Leaning on her walker, the 80-year-old rape victim shuffled down the hallway of her Rockville retirement home at 9:15 Wednesday morning, heading for court with a book of jumbo crossword puzzles to work if she had to wait. In the parking lot, a prosecutor helped her into his Chevrolet Impala. “Nice little car,” she told him, settling into the front seat.
About 20 miles away, James Edward Houck — shackles around his legs and wrists — also was on his way. Nearly two decades earlier, armed with a sharp-tipped tool resembling an ice pick, he had burst into the woman’s high-rise condominium, forced her into a bedroom and raped her.
“It gave me a lifetime of fear,” the woman told a judge once she and Houck, 45, had arrived in the Rockville courtroom. “I never went out like I used to on my scooter.”
Montgomery County Circuit Judge Michael Algeo handed down a life sentence even as he noted what appeared to be Houck’s deep remorse over the Jan. 7, 1995, attack against a woman who has long suffered from multiple sclerosis. “Most importantly,” the judge said, “I have to look at what a horrific crime you committed on this date to this woman.”
For years, it seemed that the stranger who attacked her would never be caught. Houck slipped away from police just after the rape — quickly getting off a Metro train but leaving his weapon behind. Detectives had a description of him but didn’t know his name.
Houck eventually was identified through advances in DNA testing and pleaded guilty. The man that the woman said “destroyed her confidence” would finally be punished.
“It was worth waiting for,” she said.
The woman, who has worked as a secretary at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, grew up in Silver Spring. When she was 18, she started having pains in her back and head, symptoms she believes were the first signs of MS. She later moved into an 11th-floor condo in downtown Rockville with her mother. Using an electronic scooter, she was able to go to nearby stores. By the 1990s, her mother had died, leaving her alone in the condo. The Washington Post generally does not identify victims of sexual assault.
One neighbor, the woman said, often came to her door to bring homemade sweets. When someone knocked at 6:30 one evening, she thought it was the neighbor. The woman knew she should have looked through the peephole — as her mother always warned her to do — but she was tired, and standing about 5 feet tall, she never got a good view, anyway. So she opened the door.
It was Houck, armed with a pointy tool and demanding money. She gave him what she had — $6 — as he forced her into a bedroom, tied her up and continued to demand money.
Adding to her horrors: The woman had recently undergone exploratory surgery for possible pancreatic cancer, leaving her unable to stretch out easily.
“He pulled me back, tied my wrists and feet with the telephone cord, and forced me into positions that were excruciatingly painful for my condition,” she wrote in a letter to the judge.
Houck raped her and then fled, leaving DNA behind. The woman worked her way free and called police, who swarmed into downtown Rockville looking for the suspect. A Metro officer spotted him on a southbound Red Line train, but the man managed to bolt free at the Friendship Heights station.
At first, the woman was scared to go outside, fearing that she might run into her attacker. She finally started doing so, but in a car, not on her scooter. She had post-traumatic stress disorder and went for therapy. Things also improved after she moved into a retirement complex.
Houck’s court file indicates that he has struggled with mental illness. He has several other criminal convictions and has abused drugs. “I have a lengthy history with cocaine and PCP dating back to the 80s,” he wrote to the judge prior to sentencing. “I never had help, so please help me. Please, please.”
In court Wednesday, he addressed the victim, clasping his handcuffed hands in a prayer-like position and weeping.
“I wanted to tell you, ma’am, how sorry, I am so sorry, ma’am, and I wish, I wish, this would have never happened. I really do, ma’am. At that time, I was high on drugs. I’m not making excuses for it. Trust me and believe me.”
In the front row, next to a close friend who’d come with her for the sentencing, the woman locked eyes with Houck. “Sorry doesn’t cut it,” she said quietly.