MONTICELLO — Gregory Houser, the estranged husband convicted July 13 of raping and murdering his wife 27 years ago, was sentenced to 55 years in prison on Wednesday.
Just before imposing the sentence at the Piatt County Courthouse, Judge Karle Koritz told Houser that he had robbed his three children of their relationship with their mother and had “essentially robbed them of their childhood.” While the judge noted that Houser maintained his innocence, he also said he had to consider the fact that he showed no regret or remorse at his wife's death.
Houser, 57, was convicted after an eight-day jury trial. He has maintained his innocence since the nightgown-clad body of his 29-year-old wife, Sheryl Houser, was found partially suspended from the garage roof of their rural Mahomet home on Oct. 5, 1990.
The Carle Foundation Hospital nurse, who was choked to death, had been discovered by her then 6-year-old son. Her son had told worried co-workers calling on the phone, “I can't wake her up.”
Gregory Houser's attorneys Kevin Sanborn and Todd Ringel mounted a vigorous defense during the trial and kept insisting prosecutors had no solid evidence and the real killer was still roaming free. But it took the 12-strong jury less then three hours of deliberation before returning with the guilty verdict.
Sanborn released a statement after the sentencing: "Greg is innocent, and our fight is not over. Our client intends to appeal, and we're looking forward to the appellate court hearing this case."
But for Sheryl Houser's family Wednesday, there was a profound sense of relief, and a feeling justice had been done after a nearly 30-year wait. Lisa Stoughtenborough, one of Sheryl Houser's three sisters, said in reaction to the sentence: "We have so many emotions right now, however, we are thankful that this enormous weight has been lifted from our shoulders."
She had read a victim impact statement to the court on behalf of her sisters calling for Gregory Houser to be given a sentence that left him to die in prison. Her parents, Victor and Phyllis Fehr, had done the same in their impact statement, read by a weeping Phyllis Fehr. She had sat next to a large picture of Sheryl Houser's pretty young granddaughter, a child she would never know in this life.
“There were moments after her death and again during the trial that I thought I might die from my pain and sorrow over the brutal death of my daughter and the pain it has caused us,” Phyllis Fehr told the judge.
“And to think that the person who did this to her — Greg said he loved her, he married her, and is the father of her three boys ... Perhaps she didn't mean anything to him but she certainly meant a lot to us, her boys, her sisters and all her friends and family.”
The Fehrs said they spent years and thousands of dollars winning custody of the children, kids they said were terrified of mandated custody visits with their father. “But there was no way we were going to allow these three precious little boys to be raised by Greg — the person who had tortured and finally killed their mother,” Phyllis Fehr added.
Other witnesses Wednesday included several girlfriends and a woman Gregory Houser had been married to after Sheryl Houser's death, who all described him as a mixture of cruel, spiteful and violent.
That had been the picture of Houser jurors clearly believed after it was painted for them during the trial by prosecutors. They had portrayed Houser as a calculating thug who made his wife's life a living hell.
Sheryl Houser's murder had been the culmination of a rising tide of sexual and physical abuse, prosecutors said, as her husband became more and more enraged by her efforts to become independent of him and seek a divorce.
“Can you imagine how, after all those years of being married to a submissive woman, how angry this would make the defendant?” special prosecutor Tammara Wagoner had asked the jury during the trial.
The prosecution said Houser had tried to stage his wife's murder to look like a suicide and the cause of her death had originally been ruled as “undetermined” by a coroner's jury. But that verdict was changed to homicide after a new coroner's jury was convened in 2016, and murder charges against Houser quickly followed.
In 1991 he had been tried on charges of sexual assault and was acquitted by a jury.