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Convicted child killer drops parole bid mid-hearing

Hagadone News Network | December 4, 2022 12:00 AM

Convicted child killer Robert Hornback will not be getting his freedom any time soon and he won’t come before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole for another six years.

Hornback, 58, appeared for his first parole hearing Wednesday from the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. He became eligible for parole in August 2022.

Hornback was sentenced on March 7, 1988, to 200 years in prison after entering a guilty by Alford plea earlier that month in the death of 8-year-old Ryan VanLuchene of Libby on Aug. 31, 1987. Defendants who enter an Alford plea maintain their innocence, but acknowledge the weight of the evidence against them.

“Very amazing day in Deer Lodge,” Jane Weber, Ryan’s mother, wrote in an email to The Western News on Wednesday night. “People were wonderful sending in letters from Libby and the parole board did their homework.”

About halfway through the hearing, which lasted a little more than an hour, Hornback acknowledged that he really didn’t think parole was appropriate for him.

“Until I have more answers I’m withdrawing my request for parole,” Hornback said. “I thought I was ready for this, but I’m not. I apologize for wasting your time and I apologize to my family and Ryan’s family.”

Hornback’s stunning answer came in response to a question from Brad Newman, a member of the parole board. Newman asked the convicted murderer about his plans for life after prison.

Hornback said he believed he needed to transition to life on the outside in a group home or halfway house as well as receiving intensive treatment.

But shortly after uttering those words, he said he was overcome with emotion and not ready for parole.

After testimony from family members of VanLuchene, the three members of the board, Newman, Jimmy Patelis and Darrell Bell, took a few minutes to decide Hornback’s fate and when his next hearing would be held.

Newman returned with the determination that Hornback was denied parole unanimously and that his case wouldn’t be reviewed for six years, the maximum time allowed between parole hearings.

“We denied parole for several reasons,” Newman said. “The nature and severity of the crime, his past criminal behavior and Mr. Hornback’s statements today were just some of the reasons.”

During the hearing Hornback acknowledged how VanLuchene was killed and the evidence of sexual assault, but he portrayed himself as a victim. He said after his first offense, the 1984 sexual assault of a 13-year-old boy in Libby, that he suffered rape and sexual abuse in the Montana State Prison. Hornback received a five-year sentence to state prison for the crime, but only served three because he received credit for good behavior while locked up.

“It was horrific and I have PTSD because of it,” Hornback claimed about his first stint in prison.

Hornback had his freedom for about three months before he killed VanLuchene while the young boy fished for minnows in Flower Creek near his home.

During the hearing and in a 2018 attempt to withdraw from his plea deal, Hornback blamed the murder on another person, Cecil Steven Sutherland.

According to various media accounts, Sutherland murdered a 10-year-old girl, Amy Schulz, on July 2, 1987, in Illinois. He was later convicted of her killing and sentenced to death. Sutherland then came to Montana in early October where he was later arrested in Glacier National Park after shooting at passing cars.

Hornback said he was present when Sutherland killed VanLuchene.

“I was in a position to protect Ryan, but I failed to do so,” Hornback said. “It was an act of cowardice on my part.

“I do feel your pain, but I did not murder your son,” he said to VanLuchene’s family members.

Though Hornback continued with his claims that he was not the killer, Newman interrupted, saying that the hearing wasn’t meant to determine his guilt or innocence because that had already been done at trial and in subsequent appeal attempts.

Newman questioned Hornback about what he learned about himself and what would trigger him to reoffend.

“I wouldn’t want to be alone with a child until I get more treatment,” Hornback said.

Hornback said he has received sex offender treatment and is waiting on further care.

Members of the parole board also questioned Hornback about his conduct while in custody.

“You were written up for medication abuse this July. Why?” Newman asked.

Hornback blamed another inmate and refuted the allegations.

Parole board members also mentioned other incidents, including fighting with one inmate in 2018 and another in 2014 when Hornback made a sexual advance to a fellow inmate while exposing his genitalia.

The board then gave family members an opportunity to speak. Weber, 75, spoke first.

“It definitely haunts you,” she said. "He was a sex offender as a juvenile and my feelings are he is not going to change. He was let out two years early for good behavior, but I saw a document where he said he’d do it again. He will reoffend."

“It’s not fair to me,” she said later. “I can’t get Ryan out of the grave and he wants out of jail.”

Weber also said she believed Ryan’s dad died of a broken heart due to his son’s murder. Terry VanLuchene died in 2007 at the age of 65.

Derek VanLuchene, Ryan’s brother, also spoke.

“I was 17 when this nightmare started,” Derek VanLuchene said. “Every time one of my three kids turned 8 (years old), I held my breath for that whole year.”

Ryan VanLuchene was 8 when he was killed.

“If you put Hornback back on a street corner in Deer Lodge, you’ll have a missing or dead child in no time,” Derek VanLuchene said.

Paula VanLuchene, Ryan’s older sister, said, “Thirty-five years seems like a long time and it got here quickly for us. I don’t wish on anybody the feelings we had when we knew he (Ryan) was gone. The nightmare continues for us.”

She ended her comments by asking that Hornback spend the rest of his life in prison.

Two of Ryan’s uncles - Greg Weber and Steve Weber - also spoke.

“Ryan was stolen from us,” Greg Weber said.

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