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Greensburg man charged in series of violent home invasions in the 80s spent most of the 90s in prison for similar crime

The prosecutor credits advanced DNA and genetic genealogy testing for identifying the suspect.

GREENSBURG, Ind. — A Greensburg man accused in seven home invasion sexual assaults in the 1980s spent most of the 1990s in an Indiana prison for a similar crime.

Stephen Ray Hessler is a convicted felon now facing new charges going back 38 years, starting when he was 19 years old. 

The Shelby County prosecutor credits advanced DNA and genetic genealogy testing for identifying Hessler, 57, as the suspect in the serial cold case. 

Parabon NanoLabs analyzed DNA evidence from a 1985 home invasion in which a husband was beaten with a gun and suffered permanent brain damage and physical disabilities. The man's wife was sexually assaulted in the garage of the home.  

"Genetic genealogy should be used as a tip,” said CeCe Moore, Parabon NanoLabs chief genealogist. “It's not a rush to judgment. They're not going to arrest based on it. It's just going to point them in a direction that they need to investigate a person or persons of interest."

The prosecutor's office paid $6,700 for Parabon’s research, which narrowed the DNA match to Hessler or his brother. From there, investigators secretly obtained a DNA sample from an envelope with a check enclosed that Hessler mailed to pay his Greensburg utility bill. A DNA match from the mailing was made to the 1985 evidence, leaving a trillion-to-one chance of it being someone else.  

Credit: WTHR
Decatur County Courthouse

Hessler was arrested at his Greensburg home Monday. He faces 24 felony criminal charges with 10 victims for home invasion sexual assaults from 1982-85. 

RELATED: Shelby County arrest in serial rape cold case, bond set at $20,000,000

In 1988, Hessler was charged with abducting a woman in the middle of the night from her Greensburg home while her husband was at work and her children were asleep. Hessler forced the woman at gunpoint to walk through alleys to his house, where he allegedly raped her. It's the same house where he was arrested Monday on the new charges.

After a hung jury in the 1988, Hessler eventually pleaded guilty to attempted rape. He received a 20-year sentence on May 18, 1990 and was released from prison on October 24, 1999. He appears to have avoided any legal trouble for over 20 years, until new DNA technology was used to charge him this week with the unsolved crimes from the 1980s. 

Moore says Parabon’s DNA testing, combined with genetic genealogy database research, has helped identify 121 suspects since the unit was started over two years ago, solving new cases about once a week. The work costs about $5,000 per case.  

"I care about the families,” said Moore. “I care about providing answers and resolution, so it is hugely meaningful to me to be able to help the survivors. In this case, to have some sense of closure, knowing that their attacker is behind bars."

Hessler is held at the Shelby County Jail on a $20 million bond.  

Parabon also helped find the man who abducted, raped and killed 8-year-old April Tinsley in Fort Wayne back in 1988. Her murder went unsolved for 30 years until DNA led police to John Miller in 2018. After he was arrested, he confessed to police. Miller is serving an 80-year sentence.