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Murder victim's mother wants killer to remain behind bars

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
The Western News | November 22, 2022 7:00 AM

A convicted child killer whose crime shocked Libby nearly 40 years ago is seeking parole.

Robert George Hornback, 58, is a name that long-time Libby residents would prefer to forget. He pleaded guilty by way of Alford on March 3, 1988, in the brutal killing of 8-year-old Ryan VanLuchene.

But the felon will appear before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole on Wednesday, Nov. 30, in Deer Lodge in a bid for his freedom.

VanLuchene’s mother, 75-year-old Jane Weber, is working to make sure the killer of her son remains in custody.

“I know he’d do it again,” Weber said in a recent phone interview with The Western News.

The paper published a letter from Weber in the Nov. 11 edition. In it, she asked for the community’s help in keeping Hornback locked up. For those who wish to write the board, its address is Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, 1002 Hollenbeck Lane, Deer Lodge, MT 59722.

Weber, despite not living in Libby since shortly after her son’s murder, still has fond memories of the community.

“That little town was so good to us,” Weber said. “There was so much support from the people there. I hate that Libby has that attached to it.”

The family had moved to Libby from Conrad after Weber accepted a job with St. John’s Lutheran Hospital, known today as Cabinet Peaks Medical Center.

“I put down money and a house and we really liked it here,” Weber said.

On Aug. 31, 1987, Ryan departed his house with his dog and a net to catch minnows in nearby Flower Creek. About 2:30 p.m., the dog returned home alone.

By early evening, Lincoln County search and rescue had joined with volunteers in an effort to locate the missing boy. They found VanLuchene’s body at about 8 p.m.

Suspicion quickly fell on Hornback, according to court documents. Recently out of prison after serving a three-year sentence for sexually assaulting a local boy — the attack also occurred near Flower Creek — Hornback had moved in with a couple on Dakota Avenue.

Hornback’s alibi fell apart and evidence emerged that he had been near Flower Creek the day of VanLuchene’s disappearance.

The boy was in a thicket of brush east of the creek. Investigators later determined he died from a savage blow to the head.

Authorities documented scrapes and bruises on his chest, arms and knees. Strangulation marks were found on his neck. There was evidence of sexual abuse.

Hornback was arrested that night. Hair found on the victim was later matched to Hornback and soil samples taken from his clothes closely resembled that near the crime scene.

Hornback faced the death penalty and opted to enter an Alford plea, in which he maintained his innocence, but acknowledged the weight of the evidence against him.

In exchange, prosecutors dropped kidnapping and deviate sexual conduct charges. Hornback eventually was sentenced to two 100-year sentences on counts of deliberate homicide and being a persistent felony offender. He was not to become eligible for parole until after spending 35 years — 17-and-a-half years for each charge — behind bars.

In 2019, Hornback tried to get out of the plea deal, filing a motion where he claimed to have agreed to it under duress in 1988. He also cited new evidence and expert analysis that would help his defense.

But Judge John W. Larson, in a Dec. 3, 2019 ruling, resentenced Hornback to 100 years in Montana State Prison, putting aside the persistent felony offender charge. Larson required Hornback to stick to the original terms of his plea agreement, meaning he would not be up for parole until after 35 years behind bars.

Hornback’s time in custody has been anything but quiet.

According to an Associated Press story, he was severely beaten in an infamous riot on Sept. 22, 1991, at the Montana State Prison. Hornback was quoted extensively in the story that detailed how the riot began and the way some of the inmates were killed by fellow inmates.

Weber said she would have been fine with Hornback not surviving his assault in the riot.

“Afterward, he gave state’s evidence about the murders in the riot,” Weber said. “He then changed his name and was moved to different prisons.”

An online search of the Montana Department of Corrections Offender Search does not show Hornback, or the name of Sabastian Alsip Canon, a moniker Hornback used in court filings, to be in the Deer Lodge facility.

A review of the state Board of Pardons and Parole Pre Board hearings list does not indicate Hornback is scheduled for a hearing.

Officials at the Montana State Prison did confirm his parole hearing at 9 a.m. on Nov. 30.

Weber said Hornback is indeed locked up in Deer Lodge. She said she and other family members will be able to see him on video, but they won’t be in the same room with him.

Weber said Hornback was nearly released from a prison in South Dakota because of some confusion over his name.

Lincoln County court documents indicate Hornback, AKA Sabastian Canon, filed a motion to appeal on Nov. 6, 2001, while residing at the Ed Dorado Correctional Facility in Kansas.

Then, in an order dated Oct. 1, 2010, by then-District Judge Michael Prezeau which denied post conviction relief for Hornback/Canon, the convict’s address was listed as the Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas.

Then, Hornback wrote in a letter to the Lincoln County Clerk of Court on Nov. 7, 2010, that he had been held in the Dawson County Correctional Facility in Glendive, Montana, before being moved to the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

“I told the people at the Montana State Prison they were not supposed to move him without telling us,” Weber said.

It is not known when Hornback was returned to Deer Lodge.

Despite the unimaginable tragedy, Weber said she is glad she is alive.

“He’s gonna have to deal with me for a few more years.”

photo

Robert George Hornback, left, March 9, 1988. (June McMahon/The Western News)