This story was written by R.G. Dunlop of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
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 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.