LOS ANGELES (AP) — A paroled sex offender driving a motor home gave police the slip after a 3.5-hour chase through California by turning into an almond orchard and disappearing into a cloud of dust kicked up by his vehicle.
The parolee, 46-year-old Stephen Houk, remained missing Wednesday and should be considered armed and dangerous, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said.
Houk, who was on parole for felony sodomy in Oregon, began leading police on a chase Tuesday afternoon in Los Angeles after deputies tried to talk to him about a report that he had threatened his wife, said sheriff’s Capt. Darren Harris.
Houk fled police with his young children inside the motor home.
Police followed Houk along narrow surface streets in Hollywood before he made his way to a freeway and eventually led dozens of officers 100 miles (161 kilometers) north to the agricultural heartland of California.
Once Houk reached the city of Bakersfield, he repeatedly exited and re-entered the freeway and at times drove through the city, including a busy Walmart parking lot, all while his 3-year-old son and 11-month old daughter were in the vehicle.
Eventually Houk turned on a dirt road to the almond orchard, where both the motor home and police vehicles kicked up blinding dust, said Officer Robert Rodriguez, a spokesman with the California Highway Patrol.
When the motor home came to a stop with its front end under a thick canopy of trees, officers pulled back, Rodriguez said.
“Officers had zero visibility,” he said. “We had to create distance between ourselves and his vehicle for the safety of the officers, as well as keeping the safety of the kids in mind.”
Officers eventually surrounded the motor home with armored vehicles and patrol cars, guns drawn, waiting for Houk to emerge. Instead, his 3-year-old son walked out about 45 minutes after the chase ended.
Police then discovered the baby inside and Houk nowhere in sight.
“He got lucky,” Rodriguez said. “All the forces came together and temporarily, they were on his side.”
Houk is now wanted for assault with a deadly weapon, making terrorist threats, kidnapping, child endangerment and evading police.
The sheriff’s department initially tried to contact Houk after a customer at a Starbucks in Santa Clarita called police Tuesday morning to report that a woman had been threatened by her husband and needed help, Harris said.
The customer reported that the woman was panhandling and had said her husband was forcing her to try to get some money. The customer said the woman told her that her husband was back at home with a gun, apparently referring to the couple’s motor home, Harris said.
After the chase started, Houk’s wife told deputies that her husband had assaulted her earlier that morning and that she tried to get a gun inside the motor home. She said a struggle ensued and that Houk gained control of the gun, loaded it and pointed it at her.
Preliminary information indicates that the couple had recently traveled to California from Oregon, Harris said.
It’s unclear whether the family was living in the motor home, a Dolphin 2740 more than 25 feet (7.6 meters) long with a bicycle strapped to the back and an Arizona license plate.
The vast majority of police chases end with immediate arrests, sometimes when officers force cars to stop by puncturing tires with spike strips or hitting the back right side of vehicles to turn them sideways and bring them to a halt.
Officers did not do that with Houk because of the children in the car — who turned out to not be strapped in — and the report that Houk had a gun and had threatened the children, Rodriguez said.
“We were treating this with kid gloves because we didn’t want to agitate the driver,” Rodriguez said. “Our primary concern was for the safety of the children.”
The children were not hurt and were reunited with their mother.
In a 2002 case in Oregon, Houk pleaded guilty to sodomy while prosecutors dropped sex abuse charges against him. He served eight years in state prison.
Harris said the case involved a child under 14 but did not have any other details.
“We’ve got to find him,” Harris said. “I have no doubt we’ll catch up with him but we just want to do that before anyone else gets hurt.”
Associated Press writer Steven DuBois in Portland, Oregon contributed to this report.
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