SHELBYVILLE, Ind. — A Greensburg man accused of a series of sexual assaults has been found guilty on all counts.
The prosecution called Steven Ray Hessler “a master sadist” who carried a “rape kit” as they reviewed the horrific details of seven home invasion sexual assaults in Shelby County in the 1980s during closing arguments in Hessler’s trial Friday morning. Some family members of the victims in the packed courtroom gallery were overcome with emotion hearing the account of the attacks. Hessler faces 19 felony charges for crimes against 10 victims between 1982-85.
A jury began deliberations about 1 p.m. Friday on the evidence heard over eight days in Shelby County Circuit Court. Several victims and Hessler testified during the trial.
After about five hours, the jury returned guilty verdicts on all 19 counts in the case. Hessler will be sentenced April 1 at 10 a.m. He faces up to 50 years in prison for each count.
"I intend to seek a sentence sufficient to ensure that he dies in prison – never to hurt anyone again," Shelby County Prosecutor Brad Landwerlen said in a release.
The courtroom gallery was filled with victims and their families to hear the verdicts read by the judge. They embraced and celebrated with prosecutors and investigators after Hessler’s conviction.
“It’s a huge relief,” said a woman who identified herself as victim number two. “I don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
That woman was awakened on Nov. 1, 1982, after Hessler forced his way into her home. Her son was asleep in bed next to her. Hessler held a knife to her throat and said if she didn't comply he would hurt her son. Hessler made her put on a nightgown before raping her. He told her if she called police, he would be back.
Almost 30 years since the attack, the woman encouraged rape victims to always come forward.
DNA evidence left at the final crime scene led to Hessler’s arrest at his Greensburg home in August 2020.
The prosecution noted similarities and links between the attacks of an armed man, including:
- Often wearing military-style boots and a ski mask
- Raping women or forcing them to perform sexual acts, sometimes with an enema water bottle, sometimes for hours
- The suspect wore a chain wallet in most of the attacks.
- He used Vaseline in every attack.
- The suspect wanted to take photos of the sexual acts.
- The suspect sometimes asked for a Pepsi.
- The suspect threatened to come back years later.
- The suspect told one victim about a previous attack on a mother and daughter.
- The suspect told another victim that police had arrested the wrong man for the attacks.
“All of these attacks, they’re all the same guy,” said Shelby County deputy prosecutor Brandon Robinson.
The prosecution called Hessler’s Greensburg home a “treasure trove” of evidence that linked Hessler to the crimes, items that Hessler would have kept for 35 years.
Investigators found 23 Polaroid photos in a bedroom safe of a couple engaged in sex acts. A detective identified the photos as being the couple that was attacked Feb. 2, 1983. In that incident, the suspect approached a man outside his home and forced him inside with a gun. The suspect forced the man and a woman in the home to perform sex acts on each other. He told them he was paid to do this to them. The suspect reportedly photographed the two victims and left with some cash.
Also recovered from Hessler’s home was a black coat, black gloves, black ski mask, black military-style boots, chain style wallets, knives, handcuffs and keys, a shoulder gun holster, multiple enema waterbags, and jars of petroleum jelly that were seized from Hessler’s house. All the items matched descriptions given by victims in the 1980s attacks.
The prosecution also pointed out hundreds of searches on Hessler’s computers about the case and the victims, and files of saved photos of the victims, their houses and newspaper articles about the case.
Hessler also had many enema porn videos on his computer and on videotape and DVD.
“These victims have been waiting for more than 35 years to identify their attacker, waiting for more than 35 years for justice. Their attacker is sitting right there,” said Robinson, pointing at Hessler sitting in the courtroom.
Defense attorney Bryan Cook countered in closing arguments, “It’s a hot mess of a case the state has.”
Cook told the jury that Hessler did not commit the first six attacks. He pointed out that they have no DNA evidence tying Hessler to those attacks. He says the victims all estimated the age of their attacker in his 30s. Hessler was 19-to-22 years old at the time of the attacks.
Cook says that the woman in the final attack, where DNA evidence was collected on the garage floor from Hessler’s semen, was actually involved in a fantasy romance with Hessler gone wrong in which the woman’s husband was pistol-whipped and suffered permanent injuries.
“It’s extremely unfair to wait 35 to 38 years to charge Steven with these offenses,” said Cook. “We’re missing evidence. We’re missing victims. The right thing to do is to find him not guilty on all counts.”
In 2019, investigators became aware of new DNA technology that might be helpful in the case. Parabon NanoLabs analyzed the DNA of the unknown suspect through genetic genealogy testing. Parabon’s research narrowed investigators search to Hessler or his brother. Investigators obtained a clandestine DNA sample from Hessler, and it matched the unknown suspect DNA.
Background on cold cases
There were a reported 10 victims in seven different incidents from 1982-85. Some of the incidents happened while the women were home alone and others while a husband or children were present. In one case, the suspect beat the husband of one of the victims so severely as to cause permanent disabilities.
- Aug. 14, 1982 — A woman awakened after a man entered her home through an unlocked door. He had a knife and took money from her purse. He threatened if she didn't perform sexual acts, he'd hurt her young daughters. He also asked her to put on sexy clothing and assaulted her. The man said he was paid by her ex-husband to do this to her. If she reported it to police, he said he would come back and get her daughters when they were coming home from school.
- Nov. 1, 1982 — A woman awakened after a man forced his way into her home. Her son was asleep in the bed next to her. A man held a knife to her throat. The man claimed he was paid money to come there and hurt her. He said if she didn't comply, he would hurt her son. The man made her put on sexy clothing before assaulting her. He told her if she called police, he would be back.
- Dec. 16, 1982 — Two women were sexually assaulted — a mother and a daughter. The daughter was awake when a man entered her room, holding a knife. He then forced her to perform sexual acts. The suspect also forced the mother to perform sexual acts and claimed he was a police officer. He tried to take pictures of the victims, but there wasn't film in their camera.
- Feb. 2, 1983 — The suspect approached a man outside his home and forced them inside with a gun. He forced the man and a woman in the home to perform sex acts on each other. He told them he was paid to do this to them. The suspect also reportedly photographed the two victims and left with some cash.
- Feb. 18, 1984 — A woman was in the shower when a man came in with a gun. The suspect asked the woman if she knew about his other assaults and bragged that police arrested the wrong man. He told her if she cooperated, he would never come back. He photographed the woman wearing sexy clothing. The man threatened to harm her if she reported the incident. He referenced that she served him food at a restaurant one previous night. He left after taking a small amount of cash.
- Nov. 25, 1984 — A man forced entry into a home and had a gun on him. He woke up the victim's daughter and forced the mother to perform sex acts. He took a small amount of cash and left.
- Aug. 17, 1985 — A man forced entry to a home and woke up to victims at gunpoint. He told them he'd kill them if they didn't do what he said and demanded money. The woman told the suspect she had a heart condition and faked a heart attack. The suspect then beat the male victim over the head with his gun, causing permanent brain damage and physical disabilities. He then took the female victim to the garage and forced her to perform sex acts. He then threatened to come back and kill them if they went to police. Investigators were able to recover DNA evidence from the garage.