News and Tribune

December 6, 2013

The Man With Many Chances

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

By R.G. Dunlop
Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

— 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.”



The Son of a Killer

The story of Richard Hooten starts in a broken Louisville home in the 1960s. His parents divorced when he was just 2. He was first incarcerated as a juvenile for stealing his stepfather’s car. Barely literate as a young adult, he never graduated from high school.

When Hooten was 10, his father was sentenced to life imprisonment in Florida for murder. That crime, too, involved the sexual assault and strangulation of a young woman.

The elder Hooten also had been convicted of murder in Arkansas, only to be paroled. The Florida judicial system labeled him a “mentally disordered sex offender” and he died behind bars in 1988.

Hooten’s mother, who lives in Charlestown, declined recently to be interviewed by KyCIR.

Hooten pleaded guilty to his first felony as an adult in 1984. After acknowledging the assault of a former girlfriend, he received a 60-day jail sentence and five years’ probation.  

Three months out of jail, he earned a trip back behind bars, this time for repeatedly stabbing an acquaintance. Again, a guilty plea. The sentence: 10 years in prison. He was just 21.

In August 1987, Hooten and three other inmates scaled a fence and briefly escaped from what is now the Roederer Correctional Complex, in Oldham County, Ky. That netted him an additional two-year sentence.

Paroled in January 1990, barely four years into his 12-year sentence, Hooten quickly disappeared, violating his parole. Once apprehended, he was returned briefly to prison before again being released on parole in July 1991. And again, he vanished.

In May 1992, he resurfaced in Griffin, Ga., about 35 miles south of Atlanta, where he was arrested and charged with raping and sodomizing his next-door neighbor after pushing his way into her home. In exchange for his guilty plea to those charges, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Prior to taking a polygraph exam, which he failed, Hooten allegedly said that once he “beat this rap,” he intended to return to Kentucky and get off parole.

He did return in 2006, after his release from prison in Georgia. But he was turned over to Kentucky authorities and imprisoned until May 2008 for violating his parole. He was now 44, and had spent nearly half his life behind bars.

Seven months after being freed in Kentucky, Hooten launched his Indiana crime spree — three felonies in 3 1/2 years — that the justice system failed to halt until after Willenborg lay dead.



Little Attention to a ‘Walking Time Bomb’

Hooten quickly gave Indiana officials warning that he was still a dangerous man, still an unrepentant sexual predator. But they didn’t seem to be paying attention.

In January 2009, he barged into a neighbor’s apartment in Charlestown, reached under her shorts and grabbed her crotch, court records show. Three young children were in the apartment at the time, and at least one of them, the victim’s 9-year-old son, witnessed the attack.

Two months later, Hooten pleaded guilty to sexual battery and unlawful residential entry, both class D felonies that could have resulted in a prison sentence of up to three years on each charge.

Instead, under the terms of the plea agreement with prosecutors, Hooten was placed on three years’ probation, received credit for the 68 days he had spent in jail and was ordered to attend “sexual perp. counseling.” It could not be determined whether he ever did so.

Clark County Magistrate Kenneth R. Abbott accepted the plea agreement, and was thus required to impose the sentence. But prosecutors could have pushed for a harsher deal, and Abbott could have rejected the agreement he ultimately approved, had he thought the sentence was inappropriate in light of Hooten’s criminal history.

None of that happened. Moreover, before Hooten was released, there was not even a brief discussion in court of his criminal record, no talk of his habit of assaulting women, according to an audio recording of the March 10, 2009, hearing.

Neither Abbott nor Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Steven Stewart, whose office negotiated the plea, responded to numerous requests by The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting to discuss the case. Christopher Sturgeon, Hooten’s public defender in the case, declined to discuss it.

Eric Watkins, Hooten’s probation officer in that case and who told KyCIR he considered Hooten a “walking time bomb,” added:

“Everywhere I went, I said, ‘You gotta watch this guy; it’s just a matter of time until he reoffends.’” Watkins recalled. “I had so many people afraid of this guy. He is extremely dangerous. I can’t answer why the courts and prosecutors didn’t deal more harshly with him.”



The ‘Serious Violent Felon’ and $1,200 Cash

The Indiana justice system’s next opportunity to protect the public from Hooten came in mid-2011. Instead, the result was more leniency.

Connersville police — acting on a tip that Hooten was staying with a woman who was unaware of his violent sexual predator background and might be vulnerable — went to her home May 29. The woman, the mother of a 5-month-old girl, indeed did not know that Hooten was a sex offender, and immediately kicked him out, according to the police report.

Officer Dax Gunder then found a .22-caliber rifle in the trunk of Hooten’s car, and also determined that he had failed to register his address within 72 hours of arriving in Connersville — a requirement for sex offenders.

“He said he forgot, but it was quite obvious that he was lying,” Gunder wrote in his report.

That report, which became part of the court record, also referred to Hooten’s “lengthy criminal history.” And the charges filed — possession of a firearm by a “serious violent felon” and failure to register as a sex offender — made clear that he was no first-time criminal.

No prosecutor was required to be present when Hooten appeared before Fayette Circuit Judge Beth Butsch on June 1, 2011, so no one argued for a high bail. A transcript of the court hearing shows that although Butsch referred three times to the charges describing Hooten as a “serious violent felon” and once as a sex offender, she made no inquiry into his criminal past.

Butsch simply informed Hooten of his rights and questioned him about his personal circumstances to determine whether he qualified to be represented by a public defender (he did). Then she set his bail at $12,000, thanked Hooten and ended the hearing. The $12,000 bail meant Hooten or a representative must post 10 percent — $1,200 cash — for his release from jail.

Barker, the Eastern Kentucky University professor, said he considered the bail decision to be an inexplicably bad one.

“If  you have a clear risk to the community, based on his number of felony convictions and their violent nature, you have to treat him differently,” he said. “They just disregarded this.”

Under Indiana law, bail should be set at an amount necessary “to assure the defendant’s appearance in court or to assure the physical safety of another person or the community ...”

The law also lists 10 factors that a judge “shall take into account” when setting bail, including the defendant’s criminal record, character, reputation and habits, employment status, length of residence in the community and “a disdain for authority.”

In court, Hooten told Butsch that he hadn’t worked for 18 months, had no money and owned “nothing except my clothes.” He also said he didn’t know the address where he was arrested, and was “just visiting” there. And he said he actually lived with his wife in Clark County, 110 miles away, not “in the community.” But Butsch expressed no concern about any of these disclosures either.

Within three weeks of his initial court appearance, Hooten’s bond had been posted by a family friend and he walked out of the Fayette County jail. Three days later, on June 24, the prosecutor’s office filed a 10-page report with the court detailing Hooten’s criminal record.

In the next 16 months, Butsch granted five continuances in Hooten’s case, postponing the trial until March 8 of this year. By then, Willenborg had been dead six days.  

Asked why the case appeared to languish in her court, Butsch said in an interview: “A request to call a jury was not filed by state or defense. At some point, cases have to be resolved, but we had not reached that point yet.”

Butsch declined to discuss her decision to set Hooten’s bail, citing advice from the Indiana Judicial Center and a provision of the Indiana Code of Judicial Conduct that bars judges from making public statements that might affect the outcome of a pending matter.

“Factors the court considered, what was going through the court’s mind — I cannot discuss that,” Butsch said.

Fayette County Prosecutor Kenneth Faw also refused to discuss his office’s handling of Hooten’s case, saying, “I make no comments about pending cases.” He acknowledged, however, that the charges against Hooten made it apparent that he was not only a convicted sex offender but also a violent felon.



Blank Paperwork and a Quick Plea Deal

Less than a month after his release from Fayette County jail, Hooten found himself again in trouble with the law. On July 19, 2011, Clarksville police went to Room 105 of the Bel-Air Motel and encountered Hooten. He initially gave them a false name and date of birth, but when his true identity surfaced, Hooten was arrested on a Clark County warrant accusing him of violating his probation in the 2009 sexual battery case.

After police handcuffed Hooten, they searched the motel room and found several bottles of a narcotic painkiller, some of which Hooten admitted selling. He was charged with dealing drugs.

A $1,500 cash bond was required in this case, but no family or friend appeared this time to post it. So Hooten remained in the Clark County jail for nearly a year, until June 6, 2012. Then he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of possessing narcotics and accepted a three-year prison term, with 15 months suspended “to strict terms of probation.”

It took just eight minutes to execute the plea deal and sentence. As in the other Clark County case, the prosecution had the option of pushing for a three-year prison sentence plus the habitual criminal charge. And the judge had the option of rejecting the plea agreement.

Again, none of that happened. An audio recording of the hearing shows there was no discussion of Hooten’s past. That discussion might have been more likely had the affidavit purporting to list Hooten’s criminal past been accurate.

That affidavit, attached to the plea agreement and part of the court record, professed to list “all crimes” for which Hooten had been charged as an adult — seven felonies, up to that point.

Hooten swore under the penalty of perjury that the affidavit was complete and accurate. In fact, it was blank, and submitted to the court by Sturgeon, his public defender.

The plea agreement itself, which was signed by Hooten, Sturgeon and then-deputy prosecutor Jacob Elder, stated that it was “expressly contingent upon the truthful completion” of the affidavit, and that if it was not accurate, the state could revoke its plea offer. But that did not happen.

Given the time he had already spent in custody, Hooten was released from jail.

Contacted recently by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, Elder, who is now the Clark County attorney, said he would need to confer with his former boss, Stewart, before discussing the case, and that he would return a reporter’s call after doing so. He did not call back and subsequent messages left at his office went unanswered.

Senior Judge Nicholas South — who accepted the plea agreement and placed Hooten on probation in the case — said in an interview that he had no recollection of it.

But after reviewing the court file, South said he found it odd that the affidavit purporting to show Hooten’s criminal past was left blank.

“I’d think it should have been filled out,” he said. “Otherwise, why put it in there?”

South also said he thought it was “kind of surprising” that Hooten’s criminal history wasn’t raised in court, but that he didn’t know why he himself failed to inquire about it during the hearing.

He declined to say whether he would have handled the case differently had he known at the time of Hooten’s multiple felony convictions for violent crimes.

Defense attorney Sturgeon declined to discuss the disposition of the case with KyCIR. As for the affidavit where Hooten’s criminal record should have been noted, Sturgeon said he did not know why it was left blank.

Although Sturgeon also said he could not recall how much he knew about Hooten’s criminal record at the time, court documents show that barely a month prior to Hooten’s sentencing in this case, he and Sturgeon appeared in an adjoining Clark County courtroom where Hooten pleaded guilty to violating his probation in the sexual battery case.

Once again, Hooten had slipped away.

Although his office did not push for stiff sentences in the other two Clark County cases involving Hooten, Stewart took a much harder line when talking to the news media after Hooten made his initial court appearance in connection with Willenborg’s death.

Only then did he note Hooten’s prior criminal history, and the multiple felony convictions in three states. Based on that history, Stewart said, according to The News and Tribune newspaper, Hooten “should not ever see the light of day again.”

Stewart, this time, charged Hooten as a habitual offender and has indicated he will ask the jury to recommend a death sentence for Hooten if he is convicted of murdering Willenborg.



‘It Looks Like They Dropped the Ball’

One reason the two Clark County judges may have known little or nothing about Hooten’s background is that Indiana law does not require a presentence investigation in cases involving Class D felonies, such as those Hooten committed.

“It’s a function of volume. Probation officers will tell you there’s no way in hell to do them all, because they don’t have staff,” said former Clark Superior Court Judge Steven M. Fleece, who now handles cases as a senior-status judge.

But Fleece and others said the absence of such an investigation doesn’t relieve prosecutors and judges of the responsibility to be informed about a defendant’s record.

Fleece said that while a defendant such as Hooten with multiple prior felony convictions “would get me very concerned,” some judges believe it is only the prosecutor’s job to bring that information to light, but that the information provided “could vary widely, from thorough to clueless.”

“I would check them, and I think others should too,” Fleece said, referring to available records. “But some, or many, judges reject the role of check and balance in the plea-bargaining process.”

Fran Watson, a clinical professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and a former public defender, said that if no one provided the two Clark County judges with Hooten’s criminal history, and if no one asked about it, “It looks like they dropped the ball.”

Watson also noted that readily available information about a defendant’s background can vary from county to county in Indiana and sometimes isn’t instantly accessible.

Fleece said he believes it is a judge’s duty to know a defendant’s criminal history and that if none is provided, the judge should put the defendant under oath and inquire about it.



‘I Did a Terrible Crime’

Richard Carley Hooten now spends his days in the Clark County jail in Jeffersonville, awaiting a trial date that may never come.

Hooten said he intends to plead guilty.

In an impromptu press conference he held five days after his arrest, Hooten said he didn’t know why he assaulted women, adding, “I know I need help.”

Asked how he felt about murdering Willenborg, Hooten replied, “Pretty bad. I wish I could take it back.” He also said that, if confronted by her parents, he would apologize, and that he wouldn’t object to being executed for killing their daughter.

If the state wants to “take my life for a life, that’s fine,” he said. “I did a terrible crime.”

— This story was reported by R.G. Dunlop of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. He can be reached at rdunlop@kycir.org or 502-814-6533.