As a reporter and a private investigator, Paul Henderson helped win freedom for 14 wrongfully convicted people, almost all in murder cases. "Paul kept digging," said a former editor.
Paul Henderson, an old-school reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize at The Seattle Times for a series of meticulously researched stories that kept an innocent man from prison, has died. He was 79.
Mr. Henderson, who had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in September, died peacefully Dec. 7 at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle surrounded by close family, said Janet Horne Henderson, his lifelong partner and former reporter and editor at The Times.
Throughout his life, Mr. Henderson fearlessly fought for the downtrodden, first as a reporter and then in a second career as a private investigator who helped win freedom for 14 wrongfully convicted people, almost all in murder cases.
“He was indefatigable,” said Jim McCloskey, the founder of Centurion, a New Jersey-based organization dedicated to the vindication of wrongfully convicted people for which Mr. Henderson worked for many years.
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Mr. Henderson also was a devoted father, whose children remember him as big-hearted, absent-minded and a mechanically challenged man who loved to go crabbing in a 49-foot boat he bought but didn’t even know how to start.
In 1981, he took up the cause of a young man, Steve Titus, who had been convicted in King County Superior Court of a sexual assault he insisted he didn’t commit.
Mr. Henderson wrote a series of articles in The Times entitled “One man’s battle to clear his name,” which proved that Titus, who was facing a prison sentence, couldn’t have committed the crime. Another man ultimately confessed to the crime. Titus later died of a heart attack at age 36.
For his work, Mr. Henderson was awarded the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for local investigative specialized reporting, which the Times’ top editor at the time, James B. King, described as “good, basic journalism.”
“He was a breed of street/investigative reporter seldom seen any more,” said former Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher. “Only a reporter with Paul’s instincts would listen to and hear Steve Titus … Paul believed him.
“There were people in the newsroom who were concerned Paul would embarrass himself and the newspaper as the story unfolded for readers. Initially it wasn’t at all clear that Titus was innocent. Paul kept digging. In the end, Paul’s persistence exonerated Titus,” Fancher said.
Born on Jan. 13, 1939 in Washington, D.C., Paul Henderson III attended Wentworth Military Academy & College in Missouri before joining the Army and serving in Korea. His first newspaper job, in 1960, was as a reporter for Stars and Stripes.
After his discharge, Mr. Henderson studied journalism at Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Omaha and worked for newspapers in Omaha and Iowa.
Mr. Henderson joined The Times in 1967, where he carved out a reputation as a colorful writer. As part of his reporting, he lived on the streets and rode trains with homeless people to better understand their lives, and he spent time driving cabs and hanging out with heroin addicts researching stories.
Mr. Henderson played a big role in the start of The Forgotten Children’s Fund in 1976 after he wrote a human-interest story about a child’s written plea to Santa Claus that gained national attention. He later served on the fund’s board and personally helped carry out its mission to gather, wrap and deliver gifts to impoverished children.
“Paul was always an advocate for the underdog, the outsider, the person in a difficult situation,” said Jack Broom, a longtime Seattle Times reporter and editor who retired in 2016.
”I think that’s what made him a good reporter,” said Broom, a co-worker of Mr. Henderson’s for eight years and, for a short time, his editor. “He was also a gifted writer with an eye for the unexpected details that could bring a story to life.”
In 1979, he wrote a front-page, first-person account of how he was nearly shot by a police officer when he ran into the chaos of a mass jailbreak in downtown Seattle.
“As I write about this six hours later, my hands still are trembling,” he told readers. “Keep on writing, Paul Henderson, because it was your fault and not the cop’s.”
The officer, who didn’t know who he was encountering, ordered Mr. Henderson to get down. “The sidewalk dirt gritted against my face as I hugged the ground,” he wrote.
Mr. Henderson left The Times in 1985 to become a private investigator and in 1988 began doing work for Centurion on a case-by-case basis. He joined the organization full time in 1996 and remained until he retired in 2013.
Working with McCloskey and others, Mr. Henderson helped gain the freedom of the 14 inmates in cases throughout the United States and Canada. All were serving life terms, and most were completely exonerated, McCloskey said.
“It was largely due to Paul,” McCloskey said. Mr. Henderson knocked on doors, brought forward witnesses who had lied and used his love of people to gain their trust, McCloskey said.
“He had a passion for truth and justice,” McCloskey added.
The two spent a lot of time together and became friends, which allowed McCloskey to become familiar with Mr. Henderson’s endearing quirks.
Mr. Henderson would drive while smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee, using his knees to steer the wheel. “He’d leave the turn signal on all the time,” McCloskey said.
Son Peter Henderson, 35, recalled that he was the one who had to run the boat for his dad when the two went crabbing, which they did together as often as possible.
“I loved seeing the look of anticipation and excitement on his face as he pulled up the pots,” he said.
Another son, Brady Henderson, 32, said Mr. Henderson once let a homeless man he had just met sleep overnight in their house.
Jill Wiltfong, his 48-year-daughter from an earlier marriage, said her father once encountered a shivering man at a rest stop in Oregon and drove him 50 miles out of his way.
He inspired Brady, who works for ESPN, to become a journalist. Brady’s first job was working part time in the Times’ sports department.
“Every time I got to walk into The Times, I got to look over and see a picture of my dad,” he said, referring to a display of Times journalists who have won the Pulitzer Prize in the newspaper’s lobby. “It was just the coolest thing I could possibly imagine. I just always was so proud.”
In addition to Janet Horne Henderson, their sons Brady Henderson and Peter Henderson (Kristin) and his daughter, Jill Wiltfong (Kyle), Mr. Henderson is survived by two other daughters from his earlier marriage, Leslee Degenstein (Schawn) and Pauley Henderson (Terry); his sister Gale Lundberg; six grandchildren, Alex Fisher, Kathryn Fisher, Heather McGlynn, Brittney Stevens, Josee Farmer and Miles Henderson; three great grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.
His family was preparing to celebrate his 80th birthday Jan. 13. They are now planning a memorial service for mid-January at The Center for Wooden Boats on Lake Union. Remembrances may be made to Centurion.
Mr. Henderson took great pride in his work, said Janet Horne Henderson. While in the hospital, he received cards from two of the people he helped free and it “meant the world to him,” she said.
The couple were married for 24 years before divorcing in 2006, but they were never really apart, she said.
“He was the love of my life. Good times and bad, sickness and health,” she said.