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Clark Says He Killed Houghteling

By Veronica T. Jennings
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 1993; Page A01

Hadden I. Clark pleaded guilty yesterday to killing Laura Houghteling last October as the 23-year-old Bethesda woman lay in her bed, sparking new hopes that Clark will soon tell police where he has buried the body.

In a dramatic, surprise plea on the opening day of his murder trial in Rockville, Clark, who was once found to be paranoid schizophrenic, said he "suffered no delusions" on Oct. 19 when he killed the Harvard University graduate, whose family had hired him for part-time gardening.

"I found Laura, alone, in her bedroom," Clark said, his back turned toward the packed courtroom gallery that included his mother and Houghteling's relatives.

"I killed her by means of suffocation while she lay in her bed," Clark said in a barely audible voice. "I removed her from the home and buried her."

He added, "I suffered no delusions at the time of this crime and committed the crime of my own free will."

Police, who have searched in vain for Houghteling in parts of Maryland, New Jersey and Massachusetts, said Clark has agreed to tell them where Houghteling's body is, but has not done so yet.

For months, prosecutors described their case against Clark as one based largely on circumstantial evidence, but in recent weeks investigators collected important new evidence that helped persuade Clark to confess the crime, police and defense attorneys said.

Addressing the Houghteling family yesterday, Clark said, "I profoundly regret my actions and wish to extend my deepest sorrow and regrets to the family of Laura Houghteling with all of my heart."

Seated in the front row, Laura Houghteling's mother, Penny Houghteling, a psychotherapist, lightly touched the shoulder of her son, Warren Houghteling, as Clark read his prepared statement. Across the aisle, two rows back from the front, sat Clark's mother, Flavia Clark, her brother and his wife.

Laura Houghteling returned to live with her mother last fall in the family's split-level house on a quiet street in Bethesda. Clark, who had been discharged from the Navy in 1985 after the mental disorder was diagnosed, had worked as a part-time gardener for Houghteling's mother.

Clark lived in his pickup truck and at a makeshift campsite in Bethesda, and he also worked at a bagel shop in Northwest Washington.

Judge Irma S. Raker accepted Clark's guilty plea to second-degree murder yesterday in Montgomery County Circuit Court and set sentencing for June 25. Clark faces a maximum 30-year prison term.

Assistant State's Attorney Kathleen Toolan said yesterday that she will recommend that Clark be sent to the Patuxent Institution for psychiatric treatment.

State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner, Montgomery's chief prosecutor, said Clark's agreement to plead guilty was made final minutes before the start of court proceedings. Sonner said that discussions about a possible plea deal began late Friday and that negotiations intensified during the weekend.

Attorneys said the plea agreement was the result of several pieces of fresh evidence linking Clark to the murder. About 10 days ago, police identified Clark's fingerprint on a bloodstained maul that had been found in a shed in the back yard of the Houghteling home.

Police have theorized that after suffocating Houghteling, Clark may have made cuts in her body.

Toolan said yesterday that police had identified hair fragments linking Clark to the killing and that a jail inmate told police last week that Clark had cried out, "I should not have done it. I should not have killed her."

One of Clark's defense attorneys, John C. Monahan, said yesterday that there are "ongoing discussions" between Clark and law enforcement officials about the whereabouts of Houghteling's body.

Sonner said the plea agreement did not require that Clark divulge where he had buried the body.

"The family did not want finding the body to be part of the deal," Sonner said.

A police official said authorities expect Clark to tell them in the next few days where Houghteling is buried.

At a news conference yesterday, Penny Houghteling said she and her son were struggling with her daughter's death but were pleased that Clark had acknowledged his guilt.

Wearing flowers that she said symbolized her daughter's short life, Penny Houghteling said the family wanted her daughter's remains to be found to "provide a certain ending to the tragedy." But she added, "On another level, it doesn't matter. She was here, we loved her, and we know that she is dead."

Clark's mother, Flavia Clark, of Rhode Island, said she was "surprised" by her son's confession, but also relieved that the case was almost over.

"There have been many victims," she said. "There is much healing to take place on both sides."

Lt. William C. Thieman, head of the Montgomery police department's major crime division, said detectives were convinced that they had amassed sufficient evidence against Clark for a murder conviction. "We were confident all along," Thieman said. "There should be high praise for our police lab work."

Forensic evidence from the Montgomery police and FBI crime labs solidified the state's case against Clark. Yesterday, Toolan outlined the prosecution's case, stating that investigators had searched continually for new evidence, even up to the day of the trial.

Toolan said police believe that Houghteling was killed in the early morning of Oct. 19 in her bedroom and that Clark then set up an elaborate scheme to hide the crime, such as dressing as a woman when leaving the house and wiping the bedroom clean of blood.

Clark may have had a sexual interest in Houghteling, having told a co-worker that he wanted to marry her, Toolan said yesterday.

Toolan said that Clark knew the daily routine of Penny and Laura Houghteling because he had worked as a gardener for the family for more than a year and that Penny Houghteling had told Clark that she would be out of town the weekend of Oct. 17.

Police found no signs of struggle in Laura Houghteling's bedroom, although her bed was unmade and linens were missing, Toolan said. Traces of a large amount of blood that had been cleaned up were detected by police using a sophisticated chemical compound, she said.

The first break in the case was the discovery of a bloody pillow and pillowcase that belonged to Houghteling. Police later identified a fingerprint on the pillowcase as Clark's, Toolan said.

Despite the lack of a body, Toolan said, the state could show that Houghteling was dead based on DNA testing of the blood found on her mattress and pillowcase.

Toolan said police found a trench coat and a woman's wig in a Kensington storage locker rented by Clark that were consistent with the description of a person seen leaving the Houghteling house shortly after the murder. She said police also found a lot of women's clothing and many wigs and hairpieces at Clark's campsite off Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda.

Hair samples analyzed by the FBI found synthetic hair from a wig owned by Clark in a hairbrush from Houghteling's bedroom, Toolan said. And Montgomery police's crime lab identified a hair fragment from a mattress in Clark's pickup truck as Houghteling's, she said.

Police said the most startling discovery was the maul. Penny Houghteling found the wedge-shaped maul in her shed this spring, Toolan said. Police could not determine whether bloodstains on the maul were human or animal, she said. On June 4, police identified Clark's fingerprint on the handle.

The maul was for some a striking reminder of a crime nearly a decade ago. In 1985, Clark's oldest brother, Bradfield, was convicted of strangling and dismembering a California woman the year before, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Staff writer Elisha King contributed to this report.

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