Eric Hayden Randomly Preys on a Neighbor
(‘Nice Threads,’ Forensic Files)
At the time of her death in 1995, Dawn Fehring had plans to visit Russia and Israel. But she never got a chance to exchange her dollars for rubles or read up on safety tips for travel in the Middle East.
The bible student met her end on her own turf — in an area of Washington state known for safety.
For this week, I looked for a little more information on Dawn’s short life and the case, so let’s get going on the recap of the Forensic Files episode “Nice Threads” along with extra information from internet research.
Take a bow. Dawn Rene Fehring was born in Olympia, Washington on April 27, 1968, the second of Carl and Dottie Fehring’s four children. Always interested in languages, Dawn was an exchange student to Paris and Vienna, where she learned to speak French and German.
In 1986, she graduated from Olympia High School in the top 10 percent of her class, according to her obituary. She earned a bachelor’s degree from California Lutheran University.
Dawn, who played the violin, was the secretary of the Capitol Youth Symphony Association, and she worked at Christ the Servant Lutheran Church in Lacy.
Door open. After doing missionary work and teaching English in Japan, the 27-year-old returned to Washington to work toward a certificate in cross-cultural ministries at the Lutheran Bible Institute in Issaquah.
She moved into the Salish Village Condominiums in Kirkland, an area with a low crime rate and high population of well-educated people. Sources vary as to whether Dawn was renting or borrowing the condo, but most say that she was housesitting for friends in Japan.
On May 14, 1995, about two weeks after Dawn returned to the U.S., a firefighter neighbor noticed her door open and went inside to investigate. He saw freshly baked cookies on the counter and Dawn’s body on the floor. Rigor mortis had set in. She had died on May 13.
Cookies vs. brownies. A clerk at a Fred Meyer supermarket witnessed Dawn shopping for baking ingredients at the store on May 12, the last time she was seen alive. The night of the murder, Dawn was making chocolate chip cookies as a gift for Mother’s Day. As prosecutor James Konat noted during his Forensic Files interview: What could be more American than baking chocolate chip cookies for one’s mother?
(According to The New Detectives episode “Infallible Witness,” Dawn was making brownies, but the show got at least two other facts wrong, so I’m trusting Forensic Files on this one.)
Police arrived to find Dawn with a fist-sized bruise on the back of her head. She’d been sexually assaulted and strangled to death with her own bedsheet.
Image on fabric. First responders noticed ash marks on the bedding and a cigarette burn on a table, which almost certainly came from the attacker. Dawn didn’t smoke, and she reportedly kept her home immaculately clean.
In what must have been a horrible surprise, Dawn’s 13-year-old sister, Joy, called to check on Dawn, only to have a police officer answer the phone, according to the Seattle Times.
Forensic investigation revealed that bloodstains on the bedsheets came from Dawn. The bleeding originated from injuries to her mouth and hymen (a word we rarely hear today, which is probably a good thing), according to court papers.
Criminal returns to scene. A forensic examiner soaked Dawn’s bedsheet in amido black liquid, which exposed a hand and fingerprint in blood, but there wasn’t enough definition to make them identifiable.
Investigators checked on the whereabouts of local sex criminals around the time of the murder, but they all had decent alibis.
Police then turned toward someone who had actually brought himself to their attention. A prosecutor would later describe Eric Hamlien Hayden as a big slob who was hanging around the crime scene. Hayden asked investigators whether his own safety was in danger from some unknown assailant.
Alibi dies. Hayden, a 32-year-old mill worker, occupied an apartment upstairs from Dawn’s in the complex at 12515 N.E. 132nd.
He lived with his girlfriend, but a neighbor recalled seeing him standing around outside barefoot in the rain while smoking cigarettes and eyeing the women who came and went.
When questioned at the police station, a nervous Hayden said he had an alibi: He was out drinking with friends at the time of the murder. Apparently his friends wouldn’t cover for him or never existed, because he later changed his story to say he was alone.
Highly suspect. Hayden told his girlfriend that he was too drunk that night to remember where he had been, according to court papers.
“His story wasn’t washing,” Kirkland Police Sgt. Gene Markle told the Seattle Times. “Every instinct you had was telling you something wasn’t right.”
Fortunately, a forensic lab made a breakthrough more concrete than instinct.
Scientific advance. Erik Berg, a forensic supervisor at the Tacoma Police Department, used pattern removal filters to subtract the thread pattern from the images in the blood on Dawn’s bedsheet. He came up with a clear print that matched one that police had on file for Eric Hayden because of a drunk driving action against him.
“Bingo, it was him,” Berg told 60 Minutes. “I got a phone call two hours later saying he was in custody.” Police deposited Hayden in King County jail and set bond at $500,000.
The methodology that identified Hayden became known as digital fingerprint enhancement. The 60 Minutes episode would later call it a silver bullet.
Strangers in the night. When the trial kicked off, a judge allowed the prosecution to present the digital fingerprint enhancement evidence.
Prosecutors made a case that Hayden was coming home from drinking and noticed that Dawn had left the door open, probably to let out the heat from the oven. The two didn’t know each other except possibly in passing, they believed. Dottie Fehring said that Dawn hadn’t met the neighbors yet.
Hayden entered Dawn’s apartment through the open door with the intent of raping her, the prosecution contended. The New Detectives suggests a slightly different narrative, although it was to the same end. The show theorized that Hayden used a ruse to get Dawn to open the door for him and then inadvertently propped the door open when a bedroom slipper got caught at the edge while he was making his getaway.
Voice from beyond. Whatever the scenario, the prosecution contended that Hayden struck Dawn on the back of her head, knocking her down, and then sexually assaulted and killed her. When he got up, he steadied himself by placing his hand on the mattress, leaving a bloody print. While contemplating what he’d done, he smoked a cigarette and snuffed it out on the table, leaving the ashes and burn mark.
Defense attorney Andrew Dimmock argued that the police had no evidence against Hayden except for the digital fingerprint enhancement, which was a new science.
The jury, however, put faith in the prosecution and convicted Hayden of murder.
At the sentencing hearing, Dawn’s mother showed a Mother’s Day card with Dawn’s photo and played a recording of Dawn singing hymns such as “I’ve Been Blessed.”
The prosecution asked for a 41-year sentence, but Judge Marilyn Sellers gave him 26.
Zero vindictiveness. Dottie Fehring told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that she was grateful for the sentence because an offender like Hayden would likely strike again and she didn’t want other families to face an ordeal like hers.
She wasn’t bitter, however. “Anger is not what you do when life creates problems,” she said, as reported in the Seattle Times. “You need to create peace. There’s no help in striking out again.”
After Hayden went to prison, the Fehring’s sent 200 of their friends cards handmade by Dawn.
Constructive idea. Next up, the Fehrings created the Dawn Fehring Love of God Award to financially help aspiring missionaries. They raised funds in part via entertainment. A May 1, 1999 item in the News Tribune noted a variety show including magicians, puppets, and Dixieland music with a suggested admission price of $5 per person.
The Fehrings have also supported other charitable causes as a tribute to their lost daughter.
Dottie, Carl, and their son Jeff paid $1,500 each to participate in the Jimmy Carter Work Project in Maragondon in the Philippines, where they labored under the sun to build two houses for poor people. A story in the News Tribune reported that Carl worked so hard that he suffered from heat exhaustion and had to receive fluids from medical workers, but he went back to work the next day.
Mucho dinero. Carl said it was doing the work that Dawn would do.
“She was so full of life and love,” her mother told The Olympian newspaper in 2001. “It’s amazing what she packed into 27 years.”
Dawn’s other legacy was that her murder spurred police departments across the country to use digital fingerprint enhancement — despite that the technology package cost around $40,000 at the time.
Living quietly. Investigators can now identify criminals “drunk enough or stupid enough to leave their fingerprints in the victim’s blood,” according to James Konat.
So what happened to the man whose crimes fostered a forensic tour de force?
It appears that Eric Hayden served his 26 years and slipped out of sight. The Washington Department of Corrections doesn’t list him as a prisoner and there’s no obituary for him.
Let’s hope he’s gained some respect for human life or at least a little reverence for the technology that can catch evildoers like him.
That’s all for this post. Until next time, cheers. — RR
Watch the Forensic Files episode on YouTube or Amazon Prime