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Trial underway for serial rape suspect in Shelby County cold cases

Steven Ray Hessler is accused in a series of home invasion sexual assaults in Shelbyville and Shelby County between 1982 and 1985.

GREENSBURG, Ind. — The trial is underway for Steven Ray Hessler in a serial sexual assault cold case. Hessler, who lived in Greensburg, was arrested in August of 2020 for a series of home invasion sexual assaults in Shelbyville and Shelby County between 1982 and 1985. 

Hessler spent most of the 1990s in an Indiana prison for a similar crime. Hessler is a convicted felon facing charges going back 38 years, starting when he was 19 years old.

On Thursday, Detective David Tilford with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department testified about his research and investigation into the series of seven home invasions with sexual assaults and burglaries from 1982-85. He was part of the task force in 2002 that developed a DNA profile of the unknown suspect from evidence left behind in an August 17, 1985 attack.

Tilford explained that in July 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’s family. Tilford testified that investigators obtained a clandestine DNA sample from Hessler, and it matched the unknown suspect DNA.

In August 2020, investigators obtained a search warrant for Hessler’s house in Greensburg. On the witness stand Thursday, Detective Tilford identified several items seized from Hessler’s bedroom that investigators believe were connected to the attacks more than 35 years earlier.

The items entered into evidence included 23 Polaroid photos found in Hessler’s bedroom of a couple engaged in sex acts. Tilford 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.

Tilford also identified a black coat, black gloves, black ski mask, knives, a red enema waterbag, and a jar of Vaseline that were seized from Hessler’s bedroom. Tilford said the items all matched descriptions given by victims in the 1980s attacks.

Tilford identified two computers and a handheld police scanner radio seized from Hessler’s bedroom. Tilford also testified that investigators found several videotapes, DVDs, and magazines depicting enema related pornography in Hessler’s bedroom.

Tilford identified items that were on Hessler at the time of his arrest, including a black chain wallet, a belt with a silver buckle with a handcuff key attached to the buckle. The detective said those items were all consistent with descriptions from victims of their attacker.

On cross examination, Detective Tilford confirmed that there were over 100 suspects in the case at one time. The only DNA evidence collected is from the final attack in 1985. Tilford acknowledged that a man named Bobby Witt was arrested and charged in 1984 in some of the attacks. But the charges were eventually dismissed, and subsequent DNA testing eliminated Witt as a suspect.  

Background on arrest and 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 — 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 — Woman awakened after a man forced his way into her home. Her son was asleep in the bed next to her. 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 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. 

On July 10, 2019, a task force used a genetic testing at a company called Parabon to potentially determine a suspect. The DNA testing found the suspect would have either been Steven Ray Hessler or his brother. Police determined Hessler lived in the Greensburg area at the time of the crimes. 

Credit: WTHR

On Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, investigators conducted two search warrants, and the prosecutor said additional DNA testing confirmed Hessler as the suspect. The prosecutor said it is a trillion to one chance it would be someone else's DNA.

Hessler is facing multiple charges for rape, robbery, deviate conduct, criminal confinement and others. Most of his victims said they were willing to help with the prosecution of the case, according to the prosecutor.