A lick of a water bill envelope has sealed the conviction of a man accused of committing a series of brutal rapes and home invasions in the early 1980s. In light of this DNA evidence and the same genealogical technology used to catch the “Golden State Killer,” he will now sit behind bars for the rest of his life.
Steven Ray Hessler, currently aged 59, was sentenced to 650 years in prison on Friday, April 1, on 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, according to Brad Landwerlen, the prosecuting attorney of Shelby County Prosecutor's Office in Indiana.
The court found that he had committed multiple home-invasion sexual assaults across Indiana’s Shelby County area 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 while armed and wearing a mask, where he would bind, 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 hog-tied then struck with a gun, sending the man into a coma for months and leading to him having to use a wheelchair for much of his life.
Police hunted the culprit for years, but with little progress. Landwerlen says the hunt for the suspect and their prosecution was made more difficult because a previous task force had arrested and charged another local man over a few of the attacks in 1983. Weirdly enough, the falsely accused man was Hessler's cousin.
The attacker took great care to not leave any evidence behind at the crime scenes, even wiping down surfaces after committing the offenses. However, detectives were able to get their hands on some DNA at one scene. Though DNA wasn’t used in criminal investigations at the time, the vital evidence was held onto.
In 2020, investigators passed the DNA evidence to Parabon Nanolabs, the same team that helped to catch the Golden State Killer and other infamous criminals. Just like these previous cases, they took the DNA and compared it to the huge amount of genetic data that had been collected by commercial genealogical websites. Their analysis pointed to a small handful of individuals who could have potentially left the DNA at the crime scene, one of whom was Hessler.
To confirm their suspicions, the investigators needed a freshly acquired sample of DNA from Hessler. This was reportedly obtained from an envelope he licked to send in a water bill payment after investigators subpoenaed his utility company. Just as they had hoped, the DNA on the envelope matched the DNA from the crime scene, Landwerlen said. The prosecutor added that another DNA sample was then taken directly from Hessler's cheek to confirm the link.
“Steven Ray Hessler is one of the most evil, dangerous, sadistic predators that I’ve had the pleasure of prosecuting in my 30+ year career. He derived great pleasure from his unnecessarily brutal methods of terrorizing and sexually torturing his victims,” said Landwerlen, prosecuting attorney of Shelby County Prosecutor's Office.
“I promised the victims early-on that my goal would be that he go to prison the rest of his life, and all involved are very happy that we have achieved that goal,” he added.
Hessler denied all charges and his attorney, Bryan L Cook, said he plans to file an appeal. His lawyer argues that crucial evidence was missing from the trial and the initial investigation featured many flaws that could jeopardize the case, including a psychic “parading through a crime scene” before police properly processed the scene.
“This was one of the most unusual cases probably any defense attorney on the planet could ever encounter for a laundry list of reasons. The facts involved seem more like something out of a movie than real life,” Cook said in a statement to WRTV.
“It involved 80-100 suspects ranging from Hessler’s cousin (previously indicted for 4 of the attacks), 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 of 10 victims were not DNA cases – which was a central issue in the case. Many physical descriptions by victims of the attacker did not match Hessler’s age, build, weight, eye color, or education,” he added.