An Indiana man was sentenced to serve 650 years in prison on Friday after DNA evidence linked him to a rape committed in the 1980s which set off a string of charges for other crimes and rapes.
Shelby Circuit Court Judge Trent Metzler sentenced Steven Ray Hessler, 59, to 650 years in prison for 19 felony charges involving rape, robbery, burglary and criminal deviate. He was found guilty a month ago for the charges and was believed to have raped at least 10 victims from 1982 through 1985, the Indianapolis Star reported.
Advancements in DNA testing and forensic genealogy have been used by investigators and law enforcement officers around the country to solve decades-old cases. Police are now able to retest evidence and find new suspects who may have never been found, including in these 1980s cases.
Police arrested Hessler in August 2020 after advanced forensic technology matched DNA evidence collected from a 1985 assault to DNA from a utility bill envelope that he licked. According to police, his DNA was only found at one crime scene, but the other cases were similar enough to connect him without needing DNA evidence, according to the Star.
Police say Hessler was a serial rapist who would break into women’s homes in Shelby County while wearing a ski mask or leggings to hide his face. The women would often be home alone, but a few times when a man was present, they were forced to watch or participate.
Hessler would make the women perform sexual acts on him, often while holding them at gunpoint or knifepoint. He would threaten to hurt them, and sometimes threaten to hurt or kill their children if they did not obey, according to WXIN-TV.
Before he left, Hessler would take photos of his victims and use them as blackmail. He also warned the women that he would come back and murder them if they called the police. Some victims said he unplugged their phones and stole their money before leaving, the Star said.
In 1985, police were able to collect their only DNA evidence at the scene from his last string of rapes, but were unable to connect it to a suspect, according to the Star. The attacks eventually stopped in the late 1980s because Hessler had been convicted of rape in another county and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, according to WXIN.
Hessler was released from prison just two months before a federal law required adults who were arrested for a federal crime had to submit DNA samples, according to WISH-TV.
The cases remained cold until 2020 when a detective asked prosecutors if they would pay for DNA samples to be sent to a company that used the same kind of advanced forensic testing that was used to catch the Golden State Killer. Hessler was ultimately connected between the DNA left at the scene in 1985 and his utility bill, the Associated Press reported.
His trial lasted just eight days before the jury found him guilty of two counts of rape, six counts of unlawful deviate conduct, seven counts of burglary, three counts of criminal deviate conduct and one count of robbery, according to The Shelbyville News.
Hessler’s attorney, Bryan L. Cook, said in a statement to Newsweek on Friday that the case was “one of the most unusual cases probably any defense attorney on the planet could ever encounter for a laundry list of reasons.” He cited a large number of suspects and missing evidence as among the reasons.
He also claimed “several psychics were involved, one parading through a crime scene before police even processed the scene.”
Cook said Hessler intends to appeal “several crucial issues relating to the case including the initial capture of a secondary DNA standard as well as several colorable issues raised during trial.”
Police have used advanced DNA technology to close other cold cases around the country. Last year, police arrested a man in a 14-year-old rape case after he submitted DNA to a genealogy database. Meanwhile, earlier this month authorities believe they solved a 30-year-old murder after DNA evidence led them to a suspect.
Update 4/01/22, 6:15 p.m. ET: This article was updated with a statement from Hessler’s attorney.
Update 4/01/22, 4:45 p.m. ET: This article was updated with additional information.