructed him to leave no witnesses. Norman and Spry both survived, married and then later died.
Gant, who fled to Los Angeles, denied being in the home but was convicted with the help of Matthews' testimony. Matthews, who pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and was sentenced to seven years in prison, was working as a police informant at the time of the murder.
Brenda Hendren's death is a burden that family members said they still carry. The seventh of 10 children, Brenda was the maid of honor in her brother David's wedding.
Their parents died assuming that Gant would live the rest of his life in prison, David Hendren said. His parents were devastated by their daughter's death.
"It nearly killed Mom," he said.
Norman and Spry had two children, who are now both adults. Stacy Norman said her parents spoke about the shooting in front of their children just once.
"Dad had a scar on his neck, and Mom had what she called a hole in her head," she said. "I can remember Mom freaking out anytime someone would touch her hair. I could never imagine what they went through."
Like her relatives, Stacy Norman always figured Gant would be in prison for the rest of his life.
"That is what he should have done," she said. "My parents and Brenda are not the only ones he has harmed."
The Missouri Board of Probation and Parole makes an effort to contact victims and families who provide contact information, spokesman Chris Cline said. Boone County prosecutor Dan Knight said the board contacted his office in December 1985 requesting contact information for Gant's victims and it provided details on James and Kathy Norman's whereabouts, but not for the Hendren family.
Brenda Hendren's siblings said their parents in 1985 were still living at the same address as when the crime occurred. Knight said the board never contacted his office again.
Since 1994, violent offenders in Missouri are required to serve 85 percent of their prison sentences. Under that law, Gant wouldn't have been eligible for parole until 2170.