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IM CRIME FILES: The Murders in Heartland Crossing

They were neighborly gay men known to help strangers in need. And when they were murdered, friends and activists believed it had been because of their sexuality. But now officials say the accused was actually their onetime friend—motivated by greed.

Editor’s Note: The following originally appeared in the April 2009 issue and is included among IM's Best-Ever Crime Stories. Michael Brown was convicted of murder in Marion County in October 2010. He is currently incarcerated in the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, Indiana.

 

Something just wasn’t right, and Connie Ballard knew it. Three weeks earlier, one of her best patrons, a kind, elderly man named Milt Lindgren, had come into her automotive-repair shop to tell her that he was planning a roadtrip, and that he wanted the oil changed in his van before he left. But he never returned to have the work done, and now a man named Michael Brown was in Ballard’s office, wanting to have Lindgren’s 2005 Dodge Caravan towed to the shop from another town for repairs. Brown said that Lindgren had left on a trip and loaned the van to someone else, who had asked Brown to care for it. Brown had taken the van to his home in Franklin, but it wasn’t running well because, he said, someone had poured sugar in the gas tank.

The story puzzled Ballard: She knew her customer, and she knew that van. Lindgren was very fussy about who drove it.

Lindgren and his partner, Eric Hendricks, lived in the Heartland Crossing subdivision, about 10 miles south of the Indianapolis airport and not far from Camby Automotive Repair, Ballard’s shop. Ballard had often given Lindgren rides to and from the men’s house when the dilapidated van Lindgren used to drive broke down. In fact, it was Ballard’s husband who finally persuaded Lindgren to buy a new van after having told him, repair after repair, that the old one wasn’t worth fixing anymore.

Ballard had met Brown just once, months before, when he and Lindgren had come into the shop on one of Lindgren’s frequent visits. But Brown left a lasting impression. Lindgren introduced him as “Dr. Brown,” and as they made small talk, Brown had told Ballard and her husband, “I’m a doctor, so if you ever need any prescriptions, just call me.” It had seemed an odd comment, creepy even, and Ballard mentioned it to Lindgren the next time she saw him. “Your friend is a little off the chart,” she told Lindgren. “He offered us drugs.” Lindgren had dismissed her concern with a smile, saying that Brown “was joking” and that “you just have to get to know him.”

Brown wasn’t an imposing man—mid 50s, slight build, graying hair, light voice. But on that October morning when Brown returned to the shop, having him standing so close in her small, cramped office made Ballard uneasy. She sent him on his way, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong. She likes to think of Camby Automotive Repair as the kind of business that looks after not just patrons’ cars, but the patrons, too. As it happened, she knew the security guard who patrolled Lindgren and Hendricks’ neighborhood, and she called him.

“I need you to check on some of my customers,” Ballard told the guard. “They seem to be kind of MIA.”

A few hours later, responding to a call from the security guard, police confirmed Ballard’s worst fear: Milton Lindgren Jr., 70, and Eric Hendricks, 73, lay murdered in their home on Middlebury Way.

 

It couldn’t have been easy, keeping the secret for so many years. But for Milt Lindgren, living as an openly gay man didn’t seem like a choice. He was born in 1938 to a conservative family in Minnesota—a place where men took jobs and wives, and started families.

And that’s what Lindgren did. He married and moved to his wife’s rural hometown of Arcadia, Indiana. The couple had two daughters, and Lindgren lived a quiet life as an accountant and a family man. Standing an angular 6 feet, 10 inches, he was physically striking but unassuming in demeanor. He volunteered his bookkeeping expertise at church. He and his daughters made crafts together and played with model trains.

But Lindgren’s home life was never quite right. For years, he and his wife slept in separate bedrooms, offering stock explanations for the arrangement: He snored; she had cold feet. Lindgren was unhappy, and for decades he suffered chronic migraine headaches.

Then, in 2002, everything changed. His wife, perhaps sensing that there was something important she didn’t know—or hadn’t wanted to know—decided to read Lindgren’s e-mail. She found romantic correspondence between her husband and other men, and it infuriated her. She filed for divorce and, in the process, outed Lindgren.

The traumatic fallout from the divorce and revelation of Lindgren’s sexuality confirmed some of his worst fears about coming out. And it devastated him. He was embarrassed and ashamed, and most of his family disowned him. Even his siblings and one of his two daughters sided with his ex-wife. But although he had never intended to come forward with his secret, he wouldn’t apologize for being gay. He wrote letters to the one daughter who would still speak to him and expressed hope that time would repair the broken relationships in his life.

 

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1935, Eric Hendricks enjoyed a more cosmopolitan upbringing than Lindgren, and their journeys could hardly have been more divergent. Hendricks’ father worked as an airplane-instrument mechanic, and the family moved frequently from one major city to the next. Hendricks studied art at the University of Georgia and earned a master’s in art history from NYU. His talent in design and lettering led to successful careers in map-drawing and producing graphically complex wiring schematics for nuclear submarines, and his career pursuits landed him in cities throughout the eastern United States. His fertile intellect spawned eclectic interests, and for close to 25 years, Hendricks spent much of his free time working on an exhaustive taxonomy book that he hoped would include every organism ever identified. Before calling it quits in 1995, he had completed more than 500 pages.

Hendricks came to terms with his sexuality much earlier in life than Lindgren. But like Lindgren, he knew the pain of being exposed: As a young man, while working as an art teacher in Pensacola, Florida, he had been run out of town by the sheriff’s department after residents learned that Hendricks was gay. Still, he often said that he thought his imposing size—he stood 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed close to 300 pounds—caused him to be treated differently than a smaller gay man. He shared a long-term partnership with a man named Tom Hitchner. The two lived happily together in Manhattan and then Georgia for the better part of 25 years, until AIDS began its slow ravage of Tom’s body. Hendricks cared for his partner until he died in 1992, and after his death published Hitchner’s memoir, Tom’s Story, as a loving tribute.

 

In 2003, Lindgren and Hendricks found themselves in roughly the same place: newfound freedom. After losing Tom, Hendricks had followed another love interest to Hammond, Indiana, but the breakup of that relationship had left him single again. Lindgren, though in the midst of an acrimonious divorce from his wife of 30 years, was now able to pursue the kinds of romantic interests that had caused him so much hidden shame for most of his life. Both men were in their 60s, and yet both were, in a sense, starting over. Both were mature, both loved art, and their personal interests were driven by intellectual curiosity.

Not surprisingly, when Lindgren and Hendricks found one another online, they hit it off immediately, in spite of the fact that Lindgren was a dedicated churchgoer and Hendricks was an avowed atheist. Not long after meeting, they took an apartment together on the west side of Indianapolis, where they lived for nearly two years before purchasing their home in the Heartland Crossing subdivision.

To those who cared about them, it seemed the Lindgren-Hendricks household was a happy and pleasant one. Shahannah Roudebush, the daughter who remained close to Lindgren, says her father’s chronic headaches had disappeared. “He was finally happy with his life,” she says. “He wasn’t stressed anymore.”

Hendricks, though, was in poor health; he was excessively heavy and suffered from diabetes-related neuropathy, which caused him to lose sense of where his feet were and confined him to a wheelchair most of the time. Still, as Hendricks had once dutifully cared for his former partner, Lindgren now cared for Hendricks. And Hendricks’ health problems did not prevent the couple from traveling frequently. For the sake of Hendricks’ comfort, Lindgren would rent a large RV when the two decided to take a long roadtrip.

And yet, despite their seemingly mutual affection, Lindgren and Hendricks also had separate lives. Hendricks didn’t get out much, and “he never met anybody,” says his brother, Steve Hendricks. Lindgren, on the other hand, seems to have been determined to live his new life to the fullest. As always, he remained active in church, and he could often be found at the Indianapolis Art Center, where he took classes and, thanks to his strikingly gaunt frame and rugged, Lincolnesque facial features, became one of the center’s most popular models. “He was delighted by the interest in the way he looked,” says Ellie Siskind, a teacher at the center. “He felt like he was on Broadway.”

During that time, Lindgren also seemed to develop a soft spot for younger men who were down on their luck. “Milt was a welcoming gentleman,” says Steve Hendricks. “He gave me the impression of being a very affable fellow.” Steve and his wife, Sharon, who live in Massachusetts, visited his brother and Lindgren’s home a few years ago. As he recalls, “Milt had several houseguests, young men he had met who were having a hard time. He invited them in to help them out.”

 

At least one of Lindgren and Hendricks’ houseguests seems to have stayed around long enough to become a full-fledged roommate. Steve Hendricks talked to his brother frequently and says that in 2007, Eric started making offhand references to a man named Michael Brown, a doctor who was living with him and Lindgren, apparently because he was having financial difficulties. It seemed he was helping out around the house and assisting the men with errands.

Over the course of about a year, “Dr. Brown,” as Lindgren called him, was coming up regularly in conversation and occasionally interacting with Lindgren and Hendricks’ family and friends. Roudebush, Lindgren’s daughter, once invited her father to her home for dinner and set an extra place at the table for Brown—at her father’s insistence—but Brown never showed up. In March 2008, Brown called Hendricks’ brother and, citing his own medical training, suggested that Hendricks be institutionalized. Nothing ever came of the conversation, but the call left Steve Hendricks and his wife puzzled. “Why would a doctor be living with them?” he remembers his wife asking. “And why would a doctor be cleaning their house?”

In July 2008, Brown moved out of Lindgren and Hendricks’ home, though he seems to have remained close to the men, looking after their house and picking up the mail when they were traveling. Then strange and ominous things began to happen. On August 17, Lindgren filed a report with the police because someone had cut the men’s cable line and affixed a note with the word “fag” onto the front door. Lindgren told his daughter it had just been “neighborhood kids messing around,” but later events alarmed him. In late September, he and Hendricks went to the Camby post office, where they were told that, in February 2008, someone had submitted a change-of-address form bearing Hendricks’ signature, and that the post office had been directing his mail to a southside Indianapolis apartment. Hendricks had been unaware of the change-of-address request—and certainly had not authorized it. A postal employee would later say that Lindgren and Hendricks were “visibly upset” by the news, and they immediately filed a new form to have Hendricks’ mail delivered to their Heartland Crossing home.

 

On October 20, after Connie Ballard called the security guard in Lindgren and Hendricks’ neighborhood, she called Michael Brown. She told him that he should meet the guard at the men’s house, or she would. Brown said he would go himself.

When Brown reached the house, a neighbor was standing in a nearby yard. Brown asked the neighbor if he had seen Lindgren or Hendricks lately. He hadn’t. Brown had a key to the front door but said he couldn’t get in because the outer storm door was locked. He and the neighbor walked to the back of the house, where the neighbor noticed that a window was partially open. The neighbor yelled into the window—“Hello?”—but heard no reply. Then Lindgren’s dogs, two long-haired Dachshunds he’d had since before his divorce, started barking inside the house. “That’s not right,” Brown said. “If they are home, the dogs wouldn’t bark.”

As Brown and the neighbor discussed what to do next, the security guard arrived and told them he would wait while they went inside to check on Lindgren and Hendricks. Brown climbed through the open window and let the neighbor in through the back door. Almost immediately, the neighbor smelled the odor of decay. As Brown headed toward the stairs leading to the men’s bedrooms, the neighbor tried to stop him. “The smell’s bad enough,” he told Brown. “Let’s go back outside.”

“I have to check,” Brown replied, and the neighbor stayed downstairs. Moments later, the neighbor heard Brown’s voice from upstairs.

“Oh, my God,” Brown said. “There’s blood everywhere.”

 

In the hours and days following Michael Brown’s discovery of his former roommates, police officers and crime-lab technicians scurried in and out of the quiet suburban house, while shocked neighbors looked on and news reporters and TV crews swarmed the block. After friends and acquaintances told them about the recent gay-bashing harassment, activists criticized local law-enforcement officials for not adequately reporting hate crimes and condemned the Indiana General Assembly for having failed to pass a hate-crimes law. In an op-ed column in The Indianapolis Star, Jon Keep, chair of the advocacy group Indiana Equality, argued that “[t]he deaths of Milton Lindgren and Eric Hendricks serve as a wake-up call.” In the view of much of the public, the murders of Lindgren and Hendricks weren’t just criminal, they were political. And the brutality of the murders—both men had died from blunt-force impact to their heads—inflamed the discussions.

At first, Michael Brown appeared to be a concerned friend who stumbled upon the bodies.

In early news reports, Michael Brown appeared to be a concerned friend who had stumbled upon the bodies. But IMPD detective Robert Flack, who had arrived at the home of Lindgren and Hendricks just hours after their bodies were found, took a keen and immediate interest in him. He asked Brown to come to the police station to give a taped statement. Brown balked and asked how long the interview would take, explaining that he was planning to play basketball at a church that evening. But Flack persisted, and eventually Brown agreed to follow him to the Homicide Division office.

Brown told investigators that he had met Lindgren and Hendricks at church about a year earlier and that he had lived with the two men until July, when he moved in with his girlfriend in Franklin. He recounted a bizarre series of events leading up to his grisly discovery. He said that he had last talked to the men about three weeks earlier, and that he had seen them about a week before that, when he had stopped by the men’s home to pick up his mail. On that day, Brown said, Lindgren had told him that he had “got into it with some kid’s father.” While Brown was there, he told investigators, he had overheard Lindgren having a phone conversation, and that Lindgren was yelling. Brown said he had heard someone on the other end of the line say to Lindgren: “You stay away from my son.”

Then, on October 11, he said, someone—he didn’t know who—had left a message on his cell phone, asking him to pick up Lindgren’s van from the parking lot of a nearby Walmart. Brown and a friend had then driven the van to Franklin. After interviewing him for about an hour, the police let Brown go.

Two days later, he was back at Camby Automotive Repair. “Did you hear what happened to Eric and Milt?” Brown asked Mike Ballard, Connie’s husband, who was taken aback by the question.

“Well, yeah,” he answered. “It’s been all over the news.”

Connie Ballard wasn’t in the repairshop office, and Brown asked where she was. Mike Ballard replied that his wife had gone out to buy office supplies. Brown seemed disappointed that he wouldn’t get to talk to her, and left.

But Connie Ballard was not, in fact, on an errand. She was in the office of the Homicide Division, telling Detective Flack about her unsettling encounters with Brown, and how Lindgren had inquired about an oil change some three weeks before his body was discovered but had never returned.

Investigators wanted to talk to Brown again. Flack called him and told him to return to the Homicide Division office—right away—but Brown refused, saying he was on his way to a wedding in Evansville and would be gone for several days.

But Flack found Lindgren’s van, in Franklin, and had it searched. Inside, investigators found traces of human blood on the driver’s-side seatbelt and a garage-door opener from Lindgren and Hendricks’ home. Later that night, police found Brown and his girlfriend driving along U.S. 31 near Franklin and pulled them over. Flack met them on the side of the highway, and when Brown refused to give another statement, Flack again had to let him go.

Then Flack got a break. On October 27, state police put him in contact with a Monrovia, Indiana, woman who had called them to say that she and her husband knew Michael Brown and that he had been storing some items at their home. She explained further that she and her husband had met Brown about a year before, when he pulled into their driveway and, claiming to be lost, asked directions to Mooresville. Brown had told them that he was a doctor and that he had just moved to Indiana from Colorado. The men eventually became friends. In early October—about two weeks before Lindgren and Hendricks’ bodies were discovered—Brown had asked the couple to store a television, stereo equipment, and some boxes. On October 24, four days after he found the bodies, Brown asked them to store two safes.

In response to the call, investigators arrived at the couple’s Monrovia home and searched the items Brown had left there. They found furniture-store receipts in the name of Eric Hendricks, the title to Lindgren’s Dodge van, and a copy of Lindgren’s Minnesota birth certificate.

The suspicious—though still curious—discoveries in Monrovia set investigators off on a scavenger hunt across Indianapolis and beyond. At the Franklin home of Brown’s girlfriend, they found a hammer, a garage-door opener for Lindgren and Hendricks’ home, and a key to Lindgren’s van. The girlfriend led them to Brown’s self-storage unit in Avon, which contained unopened boxes of merchandise from Furniture Fashions on Indianapolis’s east side. At the furniture store, the owner confirmed that Brown had purchased the merchandise—some $7,000 worth—using Eric Hendricks’ credit card, and that Brown had produced a driver’s license bearing his own picture and Hendricks’ name. Finally, Flack paid a visit to the Camby post office, where he discovered what Lindgren and Hendricks had learned less than a month before their murders—that someone had ordered Hendricks’ mail redirected to a southside apartment. What’s more, the address matched several documents police had turned up in the course of their investigation of Brown. The day after Brown found Lindgren and Hendricks’ bodies, he had asked post-office employees to start holding the victims’ mail until he could come in to pick it up.

Authorities were now convinced they had enough evidence to arrest Brown, and on November 13, the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office filed formal charges against him: two counts of murder. By then, however, Brown had gone missing. Two days later, authorities arrested him in San Diego.

 

“From my understanding,” says Mario Massillamany of the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, “this was not a hate crime. We believe we have charged the right individual.” At press time, Michael Brown was in custody in Indianapolis, awaiting trial for the homicides of Lindgren and Hendricks.

Nevertheless, until Brown’s trial brings more details to light, it’s too early to conclude that Lindgren and Hendricks’ sexual orientation wasn’t at least a partial factor in their murders. In fact, the prosecutor’s office has advanced the theory that Brown himself staged the anti-gay vandalism to distract investigators. “Michael Brown was trying to make it appear to be a hate crime to take attention away from himself as a suspect,” says Massillamany. Indeed, some of Brown’s claims during the course of the investigation—that he heard a caller tell Lindgren to “stay away from my son” and that someone poured sugar in Lindgren’s gas tank—seem to bolster the theory. And if prosecutors can support the argument in trial, it might constitute damning evidence that the murders were premeditated. “Getting an arrest was a significant hurdle,” says Flack. “But the investigation is not over just because an arrest has been made. We’re just getting started.”

Regardless of what new information might come to light, Indiana Equality’s Keep concedes that “people kind of jumped the gun” in assuming the murders were motivated by bias. But he still thinks the initial public reaction was justified. “These were two elderly gentlemen, and one was confined to a wheelchair,” he says. “Both were loving individuals, one was involved in church, and they were well-liked by a lot of people. When it came out that they had been harassed, it caused outrage.”

But even with the elimination of hate as a motive, the real motive remains something of a mystery. If Brown killed Lindgren and Hendricks, as alleged, it begs the question: Why would a con artist (investigators have found no evidence that Brown was actually a doctor) who had already succeeded in ripping off Hendricks for thousands of dollars resort to such drastic violence? How did a callous abuse of two men’s generosity and trust devolve into a vicious disregard for their lives? In light of the revelation that Lindgren and Hendricks had discovered the attempt to redirect their mail just weeks before they were murdered, prosecutors think the two men might finally have uncovered Brown’s scheming against them and confronted him.

Steve Hendricks, for one, is. convinced that Brown was driven by monetary gain and little else. He says that not long before Brown met the two men, Eric had received a substantial inheritance from their father. “Eric was very open, and that was probably pretty tantalizing,” he says. “I don’t think he would have been a tough nut to crack. I suspect that Brown smelled money.” But Roudebush, Lindgren’s daughter, isn’t sure the explanation for the murders is so cut-and-dried. “I believe they were targeted because they were gay,” she says.

Ultimately, both theories might prove to be correct—though that would make for an altogether more complicated, and troubling, prospect: that Milton Lindgren and Eric Hendricks weren’t killed by someone who hated gay men, but by someone who thought it would be easy to target, exploit, and kill gay men, and get away with it.


Photos courtesy Hendricks family; some photos by Tony Valainis.

This article appeared in the April 2009 issue.