Editor's note: This story was originally published in The Telegraph on March 8, 1998.
FORSYTH -- They both were good students, talented athletes and attractive people the kind of shining, happy couple seen every day on campuses like Mercer University's.
Michele Cartagena, 19, and Patrick Grant Hendrickson, 22, had bright futures before they were gunned down on a cold January night in 1995 by a man who apparently picked them at random. They were sitting near Lake Juliette in a car that had been a Christmas present. The man accused of killing them, Andrew Allen Cook, 24, goes on trial this week in a Henry County courtroom, where the Monroe County case was moved because of pretrial publicity.
During the trial that is expected to take most of the month, the parents of Hendrickson and Cartagena will be looking for answers. Why were their only children killed before their futures were set, before their children could be born and spoiled by doting grandparents? Why did they have to die at all?
Hendrickson's mother, Mary Hendrickson, in court records, called it “a living nightmare.”
“...(T)o see your child hurt (or) ache on the inside and not be able to do anything about it was one of the worst things in the world,” she wrote. “To learn of your child's death is the very worst. Still, never until I saw with my own eyes my child lying in a coffin did I accept the fact that he was no longer here.”
In their written statements, both sets of parents expressed anger, resentment, deeply embedded sorrow, depression and a sense of powerlessness.
“There have been many changes in my life since Grant's death,” the Mercer senior's father, Patrick M. Hendrickson, wrote. “I have become a lot more moody. I become more angry at situations that in the past I (would) try to smooth out. ... I am less trusting.”
Every day for the last 26 months, Louis and Chris Cartagena say they have visited their only daughter's grave.
“Our world revolved around Michele,” Louis Cartagena wrote. “We now have no legacy, no opportunity to see our young, vibrant and spirited daughter fulfill her aspirations and dreams.
“We will have our memories, but each time we see a child, a student graduating from college, a young lady getting married, pursuing a challenging career, raising children, we can only think of how it would have been.”
Michele Cartagena, who grew up near Columbus, was her high school's valedictorian. She was in the marching band and excelled at tennis and softball. She was the No. 1 singles tennis player and captain of the Spencer High School softball team in 1992.
Cartagena was smart a National Honor Society and Beta Club member who was offered academic scholarships to Emory and Mercer universities. Mercer also offered her a tennis scholarship.
In her spare time, she was a volunteer with the Red Cross and Humane Society, and she would visit the elderly.
At Mercer, she played tennis and belonged to a sorority. A sophomore, she planned to major in physical therapy.
“(T)he many personal characteristics of Michele ... tell a A gifted and talented young lady, full of love and life, with the aspirations of pursuing a medical career to help others and to make a contribution to society,” her father wrote.
Cartagena had been dating Hendrickson for almost one year. Those who knew them speculated they were drawn to each other by their active lifestyles.
Hendrickson was a budding Renaissance man a musician who played bass in a band and was a volunteer sound man for a Macon theater group. Known as “Gentle Ben” to his youth-league soccer coach, he played baseball, church-league softball and enjoyed fishing, hunting, golf, water and snow skiing, camping, canoeing and hiking.
He was an honor student at Tattnall Square Academy who helped put together a special video yearbook during his senior year. On an academic scholarship at Mercer, he was pursuing a degree in electrical engineering and physics, and hehad worked in a co-op program that would have led to a guaranteed job after graduation.
Grant, as friends and family called him, was in the student government and belonged to a fraternity. He made dean's list several quarters. He was active in church, participating in a youth ministry and running the sound system.
Like his girlfriend, he was active in the community. He had been a volunteer at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Macon since he was 15 he was called Mr. Dinosaur because of his heavy involvement in the museum's dinosaur exhibit.
After Hendrickson was killed, a new acoustical system was bought for the theater with donations made in his name in honor of his volunteer work.
'Now there is a void'
Cartagena and Hendrickson were shot in a white Honda that Cartagena's parents had bought her for Christmas, less than two weeks before the students were killed. Their bodies lay there overnight before being discovered.
For Mary Hendrickson, that only worsened her pain.
“Nothing can describe the impact of hearing, `Grant has been killed,' “ she wrote. “I had to ... (live) with the knowledge that Grant had lain slaughtered all night in a very cold, windy and desolate area from 12:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. the next morning, before news of his death even reached the authorities.”
Years of moving from place to place because of Louis Cartagena's military service had not broken the bond between Louis, Chris and Michele Cartagena. It took a killer spitting .223-caliber and 9 mm slugs.
“That togetherness remains between Chris and I, but now there is a void,” Louis Cartagena wrote. “This void will never be replaced, and the result has been a complete change in our daily lives. ... Numbness and emptiness are the best words to describe our emotions. Not a day goes by when we don't think and talk about Michele.
“We don't care what anyone says, time does not heal. We have lost our only child, and that passion is an emotion that will never go away. Our lives will continue to center around her. Michele is our pride and joy, and that is not going to change. ... The loss of Michele can't be put into words, but suffice to say, Chris and I will never be the same.”
Patrick M. Hendrickson wrote that he has reacted to his son's death by withdrawing. Mary Hendrickson, however, expressed a need to be heard.
“Right now I live in an imperfect world, full of hate, violence and evil,” she wrote. “I feel that I should speak out for Grant. .... I do not want my son's death to be for nothing. ... I am here baring my heart, hoping that in this world I may see justice done.”
Note: This report is based on court records and transcripts of pretrial hearings. The parents of the defendant and victims in this case either declined or could not be reached for comment.