A paroled sex offender who led authorities on an hours-long pursuit in a motor home from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, with his 3-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter in tow, was convicted Monday of kidnapping and related charges.
Jurors deliberated for roughly two hours before finding Stephen Merle Houk, 48, guilty 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.
Houk, who faces more than 78 years in prison, remains in custody in lieu of $1 million bail pending sentencing on Sept. 4, according to the District Attorney's Office.
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Deputy District Attorney Tal Kahana described the defendant as violent and controlling, telling jurors in her closing argument on Friday that when he 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."
At some point that day, Houk pointed a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum at his wife's head and threatened to kill her, according to Kahana.
She said Houk told his wife, "I have two bullets, one for you and one for Levi," referring to his son.
After driving from Malibu to Santa Clarita, the defendant forced his wife 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.
Kahana said though children were unharmed, the chase and its aftermath had put them in grave danger. When he stopped the motor home in an orchard in Bakersfield, Houk "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. Houk was arrested two days later, hiding in an empty train car in a rail yard in Barstow.
"He left his son and daughter facing down all those rifles," Kahana said. "He's selfish."
Defense attorney Stephanie Freidenreich 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 motor home.
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, the defense attorney said.
"It's tough, those are brutal conditions," she said. "So not surprising that it's an unhealthy relationship."
In her closing summation, Freidenreich 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.
Prior to the trial, Houk pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of failing to register as a sex offender, according to the District Attorney's Office.