Debra Houser

Debra Houser

Rodney Houser Guilty of Ex’s Murder

Jurors reject lesser charges

Published: May 14, 2010 3:00 a.m.

COLUMBIA CITY – Rodney Houser swore he killed his ex-wife in a sudden fit of anger. But a Whitley Circuit Court jury disagreed, convicting the 44-year-old man of murder.  After two days of dramatic testimony, almost 300 exhibits and nearly four hours of deliberation, the jury decided not to convict Houser of voluntary manslaughter.

Court-appointed defense attorney Anthony Churchward conceded at the beginning of the trial that Houser is to blame for his ex-wife’s disappearance and death last November. Churchward asked the jury to convict Houser of a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter because he acted in “sudden heat” as defined by state law.

But Whitley County Prosecutor Matt Rentschler argued Houser intended all along to kill his wife and therefore committed murder, stomping her to death with a pair of cowboy boots.

Police arrested Houser the day after his ex-wife went missing, after a friend told the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department that Houser had killed 49-year-old Debra Houser at her Old Trail Road home and asked for his help in disposing of the body. Confronted by police, Houser told them his ex-wife was at work and had called his cell phone that morning at 7:30, later admitting he had made the call on her cell phone himself.

Twenty-nine days later, on Dec. 15, her battered body was discovered in a Whitley County creek by detectives acting on a tip from a farmer who thought he had seen Houser’s truck in the area the day of Debra Houser’s disappearance. An autopsy revealed she died from multiple blunt-force injuries, caused by what was later revealed to be a pair of black leather cowboy boots.

Houser took the stand on Wednesday. He said his ex-wife had provoked him to a violent rage by confronting him about his failure to be home to get their son off the school bus, throwing him out of the house, insulting his girlfriend and hitting him during the argument.

But Rentschler asked the jury whether that was enough provocation to cause an ordinary person to go into such a violent rage.

“Is that provocation?” he asked. “Even if it’s true? Don’t lower the standard to his level. … Nothing takes away our God-given choice of free will. Calling (the crime) something less than murder just doesn’t fit.”  He again played for the jury a recording of a jail-house phone conversation Houser had with his girlfriend. During the call, an obviously irritated Houser describes his ex-wife as “the curse of his life.”

“I’m happy with the world and the outcome,” Houser said on the phone. “Instead of just accepting, … I decided on my own. … For once something (expletive) happened that got (expletive) changed.”

Churchward argued that the evidence clearly showed Houser became enraged that night, demonstrated by the manner in which he killed her, using his feet.

“He used what he had at his disposal at that split second when it happened,” Churchward said.  Houser seemed passive, as he had through much of the trial, as the jury’s verdict was read.

Debra Houser’s daughter and family friends hugged and cried as the jury filed out of the courtroom.  Elaine Tuttle, a 20-year friend of Debra Houser, described her as a generous and caring person but wondered whether her desire to help other people contributed to her death.

“But that’s why we all loved her so much. You always knew you could count on her,” she said. “She was the best kind of best friend I could have had.”

After the verdict, Rentschler said he believed the taped jail conversation made a difference for the jury, allowing them to see a difference in Houser’s demeanor.

“I think the jury did a wonderful job examining the evidence,” Rentschler said.

Amber Kunkle, Debra Houser’s daughter with another man, was a constant presence at the trial, sitting directly in line with the witness chair and taking it all in.

She said her mother raised her to be a strong person, and she said she felt her presence throughout the case.  “You can’t change the past,” Kunkle said, standing in front of the Courthouse. “But you can look to the future to make it better.”

Kunkle has custody of Debra and Rodney Houser’s 10-year-old son.

The boy has asked some questions about what is going on, Kunkle said, and knows that what happened to his mother was caused by his father, which will result in a long jail term.

“For right or wrong, though, he loves his parents,” she said.

With prior felony convictions for battery to his son, invasion of privacy, stalking and intimidation, Houser could face more than 55 years in prison when he is sentenced in mid-June.


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