Indiana’s Legal System Gave Richard Hooten Many Chances—Then a Teenager Died

Richard Hooten in 1985

Kentucky Department of Corrections

Richard Hooten in 1985

Read “The Many With Many Chances” and see our special multimedia presentation

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 he was offered more chances, from prosecutors and judges, 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.

Willenborg's parents in front of a building near their home

Christopher Fryer / News and Tribune

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

“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.

Reporter R.G. Dunlop spent months examining court records, documents, transcripts, uncovering how Hooten slipped through the tracks.

Could a teen’s murder have been prevented?

Find out in a KyCIR multimedia project: “The Man With Many Chances.”

Listen to the radio story below:

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