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 in tow, was sentenced Wednesday to 88 years in state prison.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark S. Arnold said Stephen Merle Houk endangered the lives of many people during the May 1, 2018, pursuit and then abandoned his two young children in the motorhome. Virtually everything the 48-year-old defendant had done in the case demonstrated that he was a "coward," the judge said.
Jurors deliberated for about two hours before finding Houk guilty Aug. 19 of two counts each of kidnapping, child abuse, injuring a spouse and child detention and one count each of assault with a firearm, criminal threats, fleeing an officer and possession of a firearm by a felon.
Local news from across Southern California
Deputy District Attorney Tal Kahana described the defendant as violent and controlling, telling jurors that when he woke his common-law 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.''
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 his children's mother that he had two bullets -- one for her andone for their 3-year-old son.
After driving from Malibu to Santa Clarita, the defendant forced the children's mother out of the RV in the area of Bouquet Canyon and Newhall Ranch roads and left 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, the prosecutor said. She said 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,'' she 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 was arrested two days later, hiding in an empty train car in a rail yard in Barstow.
Defense 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, the defense attorney 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 and asked them to "think about the conduct and whether or not it meets the standard.''
"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.
In a statement read in court by the prosecutor just before Houk was sentenced, the children's grandfather said, "Our family can only hope for the maximum (sentence) allowed by the law.''
Kahana told the judge that Houk's common-law wife also 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 the next decade.