By R.G. Dunlop
Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting
Just 17, Tara Rose Willenborg was eager to move all the way into the adult world.
After quitting high school because she was suffering panic attacks, she completed her GED several months before her classmates graduated. Her days of running cross country were over, but she remained committed to fitness. She loved animals and became a vegetarian before she turned 10. She dabbled in photography, but dreamed of tending bar on a Hawaiian beach.
Though her nickname was “Pixie,” she “was kind of in a hurry to grow up,” said her mother, Kelley Curran, smiling through tears.
For the time being though, Willenborg was content to live with her boyfriend, Joshua Lewis, in a modest apartment at 702 Camden Court in Clarksville. She was excited about her new job at a local fast-food restaurant. But on March 2, her dreams ended along with her young life, extinguished by a serial criminal named Richard Carley Hooten.
Court records provide the following narrative related to her death:
Around 3:25 a.m. March 2, Lewis returned home from work and found WIllenborg lying naked and unresponsive on the bedroom floor. He recalled dashing a few feet across the narrow second-floor hallway to the adjoining apartment, pounding on the door and yelling for someone to call 911 because his girlfriend wasn’t breathing. When help arrived, Willenborg was pronounced dead — eight days shy of her 18th birthday.
Meredith Henderson, who lived in that apartment, later told police that she and several others had gone to a nearby bar earlier in the evening. Among them was her live-in boyfriend of two or three months, whom she knew only as “Richard.”
Richard didn’t stay long at the bar. He was sitting in Henderson’s apartment when the rest of the occupants returned. But when Lewis called cried out for help, Richard quickly grabbed his belongings and announced that he was leaving.
When police came to investigate, Henderson told them that she did not know Richard’s last name or his age, only that she thought he was in his mid-40s and worked at a Louisville furniture store.
Shortly after dawn, another Clarksville police officer saw a man entering a restroom near Eastern Boulevard, a short distance from the apartment complex. When the man identified himself as Richard Hooten, the officer ran a criminal records check and learned that Hooten was wanted for questioning in connection with Willenborg’s death.
Hooten was taken into custody, and later that morning confessed at the Clarksville Police Department that he had raped and strangled Willenborg. Later, he told essentially the same story to the news media.
After seeing Willenborg outside her apartment and suggesting that they watch television together, Hooten told her that “his girlfriend was not at home and he just wanted to chill,” according to court records. But he also later acknowledged to police he knew immediately that he was going to rape the teenager.
Once in the apartment, he said he forced himself upon her and when she resisted, he dragged her into the bedroom, took off her clothes and sexually assaulted her. According to the interview with police, Hooten said he told Willenborg several times to just comply, that he was not going to hurt her.
But even when he noticed that she had stopped breathing, he said, he continued to rape her. Only after he was finished, he said, did he attempt to revive her.
When Hooten saw that Willenborg was dead, he wrapped an apron from her fast-food employer around her neck, to make it appear that she had committed suicide, the records show. Then he went back to the apartment across the hall and began packing his bag to leave.
Following his arrest a few hours later, Hooten has since has been in the Clark County jail in Jeffersonville.
Less than three blocks away, the front yard of Tara Willenborg’s family home bears several stone monuments honoring her memory. And the rear window of Todd Willenborg’s pickup truck bears her name above a picture of a rose, with the dates of her birth and death underneath.
He makes frequent trips to the Walnut Ridge cemetery, always carrying a towel to the grave and wiping her headstone clean.
His truck, along with the front door of the house, also display small signs exhorting: “Love wins.”
But he and his wife feel no love for Hooten.
“Whatever happens to him is not gonna change the outcome. Tara’s gone,” said Willenborg, a strapping former ironworker. “Whatever judgment he receives, the damage is done.”
Curran said simply: “I certainly want him dead.”