News and Tribune

December 23, 2013

Hooten’s warrants stretched for six months

Authorities were unable to nab man who later admitted to murdering teen

By R.G. Dunlop
Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

— Richard C. Hooten had two warrants out for his arrest and a wife who ratted him out to police. Yet for six months, he still evaded capture by Clark County authorities.

Hooten apparently didn’t go far, didn’t run, didn’t hide. The 50-year-old roamed free, worked at a Louisville furniture store, consorted with other women and, by his own admission, even sexually assaulted one of them.

Then on March 2, the serial sex offender with six felony convictions allegedly raped and killed 17-year-old Tara Rose Willenborg in her Clarksville apartment.

A recent investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and published in the News and Tribune found that fundamental failures by Indiana’s criminal-justice system allowed Hooten to remain free and continue his predatory habits with little intervention — until he finally was captured hours after the murder and confessed to it.

But questions linger about law enforcement’s efforts to find Hooten. How was this violent serial rapist able to elude them for so long?

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office monitors convicted sex offenders and is the agency primarily responsible for serving warrants. But citing the charges pending against Hooten, Sheriff Danny Rodden declined to discuss his department’s efforts to locate him.

In response to a records request from KyCIR, Rodden’s office provided a written response that said deputies “followed weak tips” that Hooten might be visiting or staying at two local motels but did not find him.

There are more than 200 registered sex offenders in Clark County and they are required to report where they live to the sheriff’s office. But the county currently has just one deputy, a volunteer, regularly monitoring compliance.

Court records show that the volunteer deputy, Tim Franklin, tried in August 2012 to verify that Hooten, a registered sex offender, was living where he was supposed to be. But when Franklin went to the Charlestown address that Hooten had provided, Hooten’s mother told Franklin that her son had never lived there.

Franklin, who declined to comment, filed a report two months later and requested a warrant for Hooten’s arrest. The warrant was issued a week after that. The department declined to address the delay.

The department’s written response to KyCIR also said it had “no information” in records about other attempts to monitor Hooten in the four years prior to the murder.

There are more than 10,000 active warrants in Clark County, but the sheriff’s office has no “formal, written policy on how warrants are served,” the department said in its written response.

A second warrant for Hooten was issued in September 2012 after his probation officer, Paul Lenfert, sought to revoke the probated sentence Hooten had been granted three months earlier in a Clark County drug case.

Hooten had failed to report for three scheduled appointments, had not notified the probation office of a change in address and had neglected to pay $725 in fees and court costs, according to records.

Probation officers in Indiana do not have the authority to serve warrants or make arrests, but routinely share information with law enforcement agencies. However, Lenfert, and his supervisor, Susan Knoebel, declined comment.

Just days before Willenborg’s murder, Hooten’s wife called Clarksville police and tried to have him arrested. Sherri Hooten said she told police that her husband was staying at an area motel.

But Clarksville Police Detective Joel DeMoss, the lead investigator on the murder case, said Sherri Hooten simply said her husband had just left a local bar and was walking down Eastern Boulevard. DeMoss said officers were dispatched, but couldn’t find Hooten.

“If she had told us where he was living, our guys would have followed up,” DeMoss said. He added that officers “kept an eye out for [Hooten] the next several nights,” but did not have a specific address to check.

Hooten was arrested in Clarksville the morning after Willenborg’s death. He told investigators he killed her, and he later confessed to the news media at an impromptu press conference. He has pleaded not guilty in court, though he has said he intends to plead guilty and thinks he deserves to be executed. His trial is schedule to begin Aug. 11.

Willenborg’s parents and criminal justice experts have said her murder was preventable.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found that in the four years prior to her death, Hooten twice had been placed on probation for felony convictions, and had been released on a low bond in connection with yet another felony charge.

In none of the cases was there any courtroom discussion, prior to Hooten’s release, about his background or the threat he posed to the public.