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Fundamental failures throughout the criminal justice system allowed a veteran felon to continue his predatory habits with little intervention. Then a young girl died.

Southern Indiana Authorities Missed Opportunities to Arrest Richard Hooten Before Teen's Murder

Willenborg's parents in front of a building near their home. The graffiti honors their daughter, who went by the name 'Pixie.'
Christopher Fryer
Willenborg's parents in front of a building near their home. The graffiti honors their daughter, who went by the name 'Pixie.'

Richard Carley 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.

Related: The Man With Many Chances

A recent investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting 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 it 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 sheriff's office declined to address the delay.

The sheriff's office'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.

Currently 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,” it 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, both 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 Det. 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.

Read "The Many With Many Chances" and see our special multimedia presentation

Listen to the KyCIR's radio story on the first Hooten below:

R.G. Dunlop is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms. Email R.G. at rdunlop@lpm.org.

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