The leaking of a water bill envelope has sealed the conviction of a man accused of a series of brutal rapes and home invasions in the early 1980s. Given this DNA evidence and the same genealogical technology that was used to capture the “Golden State Killer,” he will now be behind bars for the rest of his life.
Steven Ray Hessler, currently 59 years old, was sentenced on Friday, April 1 to 650 years in prison on two counts of rape, six counts of unlawful deviant conduct, seven counts of burglary causing assault, three counts of criminal deviant conduct . and a count of robbery, gem Brad Landwerlen, the prosecutor of the Shelby County Attorney’s Office in Indiana.
The court found that he committed multiple sexual assaults in Shelby County, Indiana, between August 14, 1982 and August 17, 1985. According to Landwerlen, Hessler’s modus operandi was breaking into homes in the middle of the night, armed and wearing a mask, where he would tie up, threaten, sexually assault and rape his victims.
One of the victims was a 16-year-old child. In a later attack, a male victim was handcuffed and shackled and then hit with a gun, leaving the man in a coma for months and requiring him to be in a wheelchair for much of his life.
The police hunted the perpetrator for years, but with little progress. Landwerlen says the hunt for the suspect and his prosecution were complicated because a previous task force arrested another local and charged him with some of the attacks in 1983. Curiously, the man falsely accused was Hessler’s cousin.
The attacker was very careful not to leave evidence at the crime scenes and even wiped down surfaces after the crime. At one scene, however, investigators were able to get their hands on DNA. Although DNA was not used in criminal investigations at the time, the vital evidence was retained.
In 2020, investigators turned the DNA evidence over to Parabon Nanolabs, the same team that helped catch the virus Golden State Killers and other notorious criminals. Just as in these earlier cases, they took the DNA and compared it to the vast amount of genetic data that had been collected from commercial genealogical websites. Their analysis pointed to a small handful of people who may have left the DNA at the crime scene, including Hessler.
To confirm their suspicions, investigators needed a freshly obtained DNA sample from Hessler. This was reportedly obtained from an envelope he licked to mail a water bill payment after investigators subpoenaed his utility company. As hoped, the DNA on the envelope matched the DNA from the crime scene, Landwerlen said. The prosecutor added that another DNA sample was taken directly from Hessler’s cheek to confirm the link.
“Steven Ray Hessler is one of the most vicious, dangerous, and sadistic predators I’ve had the pleasure of tracking in my 30+ year career. He took great delight in his needlessly brutal methods of terrorizing and sexually torturing his victims.” called Landwerlen, prosecutor of the Shelby County Attorney’s Office.
“I promised the victims early on that my goal would be for him to go to prison for the rest of his life, and everyone involved is very happy that we achieved that goal,” he added.
Hessler denied all charges and his attorney, Bryan L. Cook, said he intended to appeal. His attorney argues that crucial evidence was missing from the trial and the initial investigation had many flaws that could jeopardize the case, including a media “parade through a crime scene” before police properly processed the crime scene.
“This was one of the most unusual cases that a defender on the planet could possibly face, for a long list of reasons. The facts at stake seem more like something out of a movie than real life,” Cook said in a statement WRTV.
“This involved 80 to 100 suspects including Hessler’s cousin (previously charged with 4 of the assaults), police officers, doctors, pharmacists and even Michael Kenyon who was the inspiration for Frank Zappa’s song ‘The Illinois Enema Bandit.’ Several potentially viable suspects were ruled out by DNA, although 8 out of 10 victims were not DNA cases – which was a key issue in the case. Many physical descriptions of the attacker’s victims did not match Hessler’s age, build, weight, eye color or education,” he added.