An Indiana man who has spent nearly half of his adult life behind bars pleaded guilty Thursday to the high-profile killing of a Clarksville teenager last year.
Richard Carley Hooten, 50, was the focus of a recent Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting series that highlighted fundamental flaws in the courts system that allowed him to remain free. And while in custody, Hooten told law enforcement that he knew of several other killings, which prompted authorities to search and dig unsuccessfully through the grounds of a Clarksville farm.
Hooten’s plea to murder and rape charges brought relief to the parents of 17-year-old murder victim Tara Rose Willenborg. They said they preferred to avoid the trauma of a trial, and to know that Hooten will be locked up for the rest of his life with no hope of release.
Kelley Curran said years of appeals following a death sentence might have given her daughter's killer “something to look forward to, to drag things out. We would prefer that he just sit in a jail cell and be forgotten about."
Had he been convicted at trial, Hooten would have faced possible execution for murdering and raping Willenborg in March 2013.
“We think his life and health will be lesser than on death row,” Curran told the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. “It’s a positive thing for us to get some closure, to move forward.”
Hooten accepted a life sentence for murder, “with absolutely no possibility of parole,” plus 50 and 20 years on counts for rape, criminal deviate conduct and for being a habitual offender, with the terms to be served one after the other.
Sentencing is scheduled for May 19 before Clark Circuit Judge Vicki Carmichael. Neither Clark County Prosecutor Steve Stewart nor Hooten’s attorneys could be reached for comment on the plea agreement.
Hooten, 50, already was a six-time convicted felon when he raped and strangled his neighbor, Willenborg. Although Hooten initially pleaded not guilty in court, he promptly confessed to police and, a few days later, to the media during an unusual, impromptu news conference.
His criminal record at the time of Willenborg’s death included convictions for rape, a stabbing, a prison escape and drug possession.
An investigation by KyCIR disclosed last December that, despite his extensive and violent criminal past, Hooten in recent years had twice managed to avoid prison terms in Indiana, due to decisions by prosecutors and judges that put him back on the street instead of behind bars. At the time of the murder, he also was free on bond in connection with a felony gun charge in Fayette County, Ind.
Hooten’s sordid saga possibly could include ties to still other murders, though he denied personally committing them. KyCIR recently learned that Hooten last year told police about bodies allegedly buried near the small Clark County town of Memphis.
Authorities conducted an exhaustive search spanning several days in March 2013, using ground-penetrating radar and cadaver-sniffing dogs. They dug with a backhoe and interviewed the property owners. But their search yielded no trace of homicides or burials.
“We don’t know if he was trying to bring more fame to his name, but nothing was found at that time to substantiate his story,” said Clarksville Police Chief Mark Palmer, whose department assisted in the search.
Porsche Sandbach, who lives on the Ebenezer Church Road property where the search occurred said Hooten, a former neighbor, falsely asserted that her father “was responsible for the killings.”
Russell Sandbach was not around to defend himself against Hooten’s charges, however. He had died in November 2012 at the age of 75, and both his widow and Porsche Sandbach told KyCIR that he was in a wheelchair or using a walker for the last few years of his life.
“He was not in any shape to commit murder,” Porsche Sandbach said. Her family rented a home across the street to Hooten and his wife for a period of months, three or four years ago.
Russell Sandbach was never in any criminal trouble, his family said, and Indiana court records show only two speeding tickets for him.
Indiana State Police, the lead law-enforcement agency in the investigation, appeared unannounced at the Sandbachs’ house with a search warrant and proceeded to ask “a zillion” questions, some of which were “bizarre,” Porsche Sandbach said.
“They asked me if we had any ropes. I said, ‘of course we do, we live on a farm.’ I guess it had to do with the story Hooten told about the murders. I think he told them people were tortured as well.”
Porsche Sandbach said she did not recall police telling her how many bodies Hooten allegedly said were buried on the property, but that she heard varying accounts elsewhere, with the number ranging from seven to nine.
An Indiana State Police spokesman provided to KyCIR only a “media summary report” of the allegations, which contained virtually no information except the location of the search and a two-sentence statement that said:
“Information was received that evidence of several crimes may be located on the property. Probable cause was developed for a search warrant on the property that was executed by officers of the Indiana State Police and the Clarksville Police Department.”
ISP spokesman Capt. David Bursten said the agency does not comment on “active investigations” and declined to elaborate.
Last year, Hooten was indicted in Jefferson County on a charge that he raped a woman on New Year’s Day 2013 -- two months before Willenborg’s rape and murder. During his impromptu press conference, Hooten said he had raped a woman about that time near a south Louisville bar. The indictment does not indicate where the rape occurred.
That case and the still-pending Fayette County gun case remain unresolved.
Read KyCIR's "The Man With Many Chances" and see our special multimedia presentation.
Listen to the initial investigative story on the radio: