A convicted child killer whose crime shocked Libby nearly 40 years ago is seeking parole.
Robert George Hornback, 58, is a name longtime Libby residents would prefer to forget. He was found guilty of the brutal killing of 8-year-old Ryan VanLuchene on August 31, 1987.
But the criminal will appear before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole at Deer Lodge on Wednesday, November 30 to seek his release.
VanLuchene’s mother, 75-year-old Jane Weber, is working to keep her son’s killer in custody.
“I know he would do it again,” Weber said in a recent phone interview with The Western News.
The paper published a letter from Weber in its November 11 issue. In it, she asked for help from the community to keep Hornback locked up. For those wishing to write to the Board, its address is Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, 1002 Hollenbeck Lane, Deer Lodge, MT 59722.
Although Weber no longer lived in Libby shortly after her son’s murder, she still has fond memories of the community.
“This little town has been so good to us,” Weber said. “There was so much support from the people there. I hate that Libby framed this.”
The family had moved to Libby from Conrad after Weber accepted a position at St. John’s Lutheran Hospital, now known as Cabinet Peaks Medical Center.
“I put money and a house down and we really liked it here,” Weber said.
On August 31, 1987, Ryan left home with his dog and a net to catch minnows in nearby Flower Creek. At around 2:30 p.m., the dog returned home alone.
By early evening, Lincoln County Search and Rescue had teamed up with volunteers to locate the missing boy. They found Van Luchene’s body around 8 p.m
Suspicion quickly fell on Hornback, according to court documents. Recently released from prison after serving a three-year sentence for sexually assaulting a local boy — the attack also happened near Flower Creek — Hornback had moved in with a couple on Dakota Avenue.
Hornback’s alibi fell apart and evidence surfaced that he had been near Flower Creek on the day of Van Luchene’s disappearance.
The boy was in a thicket east of the creek. Investigators later determined that he died from a brutal 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 clothing closely resembled those found near the crime scene.
Hornback faced the death penalty and opted for an Alford plea, in which he maintained his innocence but acknowledged the weight of the evidence against him.
In exchange, prosecutors dropped the charges of kidnapping and deviant sexual conduct. Hornback was eventually sentenced to two 100-year terms for premeditated homicide and persistent offenses. He was only due to be paroled after spending 35 years – 17.5 years for each charge – behind bars.
In 2019, Hornback attempted to opt out of the plea deal, filing a motion claiming he 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, re-sentenced Hornback to 100 years in Montana State Penitentiary and dismissed the charge of continuing felonies. Larson urged Hornback to stick to the original terms of his settlement, which meant he would only face parole after 35 years behind bars.
Hornback’s incarceration was anything but smooth.
According to an Associated Press report, on September 22, 1991, he was severely beaten during an infamous riot at the Montana State Penitentiary. Hornback was quoted extensively in the story, which detailed how the riot began and how some of the inmates were killed by fellow inmates.
Weber said she would have been fine if Hornback had not survived his attack in the riot.
“After that he made statements to the state about the murders in the uprising,” Weber said. “Then he changed his name and was transferred to different prisons.”
An online search by the Montana Department of Corrections Offender Search does not reveal Hornback or the name of Sabastian Alsip Canon, a Hornback nickname used in court records, to be at the Deer Lodge facility.
A review of the State Board of Pardons and Parole Pre Board hearing list does not indicate that Hornback is scheduled for a hearing.
Montana State Penitentiary officials did not respond to multiple inquiries about his status.
But Weber said Hornback was actually locked up at Deer Lodge. She said she and other family members could see him on video but they would not be in the same room with him.
Weber said Hornback was nearly released from a South Dakota jail over some confusion over his name.
Lincoln County court documents show that Hornback, aka Sabastian Canon, filed an appeal on November 6, 2001 while he was a resident at Ed Dorado Correctional Facility in Kansas.
Then, in an October 1, 2010 order by then District Judge Michael Prezeau denying Hornback/Canon’s post-conviction exoneration, the convict’s address was listed as Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas.
Then, on November 7, 2010, Hornback wrote in a letter to the Lincoln County Court Clerk that he was being held at the Dawson County Correctional Facility in Glendive, Montana, before being transferred to the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
“I told the people at Montana State Prison not to take him out without telling us,” Weber said.
It is not known when Hornback was returned to Deer Lodge.
Despite the unimaginable tragedy, Weber said she’s glad she’s alive.
“He’s going to have to deal with me for a few more years.”