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December 6, 2013

The Man With Many Chances

How shortcomings in the criminal justice system allowed an outlaw to continue a reign of terror

For nearly three decades, Richard Carley Hooten blazed a trail of lawlessness from his hometown of Louisville to Georgia and back.

He bounced in and out of prison, his rap sheet growing conviction by conviction. Rape. Stabbing. Sexual assault. Prison escape. Drug dealing. He did them all.

Back in Southern Indiana in early 2009, Hooten resumed his crime spree. Again and again prosecutors and judges offered him more chances to break the law. Each time, he accepted.

On March 2 — with a months-old warrant out for his arrest and a court hearing a week away — the six-time felon talked his way into a neighbor’s apartment in Clarksville. And just as he had done three times before, Hooten brutally raped a young female acquaintance.

This crime, however, was more brutal than the rest. This time, Hooten strangled his victim, 17-year-old Tara Rose Willenborg, to death.

Willenborg’s parents believe her death was preventable, had the justice system been paying attention. They are not the only ones. One criminal justice expert called the handling of the three Indiana cases the most egregious examples of missed opportunities he’d ever seen.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever heard of. It really is,” said Tom Barker, a professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. “They just ignored a known, serious risk to public safety. You talk about a murder being inevitable and predictable.”

An investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found that fundamental failures throughout Indiana’s criminal justice system allowed the veteran criminal to continue his predatory habits with little intervention.

The signs were there: the repeated sexual assaults, probation and parole violations, prior violent crimes (four in all). Hooten’s former probation officer called him a “walking time bomb.”

But despite being among the baddest of the bad elsewhere, Hooten twice managed to avoid prison terms in Indiana due to decisions by prosecutors and judges that put him back on the street instead of in lockup.

An examination of court records shows that plea bargains were struck in two Clark County cases with little or no consideration of Hooten’s violent criminal past, which in one case was misrepresented to the court.

And in a 2011 Fayette County case involving a weapons charge, the judge first set a low bail for Hooten, enabling him to get out of jail, and then postponed court hearings five times over 16 months, allowing him to roam free.

Hooten was ordered by the judge to appear in court March 8. By then it was too late; Hooten had killed Willenborg six days earlier. He has pleaded not guilty in court, but confessed to police and reporters, and said he intends to plead guilty to the murder later in court proceedings.

Despite his extensive record, Hooten never was charged in any of the three previous cases with being a habitual offender, which could have prompted higher bails and resulted in substantial prison sentences.

Another criminal justice expert, Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor at University of Nebraska-Omaha, said Willenborg’s murder was “very likely preventable.”

“We’ve got a pattern of serious failures on the part of a number of individuals,” said Walker who, like Barker, was provided by KyCIR with a three-page summary of Hooten’s criminal history.

As a convicted sex offender, Hooten was required to register with Indiana authorities. But they invariably were at least one step behind — catching up with him only when he was arrested for yet another crime, and before he was released — to break the law again.

So from mid-2008 until last March, Hooten mostly drifted around Louisville and Southern Indiana, spending some months in jail when he couldn’t make bail after being charged in one Clark County case. Along the way, Hooten also lived with at least four women, used fake names, violated the conditions of his probation and, ultimately, committed murder.

Today, the slain girl’s parents, Todd Willenborg and Kelley Curran, struggle not only to cope with the loss of their daughter, but also to understand how authorities could have missed so many chances to lock up the man who confessed to killing her.

“The sexual assault cases, the violence. It upsets me greatly,” Curran said. “These women deserved better. He did not deserve probation for that kind of physical harm.”

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