In a North Carolina courtroom nearly four years ago, federal prosecutors tried to convince a judge that James Barton Horn Jr., a sexual offender who had served his time, was a sexual sadist who was too dangerous to release.
But U.S. District 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, N.C., 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 before she escaped in April, police say Horn kept the woman, Sandra Kay Sutton, locked inside a plywood box.
Missouri authorities said Friday they think Horn is probably still near Sedalia, where he had lived with Sutton.
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.”
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.”
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 of 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.
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 said, 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.
On Friday, police said preliminary autopsy results on Sutton and her son, Zachary Wade Sutton, confirmed they died of gunshot woulds. They were found dead Thursday in a relative’s home in Clinton.
Authorities have been searching for Horn since he was charged with kidnapping Sandra Sutton three weeks ago.
Police Lt. Sonny Lynch said that authorities think Horn may still be in the Sedalia area and that someone may be helping him. About 30 investigators have been working to capture Horn, who police believe is armed.
A $5,000 reward was announced Friday for information leading to Horn’s arrest, Lynch said.
Authorities also believe Horn may look a little “shaggier” than he does in a photo that police provided after he was charged with kidnapping. He could have more facial hair, a beard or goatee, Lynch said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.