Crime & Courts

Police: Caretaker killed elderly York County ‘mercy killer’ with nunchucks

Gustave Adolph Hartner, the York County man who shot and killed his wife in a 2008 “mercy killing” while he was her caretaker, was beaten to death last month by a man who became his caretaker after Hartner was released from prison, Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon said.

Hartner, 79, tried and failed to take his own life after killing his wife seven years ago – but police say Robert Lee Henderson Jr., 62, killed himself with a shotgun 17 days after he shattered Hartner’s head with nunchucks, a weapon with wooden dowels connected by a chain.

Henderson lived with Hartner in the Lexington County town of Gaston as Hartner’s caretaker, Koon said in a statement Wednesday. It remains unclear how the men met, and how Henderson came to be Hartner’s caretaker.

The men ate dinner together at a restaurant on April 12 and began arguing after they left, Koon said. When they arrived home, the dispute turned physical, and Henderson beat Hartner to death. Deputies are still investigating what the men were arguing about.

Henderson fled in Hartner’s car, withdrawing most of the money from his own bank accounts over the next few days, Koon said.

Hartner’s body was not found for more than two weeks.

Neighbors called police on April 27 after noticing mail piling up outside the home and after not having seen Hartner or Henderson for two weeks. While conducting a welfare check that night, Koon said, deputies found Hartner’s body “in an advanced stage of decomposition” inside his home.

Investigators immediately suspected Henderson.

Two days later, deputies in Wilson County, N.C. – about 50 miles east of Raleigh, where several of Henderson’s relatives live – spotted Henderson driving Hartner’s car and pulled him over. That’s when Henderson shot and killed himself, Koon said.

Deputies found a note from Henderson admitting he killed Hartner.

The Herald reported exclusively on Tuesday that the Lexington County coroner had used X-rays to identify the body found in April as Hartner’s.

Hartner shot Mildred Hartner, his 90-year-old wife of 43 years, and the family dog in November 2008. He told investigators his wife had been suffering from dementia and heart and lung ailments, and he could no longer handle being her caretaker. After shooting his wife in the head, Hartner swallowed 80 pills in what police said was a suicide attempt.

Five months later, he pleaded guilty but mentally ill and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

After serving 85 percent of his sentence, Hartner was released in late 2014, moving first into a halfway house under supervised release. He then moved to the home in Gaston, a rural community about 20 miles south of Columbia, where he lived with Henderson.

Hartner was still on probation when he was killed and had not reported to his probation officer since March, probation officials told The Herald.

Hartner was a Marine Corps veteran who had received commendations both for fighting in the Korean War and for saving fellow Marines at Parris Island from drowning during a training exercise.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065