A paroled sex offender who led authorities on an hours-long pursuit in a motorhome from Los Angeles to Bakersfield with his 3-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter inside was violent and controlling and guilty of kidnapping the children, a prosecutor told jurors during closing arguments Friday.
The defense attorney for Stephen Merle Houk, 48, countered that the slow-speed chase on a clear road wasn’t reckless and Houk had little choice but to take the children with him because they lived in the motorhome. She urged jurors to consider lesser charges.
Houk faces charges of kidnapping, child abuse, injuring a spouse, criminal threats, assault with a firearm, fleeing authorities and related counts. Jurors began deliberating Friday afternoon.
Deputy District Attorney Tal Kahana said when Houk woke his wife in the early morning hours of May 1, 2018, demanding sex and she didn’t comply, “he responded by punching her four times in the head,” causing welts.
His wife was “so scared of his escalating violence the day before (that) she got the gun, she showed it to him (and he) head butted her two times,” Kahana said.
Houk took the Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum and pointed it at his wife’s head, according to Kahana.
“He didn’t have to shoot it, he didn’t have to beat her with it,” for that to amount to assault, the prosecutor told jurors.
Houk threatened to kill her, allegedly saying, “I have two bullets, one for you and one for Levi,” Kahana, said, naming Houk’s son.
After driving from Malibu to Santa Clarita, the defendant allegedly forced his wife out of the vehicle in the area of Bouquet Canyon and Newhall Ranch roads and drove off with the children.
“This is the only time she went to the police, the only time she begged for help,” Kahana said. “This time she believed that he was going to kill her.”
Once Houk realized the police were involved, he fled, afraid of going back to jail, she said.
“I didn’t pull over because I thought I’d go to jail,” Kahana said Houk testified.
The prosecutor said Houk refused to tell his wife when and where she would see the children again.
Kahana said the prosecution wasn’t alleging that Houk actually hurt the children, but that the chase and its aftermath put them in danger. When he stopped the motorhome in an orchard in Bakersfield, Houk “abandoned those kids in a cloud of dust with the engine running,” Kahana said.
The officers, on edge from the long chase, thought it was a hostage situation and brought in a SWAT team with armored vehicles and sniper rifles. The 3-year-old boy was in the driver’s seat revving the engine, while his father hid among the trees and shaved off his beard to change his appearance, the prosecutor said.
“He left his son and daughter facing down all those rifles,” Kahana said. “He’s selfish.”
Houk acknowledged in an interview that “It could’ve rolled up on three dead bodies,” according to the prosecutor.
She urged the jury to use common sense in assessing all the evidence.
“You will find the people have proved … the defendant is guilty of all the crimes, each and every one, beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Houk’s attorney told the jury it was difficult for outsiders to know exactly what goes on inside any relationship.
“Every couple argues … about who’s pulling their weight, who’s doing their share of the work, sex,” Stephanie Freidenreich said. “These things are all exacerbated by poverty.”
She said the couple was poor, on the run and living in an RV roughly the size of the jury box with two kids. They showered at truck stops, ate fast food and panhandled to support themselves.
“It’s tough, those are brutal conditions,” she said. “So not surprising that it’s an unhealthy relationship.”
She reminded the panel that the judge gave them the option to find Houk guilty of lesser charges and asked the panel to “think about the conduct and whether or not it meets the standard.”
She said jurors might decide that the wife’s head injury wasn’t serious and perhaps the baby had scratched her mother.
The defense attorney acknowledged that her client hadn’t made the best decisions, but when he fled authorities the children were at home in the RV and he didn’t have much choice about taking them with him.
“When you think about kidnapping, that’s not what we have here,” Freidenreich said. There was “no intent to permanently deprive anyone of these children … it’s highly unlikely that the kids knew what was going on.”
The defense attorney reminded jurors that one law enforcement official testified that what ensued “was the most boring, slow-speed chase we’ve ever been on.”
The RV was driving with little traffic on a clear day within the speed limit, according to the defense.
“It’s not like `Fast & Furious,”’ Freidenreich said, “not the most dangerous evading that we’ve seen.”
Freidenreich implied the prosecution hadn’t made its case.
“Two weeks of testimony and I don’t see it,” she said.
The children were unharmed and Houk was arrested two days later after authorities found him hiding in an empty train car in a rail yard in Barstow.
Houk has been held in lieu of $1 million bail since his arrest.
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