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Husband killed wife, son to spare them ordeal of his trial for rape, detective says

Saturday, June 30, 2001

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Kenneth Hairston woke up on June 11 in his Garfield home, his thoughts were dominated by his upcoming rape trial.

Kenneth Hairston after a preliminary hearing yesterday. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

It was early on a Monday. Day had broken, the week was starting, and Hairston was scared.

No, he didn't rape his stepdaughter, Hairston would later tell Pittsburgh homicide Detective Dennis Logan, while confessing to killing his wife and son.

But on that Monday, Logan testified during a preliminary hearing yesterday, Hairston didn't think it would matter what he would say about the rape charge.

Kenneth Hairston thought he had a poor chance of being acquitted.

As he sat in the morning calm of his house on Rosetta Street, Hairston pondered what to do next. Catherine, his wife of 14 years, slept nearby on a mattress in the living room.

Sean, the couple's 14-year-old son, was upstairs in his bedroom. Soon he would have to get ready for school. In another bedroom upstairs was Hairston's mother-in-law, Goldie Hurtt.

Hairston "said he didn't want them to go through the stress of the trial," Logan testified.

As he sat thinking, Hairston's eyes fell on a small sledgehammer on the living-room floor. It weighed about 10 pounds. Silver-gray head. Beige handle.

Catherine Hairston stirred.

"You've got some more time before you have to get up," Hairston told her.

She drifted back to sleep for maybe 10 more minutes, then woke again. Catherine Hairston sat up on the edge of the bed, facing away from her husband.

Kenneth Hairston had wrapped the sledgehammer in a pillowcase. He lifted it and brought it down on his wife's head, Logan testified.

She made a sound.

So he hit her again, Logan said.

"He said he didn't want her to see his face."

Grabbing his wife's body by the legs, Hairston dragged her into the kitchen.

Relatives and friends of the Hairston family comfort each other during an inquest yesterday into the deaths of Catherine Hairston and her son, Sean. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Normally, Sean would be up at 7 a.m. His morning ritual would lead him downstairs, where he would lie on the couch and watch TV or fall back asleep before being sent off to eighth grade at Milliones Middle School in the Hill District.

This day was no different. Sean lay down on the couch and began to snooze.

Hairston hit Sean in the head twice with the hammer, Logan said

Stuffing the tool in his pants, Hairston got in a rental car and drove to a bar. He had two shots of liquor and two Heinekens. Then he headed to a vacant lot a few blocks from his house and tossed the hammer in the weeds.

Logan testified that he later retrieved the hammer when he searched the site with Hairston.

After he had thrown the hammer away, Hairston returned home, Logan said. He went to the basement, where he sprinkled gasoline around. He was surprised when the pilot light from the water heater ignited the liquid, setting the gas can afire in his hands.

Going back upstairs, Hairston placed household items against the walls and doors. Authorities surmised later that Hairston was barricading himself in, but Logan said Hairston told him he put the items there so the house would burn faster.

With the house ablaze, Hairston took a knife and stabbed himself twice in the chest, leaving superficial wounds.

Just before lying down next to his wife, Hairston recalled that his mother-in-law was home. He unlocked the back door , and then, "Mr. Hairston said he lay down next to his wife and prepared to die," Logan said.

The next thing Hairston heard was the yelling of neighbors. Then he woke up in the hospital.

Catherine Hairston's body was found in the burnt remains of the home. An autopsy showed she died from head injuries. She was 43.

Two days later, Sean succumbed to similar injuries in Children's Hospital. Hurtt, 67, was treated for smoke inhalation at West Penn Hospital. And Hairston, 50, was taken to UPMC Presbyterian.

As Logan testified in his calm, quiet voice, Hairston sat impassively, arms crossed, his head sometimes bowed. A woman in the courtroom, one of about a dozen friends and relatives of Catherine and Sean, silently wept.

Logan, the only witness to testify at the hearing, said Hairston described his role in the beatings in a letter written on both sides of a legal-sized piece of paper. In the note describing the bludgeonings, Hairston expressed "how hard this was to do," Logan said.

Timothy G. Uhrich, solicitor for the Allegheny County coroner's office, found there was enough evidence to hold Hairston for trial on the murder charges.

Hairston's attorney, Bob Foreman, who was retained through the public defender's office, did not cross-examine Logan and said nothing in his client's defense. He declined to speak to reporters.

In addition to the murder charges, Hairston still faces 20 other charges, many involving allegations that he sexually assaulted his stepdaughter over seven years.

Logan said Hairston's wife had been upbeat about how the rape trial would turn out. Hairston called her an optimist.

"God had brought them this far," Logan said Catherine Hairston had told her husband a few days before she died, "and they would be OK."

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