How the Harris County DA’s Office prepared for and prosecuted the case of a rapist who targeted men
On April 4, 2006, 18-year-old E.J. (not his real name) returned home after closing down shop at a local sandwich restaurant where he worked. After pulling into his driveway, E.J., as was his routine every night, walked back down the driveway to secure the gate that blocked access to the driveway from the street. He was approached by a masked man brandishing a handgun who quickly forced E.J. onto the ground and used zip ties to restrain his hands. E.J. was then forced into the passenger seat of his own truck, and his attacker drove them both off into the night.
The assailant soon made a brief stop to wrap duct tape around E.J.’s head to restrict his eyesight. During the abduction, the kidnapper acquired E.J.’s wallet, forced E.J. at gunpoint to disclose his PIN, proceeded to multiple ATMs, and withdrew hundreds of dollars from E.J.’s bank account. Soon thereafter, the attacker demanded that E.J. perform oral sex on him, and E.J. complied out of fear for his life. This scared young man soon found himself in a field; his attacker led him around aimlessly, then forced him to the ground. The attacked attempted to sodomize E.J. but could not, so he digitally penetrated E.J. Eventually, the frightened and exhausted victim was abandoned in a wooded area not far from his house.
This assault on E.J. was the first of five reported cases perpetrated by Keith Hill, the media-proclaimed Baytown Rapist. And although the eight-month investigation into these heinous acts, all committed against young white men, involved the Baytown Police Department, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it would be a truly amazing coincidence that led authorities to Keith Hill.
Officials had first speculated that the same man might be responsible for multiple sexual assaults in the Baytown area immediately after the second attack in May 2006. The first two attacks both involved young white men as the victims, as well as the same means of restraint (zip ties), the same method of blindfolding the victims (duct tape), the same demands for oral intercourse, and the same description of a light-skinned black man as the abductor. Over the next several months, as the next three white male victims came forward and gave similar descriptions of their attacks and of the suspect himself, it became obvious to investigators that they were after one man. Media outlets were utilized, fliers of the attacker’s likeness distributed, and the FBI brought in to assist in the psychological profiling of the man responsible—the first time ever for a male-on-male rapist. The crimes were even featured on “America’s Most Wanted” in hopes that someone could provide a solid lead, but none was established until one fortuitous day in December 2006.
Nabbing the suspect
As if fate were doing its part in ending Keith Hill’s crime spree, the most recent victim of the “Baytown Rapist”—we’ll call him Jason—just happened to pull up next to Keith Hill at a traffic light in Baytown. The driver’s similarity to the man who had attacked him, along with the driver’s suspicious behavior, alerted Jason to the possibility that he once again was in the presence of his abductor. After a short pursuit, Jason lost sight of Hill’s vehicle, only to see it again the same day, in the very police station parking lot where he was describing his previous encounter to detectives! Hill had gone to municipal court after receiving a traffic citation.
Investigators contacted Hill inside the courtroom, and he agreed to speak to them. Not more than a month later, DNA analysis of Hill’s buccal swab (obtained in December after he signed a voluntary consent form in his parents’ presence) linked Hill to semen collected from an article of clothing taken from one of his victims. Once Hill was arrested, a search of his residence proved fruitful for authorities. The most important discovery was two rings in Hill’s bedroom that had been taken from E.J. during his abduction.
The day after he was arrested, Hill confessed to five attacks on young men in the Baytown area over seven months in 2006. Had he not received that traffic ticket; had he not responded to it in person; and had Jason not looked to his left while sitting at that traffic light, how many more young men might have fallen prey to Keith Hill? Furthermore, were there any more victims who were too ashamed to come forward? These unknowns would become a central theme in our preparation and prosecution of the Baytown Rapist.
We knew very little about these crimes before the cases came across our desks. We were aware of the abductions and sexual assaults only to the extent that each was covered by the local news media. So, as one can imagine, it was a mad scramble for us to catch up on everything that the investigators had done over the previous eight months. We charged Hill with five counts, including charges of aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery, and aggravated sexual assault, and named only three of the five victims as complainants, as we focused on the cases with the strongest evidence. We hoped that we’d get the opportunity to present everything Hill had done to a jury during the punishment phase of a trial.
Clearly, the rarity of these cases’ circumstances presented us with a significant challenge. Our initial concern was the difficulties we might encounter when we met with the victims. How would they react to two strange men asking the questions we had to ask? Would they be forthcoming in their answers? Would it be more beneficial if a woman prosecutor attempted to gain their trust? After all, we are talking about 17- and 18-year-old men who had to endure unimaginable attacks. In fact, even the two victims who ultimately admitted to being sexually assaulted did not immediately do so to their parents or to the authorities after each returned home from his abduction.
What we found were varying degrees of acceptance, comfort, and candor with each of the victims we met. We don’t mean that any of these young men were uncooperative, just that the emotional and conversational ebb and flow of these meetings was drastically different from one victim to the next. Where one victim was able to matter-of-factly recount the most awful of details from his abduction without much prodding from either of us, another victim avoided discussing the graphic truths of his encounter with Hill at every turn—that is, until he was directly confronted with our need to know every indignity that was forced upon him so we could build our case against Hill.
In other cases when we met with victims of sexual assaults, we always expressed somehow that what happened to them was not their fault. But these cases were different. These men knew that they weren’t at all to blame for these assaults—they had had a gun pressed to their heads, after all. So we were not concerned that the victims might have any traditional feelings of partial responsibility for the attacks. But we did have unusual concerns to handle. For instance, although these victims looked us straight in the eye and said they had no choice in what they were forced to do, we couldn’t help but wonder whether some of them were totally convinced of that conclusion.
Additionally, none of these young men were homosexuals; their sexuality had never been challenged before, either by others or themselves. From the standpoint of an outsider looking in, nothing about how these guys viewed their sexual identity should have changed after these assaults, but that’s easy for the rest of us to say. As male prosecutors, we felt it was crucial to make the victims, whether they had admitted to being sexually assaulted or not, understand from the beginning that we had no idea what they had been through, that neither of us could imagine having gone through something like that, and to reassure them in every way that they had no choice in doing what they did. We also reassured the victims that they weren’t less manly for giving in to Keith Hill’s demands and that what truly defined them was willingness to sit down and tell their stories. We found that the victims responded very well to this approach, not only in our witness meetings, but also while testifying at trial.
Unfortunately, one victim who had been named as a complainant in one of the indictments but who was going to serve solely as a punishment witness, refused to meet us in preparation for trial, putting us in a difficult position. We prosecutors sometimes find ourselves with a missing or uncooperative witness, and oftentimes we take the hard-line approach of warning him of the consequences of not cooperating or appearing in court. However, given the unusual nature of these cases and the willingness of Hill’s other victims to confront their attacker, we felt like we would achieve a successful verdict without this particular victim’s assistance.
As with most cases that capture the public’s interest, media attention in the Baytown Rapist cases tapered off as the case went from arraignment to trial, only to flare back up on the morning of jury selection. As one might expect, a primary concern shared by all of the victims was the possibility that their names would appear in the paper under the headline “Victim of Male Rapist Testifies” or that their faces would be splashed all over a television report with a similar title. It was a great comfort for these young men when we secured both a promise from the media not to use any of the victims’ names in their coverage, as well an order by Judge Don Stricklin that the victims were not to be filmed during any testimony in the courtroom. We considered using pseudonyms as the Code of Criminal Procedure provides, but after getting assurances from the media that the victims’ real names would not be disseminated, we were comfortable using their real names in the indictments.
After much discussion, we decided to proceed to trial on only one victim, an aggravated sexual assault involving Hill’s second victim. It was the semen collected during the investigation of this incident that was linked to Hill’s buccal swab. The driving force behind this decision was the defendant’s lack of criminal history; Hill had no prior criminal convictions of any kind and therefore was eligible for probation from a jury assessing punishment. Proceeding on more than one case would make it much more difficult to commit a jury, during voir dire, to considering the full range of punishment. Once we secured a conviction, we reasoned, the jury would hear the facts in all of the other cases anyway, so we shouldn’t make it more difficult on us at the outset of trial. Plus, each of the charges against Hill was a first-degree felony, so the punishment range did not play a role in choosing one case over another in proceeding to trial.
At trial, we focused our efforts on the DNA that linked Hill to the semen obtained from five separate areas of the victim’s shirt, as well as Hill’s confession to the crime. We were intent on presenting our evidence in a very streamlined manner, a task made easier by defense counsel’s dilemma during the trial. Any challenge of the assailant’s identity or any assertion that the sexual contact was consensual would almost certainly have opened the door for us to present evidence of Hill’s extraneous crimes for which Hill was not currently on trial. As such, we were pleased not only with how well our witnesses testified, but also with how efficiently we presented the State’s case to the jury. After a day and a half of testimony, the jury deliberated for about an hour before finding Hill guilty of aggravated sexual assault.
As relieved as we were with the verdict, we knew that our work was far from over. Three more victims were going to testify during the punishment phase, along with a slew of supporting testimony from police officers, FBI agents, neighbors of the victims, computer technicians, etc. We were hoping that the jury was already overwhelmed by the brutality of the abduction and assault they heard about in guilt-innocence, and that, upon hearing testimony from three additional victims, would feel compelled to assess the maximum punishment. The punishment phase lasted two days, during which those three victims told their stories with more courage than should have been asked of these young men. And for that, the jury rewarded them: After deliberating for almost five hours, jurors sentenced Keith Hill to imprisonment for the maximum term of 99 years and assessed the maximum fine of $10,000.
Needless to say, we were extremely satisfied with the outcome of the case, as were the victims and their families. After further discussion with them, we all decided it was in the best interests of everyone involved, especially the victims, that we not pursue the other cases against Keith Hill, not only to avoid asking these victims to testify again, but also because we were confident that these victims had finally received the closure they had been awaiting for so long. Furthermore, the jury’s verdict was a clear and appropriate response to what all of the victims endured at the hands of Keith Hill.