News and Tribune

March 8, 2013

Grieving father talks about unimaginable loss of daughter

Family thankful for community support

By GARY POPP
gary.popp@newsandtribune.com

JEFFERSONVILLE — “It is something that is not supposed to happen,” said the father of Tara Willenborg, the 17-year-old girl who was murdered in her Clarksville home March 2. “It is something that is not supposed to happen to anybody.”

Todd Willenborg said his family hasn’t yet figured out how to cope with losing their daughter and baby sister. He, his wife Kelley, and their four children are still in shock from the blow of Tara’s heinous death. 

“This is our youngest girl,” Todd Willenborg said. “We had so many years, so much time to raise her.”

The Willenborgs are a Jeffersonville family. Tara attended Maple Elementary, Parkview Middle and Jeffersonville High  schools.

Todd Willenborg said his daughter was headstrong and independent — traits that emerged when she was young child.

“She was different than my other kids. She was the most independent of all of them,” Todd Willenborg said. “She was so focused and doing so well.”

It was only two weeks ago the family celebrated when Tara earned her GED.

“She was as smart as a tack,” Todd Willenborg said. “You can ask her teachers. She could do anything.”

The last time he talked with his daughter was over the phone in the early evening on the day of her death.

They talked about a landscape painting — one of several paintings done by Tara’s great-grandmother —  that Tara loved. Todd Willenborg said the painting wasn’t much, but his daughter liked it, so when she recently asked if she could have it for her home, he gave it to her. 

“She was letting me know that she got it put up on the wall, and it was looking good — you know, heritage stuff that you’re supposed to pass down to kids,” he said 

Todd Willenborg fought back tears when he talked about taking the painting back after her death last weekend.

Tara was the youngest of four siblings, who are all close in age and share a close relationship.

“It is devastating to them,” he said. 

When asked how her siblings are coping, Todd Willenborg said, “They’re not.”

But, like always, Todd Willenborg  is doing what he can to be the best father he can be. 

“I have to protect my wife and my family, and that is what I am trying to do,” he said.

He said it is difficult to see the media attention being give to Richard Hooten, the man who has confessed to taking his daughter’s life.

Todd Willenborg said Hooten is a man who slipped through the cracks of justice one too many times, and that he no longer refers to Hooten as a man, or a he, or a him, but only ‘it.’

“He is not a person, an animal, or anything.” he said. “He is just an ‘it’ to me.”

Distraught, beside himself with pain, Todd Willenborg said he offered himself to God and made a deal with the devil that his soul could be taken, but only if he could be Hooten’s personal devil for all of his eternity.

“The next day, it hit me like a ton of bricks,” Todd Willenborg said. “I guess it was God. I guess I can’t do it because if I do, I can’t go to Heaven and be with my daughter, and that is more important.”

Willenborg said he was frustrated that Hooten was provided a platform to address area media during a press conference at the Clark County Sheriff’s Department Thursday morning. 

“I got a lot of problem with it,” Todd Willenborg said. “You know, this guy gets on there and says he is sorry. Well, if you’re sorry, why do you keep calling wanting them to come interview? That is a bunch of bull. He is trying to get some kind of crazy defense or something like that. He has been through the system. He’s manipulated the system.”

He said Tara’s death has been even more difficult for the family to process by the admissions Hooten has publicly made.

“This guy confessed, but he shows no remorse. He shows no guilt,” he said of Hooten. “He didn’t care what happened to Tara or the pain my family is going through. If he cared, he wouldn’t be on TV right now.” 

Todd Willenborg said what has helped his family deal with Tara’s absence is the swell of support that has entered their lives.

The support has come from St. Luke’s United Church of Christ, the city of Jeffersonville and the community, he said.

“People I don’t know, people that knew me as a little kid. We have had so much support, and that has helped,” Todd Willenborg said. “That has helped, especially at the funeral. That’s helped me to be strong and not break down and cry like I want to. I keep my composure as much as I can.”

He gave special thanks to community and administration of St. Luke’s Church.

“St. Luke’s, my church family, has been a blessing. My pastor, Pastor Jennifer, has done way more than any pastor should ever have to do,” Todd Willenborg said.

As he and his family move forward from Tara’s horrid death, they are finding some comfort knowing that they have countless shoulders to lean on. 

“I want to thank the people of Jeffersonville for their support though this hard time,” Todd Willenborg said. “And, it is going to get harder. It is going to get worse. It is great to have their support. It really is.”