The California Supreme Court refused Wednesday to hear the case of a paroled sex offender who led officers on an hourslong pursuit in a motorhome from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, with his then-3-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter in tow.
In a ruling in April, a three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected the defense’s contention that there was insufficient evidence to support Stephen Merle Houk’s conviction for kidnapping and child custody deprivation.
“Houk moved his two young children from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, intending to evade the police in full pursuit, hitting a parked car and running many red lights and stop signs, among other traffic violations,” the panel found in its April 20 ruling.
The appellate court panel noted that Houk also refused in recorded phone conversations to pull over or to come get the children’s mother when she begged him to, and that he told her she would have to reconcile with him if she wanted to reunite with her children, who were subsequently found inside the RV after it stopped in an almond orchard on May 1, 2018.
Houk was arrested two days later, hiding in an empty train car in a rail yard in Barstow.
Along with kidnapping and child detention with right to custody, Houk was convicted of child abuse, injuring a spouse, assault with a firearm, criminal threats, fleeing an officer and possession of a firearm by a felon.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark S. Arnold, who ordered Houk to serve 88 years in state prison, said the defendant endangered the lives of many people during the pursuit and then abandoned his two young children in the motorhome.
Virtually everything Houk had done in the case demonstrated that he was a “coward,” the judge said at Houk’s September 2019 sentencing.
Deputy District Attorney Tal Kahana described Houk as violent and controlling, telling jurors that when he woke his children’s mother that day, demanding sex and she didn’t comply, “he responded by punching her four times in the head.”
At some point that day, Houk pointed a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum at the woman’s head and threatened to kill her, according to the prosecutor, who said Houk told her that he had two bullets — one for her and one for their 3-year-old son.
After driving from Malibu to Santa Clarita, he forced the woman out of the RV in the area of Bouquet Canyon and Newhall Ranch roads and left with their 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, the prosecutor said, adding that he refused to tell his wife when and where she would see the children again.
The deputy district attorney said that although children were not injured, the chase and its aftermath had put them in grave danger.
When Houk stopped the motorhome in an orchard in Bakersfield, he “abandoned those kids in a cloud of dust with the engine running,” the prosecutor said.
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’s trial attorney, Stephanie Freidenreich, told jurors that 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, she said.
“It’s tough, those are brutal conditions,” she said. “So not surprising that it’s an unhealthy relationship.”
Houk’s attorney acknowledged that her client hadn’t made the best decisions but reminded jurors that the judge gave them the option to find Houk guilty of lesser charges.
“When you think about kidnapping, that’s not what we have here,” Freidenreich said, telling the panel 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 said one law enforcement official testified that what ensued “was the most boring, slow-speed chase we’ve ever been on,” occurring amid light traffic on a clear day and within the speed limit.
“It’s not like `Fast & Furious’ … not the most dangerous evading that we’ve seen,” she said.
Before the trial, Houk pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of failing to register as a sex offender.
Kahana told the judge that Houk’s common-law wife wanted him to be sentenced to the maximum and to never see him again.
The judge — who said Houk had treated his mate like she was his property — granted a protective order barring Houk from contacting the woman or his two children for a decade.
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