Piatt County murder trial: Friends speak of alleged sexual assaults

Piatt County murder trial: Friends speak of alleged sexual assaults

MONTICELLO — Jurors in the Gregory Houser murder trial heard more evidence Monday about alleged abuse inflicted on his wife during their seven-year marriage, including a sex assault just weeks before her death in October 1990.

They also heard that Houser, 57, of Mansfield, was tried by a jury in 1991 and acquitted of aggravated criminal sexual assault and unlawful restraint of Sheryl Houser, then 29.

Judge Karle Koritz informed the jury that the evidence about the alleged assault was admitted in the murder case to give jurors insight into Sheryl Houser's "state of mind" and to demonstrate Houser's "intent, motive and design."

Former neighbors Chris Doenitz and his ex-wife, Jackie Blythe, both testified they were home on the night of Sept. 20, 1990, when they heard a loud banging on their door.

Doenitz and Blythe lived about 200 yards from the Housers on the Champaign County side of the Champaign-Piatt county line. The Housers lived in Piatt County.

"The storm door opened, and she fell into my arms as I opened the door," Doenitz said. "She was crying, very frantic. It was not the first time."

Doenitz said he handed Mrs. Houser off to his wife, who comforted her, while he called the Piatt County Sheriff's Office.

Blythe said Mrs. Houser, with whom she was close from being neighbors for years and having children about the same ages, was crying.

"She told us Greg tried to rape and strangle her. She was out of breath. Her lips were bleeding and she had marks around her neck," Blythe said.

Doenitz was one of the first two volunteer firefighters to arrive at the Houser home on the morning of Oct. 5 after Sheryl Houser's then-6-year-old son told her co-worker at Carle over the phone that "mom was in the garage sleeping and tied up."

Firefighter Bobby Henderson of the Northern Piatt Fire Protection District actually found Mrs. Houser's body hanging in the garage.

Doenitz said he tried to find a pulse and could not get one, then he and Henderson got out of the garage about the same time that Gregory Houser and another Northern Piatt volunteer firefighter were arriving in a department emergency vehicle. Doenitz said he didn't speak to his neighbor.

"I had a bad feeling about what was going on there and didn't want to have a conversation with him," Doenitz said.

John Hannah, who was in the truck with Houser, said Henderson told Houser not to go in the garage.

"He said, 'What's wrong with Sheryl?'" Hannah recalled, adding that they had not received information on the nature of the call as they were en route.

Children were 'her world'

In earlier testimony Monday, Julie Roth said her longtime friend also told her about the alleged sex assault of Sept. 20.

"I started asking her how long this has been going on. She asked me if I ever wondered why her wedding dress had a high neck and long sleeves. She said, 'I thought I was going to have bruises,'" said Roth, crying at the memory.

Roth said Mrs. Houser also told her she had been physically abused by Houser the night before serving as a bridesmaid at Roth's wedding.

On cross-examination by defense attorney Todd Ringel, Roth said she could not recall seeing bruises on Mrs. Houser on either of their wedding days.

"Did you take or attempt to take any precautions for her before the alleged sexual assault?" Ringel asked. "You weren't fearful enough at that time to step in as a best friend and offer suggestions on what she should do?"

Roth responded that "I did" give suggestions after hearing about the alleged assault, but that most of the conversations were "between me and Sheryl."

Other prosecution witnesses agreed that Mrs. Houser was not suicidal in the weeks leading up to her death.

"Her world encircled her children, taking care of her children, making sure they were loved," said Stephanie Beever, Sheryl Houser's nursing supervisor at Carle Hospital in 1990. "There was nothing that demonstrated she was suicidal."

"The fact that she loved her children so much, I never thought she would have done something that would have that kind of impact on her children or left her children by themselves," said Pamela Houser, Sheryl Houser's sister-in-law.

The driveway encounter

Former Piatt County sheriff's deputies Todd McCabe and Douglas Carr responded to the sex-assault call on Sept. 20. Both testified they noticed wounds on Sheryl Houser's face, a swollen bottom lip, a small cut under her right eye and cuts at the corners of her mouth.

"She was upset, crying. It was hard for her to speak," McCabe said.

McCabe said Gregory Houser met them in the driveway and said, "I want you to know nothing happened here tonight."

"He said he had a friend with him there all night because he thought she'd pull something like this," McCabe added.

That friend, Lester Shores, was in the Houser home when deputies arrived. Doenitz said he believed it took deputies about 15 to 20 minutes to get to his home.

Gregory Houser allowed deputies to search the master bedroom, where they found one of Sheryl Houser's earrings with the disconnected post in the center of the waterbed and blood on the sheet. Mrs. Houser was wearing the other pearl earring when she was interviewed at the neighbor's home, said both McCabe and Carr.

Defense attorney Kevin Sanborn noted the rope that Mrs. Houser said was stuffed in her mouth during the sex assault was not found in the bedroom. Police reports did not indicate if other areas of the home were searched.

When Mrs. Houser was found dead Oct. 5, 1990, a yellow nylon rope was wrapped tightly three times around her neck.

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