2 April 2022
For decades, police in Shelby County, Indiana, could not identify the man who broke into houses at night, armed with a knife or a gun, woke his victims, and then bound and sexually tortured them. He often disguised himself in a bulky coat and covered his face with a ski mask or leggings.
Then, in 2020, 35 years after his last known assault in the county, investigators were finally able to identify the attacker as Steven Ray Hessler and arrest him. The breakthrough came, prosecutors said, when DNA extracted from the envelope of a water bill that Hessler had licked matched DNA that had been left at the scene of his last known crime in the county, on Aug. 17, 1985.
On Friday, Hessler, 59, was sentenced to 650 years in prison. The sentence came a month after a jury convicted Hessler of two counts of rape, six counts of unlawful deviate conduct, seven counts of burglary resulting in bodily injury, three counts of criminal deviate conduct and one count of robbery.
James B. Landwerlen, the prosecutor in Shelby County, southeast of Indianapolis, said that from Aug. 14, 1982, to Aug. 17, 1985, Hessler brutally assaulted 10 victims: seven women, a 16-year-old girl and two men, including a retired Marine whom he had handcuffed, hogtied and beat with a gun, leaving him in a coma for months.
“Steven Ray Hessler is one of the most evil, dangerous, sadistic predators that I’ve had the pleasure of prosecuting” in a career of more than 30 years, Landwerlen said in a statement.
Landwerlen credited the victims for testifying to some of the torment they had endured at the hands of Hessler. “These attacks have had profound impacts on their lives,” he said, describing Hessler’s victims as “living in a recurring state of fear.”
Hessler plans to appeal his conviction, according to his lawyer, Bryan L. Cook, who attacked the investigation.
“Several potentially viable suspects were ruled out by DNA, although eight of 10 victims were not DNA cases, which was a central issue in the case,” Cook said. “Many physical descriptions by victims of the attacker did not match Hessler’s age, build, weight, eye color or education.”
Cook said that there had been 80 to 100 suspects over the years, including a cousin of Hessler’s who was charged with four of the attacks, and a convict who had committed similar crimes in the 1970s and was the inspiration for a Frank Zappa song, “The Illinois Enema Bandit.”
“Several psychics were involved, one parading through a crime scene before police even processed the scene,” Cook said. “Potentially critical evidence from some scenes was lost or destroyed over the years.”
Landwerlen said Hessler was “generally very cautious,” wiping down crime scenes and taking items that he had touched with him.
In 1990, Hessler was convicted of rape in neighboring Decatur County, Indiana, and served about 10 years in prison, Landwerlen said. He was released about two months before inmates were required to submit DNA samples, Landwerlen said.
Hessler wasn’t linked to the assaults in Shelby County until investigators sent DNA from the last local crime scene, in 1985, to Parabon NanoLabs, a company in Virginia that uses DNA technology to help solve cold cases.
In 2020, the company identified Hessler as one of two potential suspects, which led investigators to subpoena a utility company for Hessler’s water bill so that they could extract his DNA from the envelope, Landwerlen said.
After the DNA on the envelope matched the DNA from the 1985 crime scene, investigators later obtained another DNA sample from Hessler’s cheek, which confirmed the link, Landwerlen said.
Investigators searched Hessler’s home Aug. 17, 2020, exactly 35 years after his final known attack, and found further evidence linking him to the decades-old assaults, including photographs that had been stolen from a victim, coats with ski masks in the pockets and handcuffs, Landwerlen said.
A search of Hessler’s computers showed he had tracked two of his victims online and had downloaded a photo of the house in Georgia where one of them lived, Landwerlen said.
Investigators also found about 30 pairs of women’s underwear in individual bags at Hessler’s home. He had stolen underwear from some of his victims, but they could not identify any of the underwear as theirs after so many years, Landwerlen said.
When Hessler was convicted after an eight-day jury trial last month, several of the victims came to court to hear the verdict read aloud. “They are extremely pleased with the convictions,” Landwerlen said, “knowing that they finally no longer have to live in fear of this dangerous, dangerous man.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.