Detectives from several law enforcement agencies gave a blow by blow account of their two-day manhunt for alleged armed kidnapper Stephen Merle Houk, found hiding in the empty compartment of a rail car in Barstow.
At a press conference Friday morning, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell thanked several agencies including the US Marshal, for a collaborative effort resulting in the safe recovery of two small children and a successful arrest of the suspect.
On Tuesday, about 8 a.m., Houk and the victim – who is the mother of the children – became engaged in a prolonged heated argument inside a motorhome, McDonnell told reporters.
The argument escalated, he said, and the suspect pointed a handgun at the victim, then threatened to kill her and harm their 3-year-old child
The suspect also proceeded to assault the victim during the argument, and headbutted her, causing injury to her, he said.
Houk then forced the victim out of the motorhome and into a traffic center parking lot. He then fled with two small children – a 11-month-old and a three-year-old.
About 9:30 a.m., a Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s deputy contacted the victim who said she had been threatened and battered by him.
“During this brief conversation with deputies, she did not mention he was going to harm the children or that he had pointed a handgun at her,” McDonnell said.
Deputies immediately located Houk’s Motorhome on Newhall Ranch Road and, once sufficient units were in place, tried to stop him after a two mile pursuit.
The motorhome, however, did not stop.
SCV Sheriff’s Watch Commander decided to call off the pursuit out of concern for the safety of the children.
“The Watch Commander, using an abundance of caution, decided to cancel the pursuit.due to the knowledge and name of the known suspect and the presence of young children in the vehicle,” McDonnell said.
“The safety and retrieval of children was the most important factor weighed during the pursuit,” he said.
About 2:30 p.m., LASD Major Crime Bureau detectives located the suspect in the vehicle in the area of Culver City. They tried to stop the vehicle but the vehicle continued north, eventually getting onto the northbound lanes of Interstate 5 where the pursuit was handed off to the California Highway Patrol.
In a light rain, CHP officers tracked the motorhome through the Grapevine and eventually onto the northbound lanes of Highway 99.
After more than 100 miles, the pursuit ended in an almond grove north of Bakersfield near Shafter.
The driver climbed out of the motorhome on the driver’s side, and ran into the almond grove.
CHP officers found the two children safe inside the motorhome.
The children were briefly reunited with their mother but then turned over to the Department of Child and Family Services. The mother was placed in the care of a domestic violence group.
A search of the motorhome revealed a gun and cell phone were missing.
Picking up the story from there, Captain Eddie Hernandez of the LASD Major Crime Bureau said once the suspect was out of the motorhome he ran for three hours through the almond grove, hiding in foliage.
When it got dark, Houk walked to Bakersfield where he asked, and obtained, train information for locals.
Houk, according to Hernandez, jumped onto a train which he believed was bound for Arizona.
Instead, the train went to Barstow where detectives found their man about 4:30 p.m. Thursday, hiding inside an empty compartment of a rail car.
Houk was arrested on suspicion of 14 felonies including kidnapping with use of a firearm, assault with a deadly weapon, making criminal threats, domestic violence, child endangerment and felony evading.
His bail was set at $1 million.