In a North Carolina courtroom nearly four years ago, federal prosecutors tried to persuade a judge that James Barton Horn, a sexual offender who had served his time, was a sexual sadist too dangerous to release.
But U.S. District Court Judge W. Earl Britt, who was on the bench then, ruled that prosecutors didn’t provide “clear and convincing proof” that Horn posed a threat and ordered him released from the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner in 2011.
This week, nearly a thousand miles from Butner, Missouri law enforcement officers contend that Horn, 47, has done exactly what prosecutors feared. They say he murdered a 46-year-old woman, with whom he had a brief relationship, and her 17-year-old son.
For long stints during the months prior to the death, police say, Horn kept the woman, Sandra Kay Sutton, locked inside a plywood box – 4 feet high, 41/2 feet wide and 8 feet deep.
The wooden box, housed in a bedroom of a house the two shared, had soundproof insulation on top of it and a “small hole” for air, according to court documents. Sleeping bags, reading materials, flashlights and a small bucket containing the woman’s waste were found inside the box.
Federal prosecutors in North Carolina have declined to comment about the Missouri allegations.
But details from Missouri police reports and federal court documents outline the 2011 attempt by prosecutors to have Horn declared “sexually dangerous.” They provide a glimpse of a man accused of using duct tape and shoelaces to tie up women he was involved with, then forcing them to have sex with him under the threat of scissors or knives.
Under the Adam Walsh Act, a federal law adopted in 2006, Britt, the North Carolina judge in 2011, faced an unusual legal dilemma that weighed one man’s liberty against the security of the public. Should a sex offender who had served his time continue to be imprisoned not for what he did, but for what he might do?
“The court realizes that it is possible that Horn may commit an act of sexual violence in the future,” Britt stated in his order of Dec. 8, 2011. “However, in the absence of clear and convincing proof that a serious mental impairment causes an individual to have serious difficulty in controlling his behavior, the Constitution requires reliance on the criminal law rather than a civil commitment to deal with that risk.”
Building the box
Horn, who was still the subject of a massive Missouri manhunt late Friday, faces kidnapping, weapons and murder charges related to two Missouri incidents within the past three weeks.
The kidnapping allegations surfaced on April 30, when Sutton escaped from a house in Sedalia, Mo., and sought cover with a neighbor. Overwrought and fearful, Sutton told a story of emotional and physical torture. She said Horn had threatened her in a car with a “tire jack” after an argument in January.
Horn began building the wooden structure after they returned home, forcing her to help with the construction, according to a probable cause statement filed by Sedalia police. He made Sutton hold boards by threatening her with a knife, the document said. As this occurred, he sent texts to her family on her smartphone, pretending to be her, so they would not worry about a lack of communication.
Horn, who had been employed at Tyson Foods in Sedalia, is accused of forcing Sutton into the box before he left for work at 4:30 a.m. daily, then letting her out when he returned home so that she could sleep in the same bed as him and live as a couple.
By the time Sutton told police the details of her four months of terror, Horn had fled the scene.
At some point, Sutton went to live with relatives in Clinton, Mo., nearly 45 miles away. On Thursday, police there were called to a relative’s home in the western Missouri town.
Sutton and her 17-year-old son, Zachary Wade Sutton, a high school junior, were found shot to death.
Horn had pleaded guilty in 1997 in Mississippi to unlawfully kidnapping and abducting his estranged wife. In that case, he was sentenced to 12 years and 11 months in prison, plus five years supervised release.
After Britt’s ruling and Horn’s release from federal custody in North Carolina in December 2011, his probation jurisdiction was transferred in 2012 to Missouri, according to online court records. Horn was still under federal supervision, Chad Lamar, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Mississippi, told The Associated Press.
When federal prosecutors in North Carolina made their push to have Horn committed as a “sexually dangerous person,” they cited allegations from three women with whom he had been involved.
In January 1991, after a 13-month marriage fell apart, Horn’s first wife said he came to her apartment, tied her down, threatened her verbally and tortured her over a 24-hour period.
He was not prosecuted in that case, according to the federal court records, because his ex-spouse did not file a police report.
About a year later, prosecutors contended, Horn went to the apartment of a woman who had broken up with him and put duct tape on her mouth and hands and forced her to have sex. He then drove her across state lines to a truck stop, where he tied her up and raped her again. Horn served about three years in prison in Tennessee in the early 1990s in connection with that kidnapping and sexual attack.
The third incident, which led to the federal prison term, occurred nearly a year after he was released from prison. In that case, Horn was accused of breaking into the home of a second wife who was filing for divorce at the time. He abducted her, forced her into the trunk of a car, tied her up with shoelaces and forced her to have sex with him several times.
Though experts testified in 2011 that Horn suffered from some form of personality disorder, Britt stated that prosecutors failed to prove that Horn suffered from sexual sadism.
Britt’s order mentioned a doctor’s testimony that “there is no demonstrable evidence which shows that Horn derived arousal and pleasure from the act of inflicting pain.” The judge also considered testimony from Horn and at least one woman with whom he had been involved who had not experienced violence.
In his order, Britt stated that while in prison, Horn had been consistently employed, completed various educational courses and had shown no difficulty obeying rules.
Britt said Horn’s difficulty in controlling his behavior had been confined to “very specific circumstances relating to the unwanted end of an intimate relationship.”
“It is uncertain that such a situation may ever arise again,” Britt said in his order.