Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Daniel Hostetler

Other Kentucky exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Kentucky_seal.png
In the early morning hours of January 26, 2012, 19-year-old Brandon Crain walked out of his home in Munfordville, Kentucky, leaving behind his cell phone and wallet. He was reported missing later that day.

Crain’s mother said Crain was depressed and suicidal. According to his sister, Crain had shot himself in the leg two weeks prior to his disappearance. He often was bullied because he was perceived as being gay.

A Hart County sheriff’s deputy obtained a video recording from a Marathon gasoline station in Munfordville located near the Green River. The video showed a limping man walking toward the U.S. Route 31W Bridge over the river.

Despite massive search efforts, including dredging 22 miles of the nearby Green River as well as searches on foot, boat and helicopter, Crain was not found until four months later.

On April 29, 2012, a fisherman found Crain’s skeletal remains in the Green River in Butler County, more than 50 miles away. Following an autopsy, a medical examiner determined there were no marks of violence and that death was likely the result of asphyxia due to drowning.

A year later, on April 20, 2013, police arrested 19-year-old Daniel Hostetler and charged him with first-degree manslaughter and tampering with evidence. Police said Hostetler confessed to killing Crain.

Hostetler had been born into an Amish community in Flemingsburg, Kentucky, about 175 miles northwest of Munfordville. In August 2011, Hostetler left the Amish community pursuant to “Rumspringa,” an Amish rite of passage in which teenagers are allowed to live in the non-Amish world before deciding whether to be baptized into the faith. He moved to south-central Kentucky to the small town of Summer Shade, located about 40 miles southwest of Munfordville.

In February 2013, after Hostetler’s online relationship with a girl from Kansas ended, his older brother, Jake, began calling Daniel to check on him. During three phone calls, Daniel talked about having killed someone. Jake later told his Amish bishop that Daniel said he had killed someone during a boxing match at a home in Glasgow, Kentucky, and that he panicked and put the body in some water. Jake considered Daniel to be “a liar,” but went to the bishop because he worried that Daniel was suicidal and needed help.

The bishop called Flemingsburg police officer Josh Plank who interviewed Jake. Plank then conducted computer searches and discovered that Crain had gone missing in January 2012, when Daniel was still on his Rumspringa. Plank contacted Kentucky state police, who informed him that Crain had committed suicide.

Undeterred, Plank contacted a former police academy colleague, Paul Reynolds, who was a sheriff’s deputy in Hart County, where Crain had gone missing. Reynolds passed along the information to Hart County sheriff’s detective Jeff Wilson.

Hostetler agreed to be interviewed by Wilson. After several hours, Wilson said, Hostetler confessed to killing Crain. Hostetler said that someone named Joey Johnson told him to pick up Crain at a Dollar Store in Mundfordville and take him wherever he wanted to go.

Hostetler said was driving his Mustang when he picked up Crain, and they drove to a wooded area where Crain wanted them to take some drugs together. Hostetler said he refused and Crain—whose name Hostetler did not know—hit him in the arm. When Crain refused Hostetler’s request to stop, Hostetler struck him once in the neck.

Hostetler “said that he must have hit just right, because he immediately collapsed,” Wilson wrote in his report. Hostetler “said he spent about twenty minutes trying to wake the boy up, but could not do so.” As a result, Hostetler said, he put the body in his trunk and drove to a boat dock where he placed the body in the water and watched it float away. Wilson said he showed Hostetler a photograph of Crain and he identified him as the person he struck.

Wilson said that Hostetler then accompanied him and another officer in a car and directed them to a pull-off along Old Cut Road, where he said he and Crain pulled off and where the altercation occurred. When asked what he did with Crain’s glasses, Hostetler first said he left them in the car, but then said they were in Crain’s shirt pocket. Because the fact that Crain’s glasses were still in his shirt pocket when his body was found had not been disclosed publicly, the police believed this was a fact only the killer would know.

Wilson said that Hostetler, after first directing the car to drive past the entrance to Thelma Stovall Park in Munfordville, told the officers to turn around and pointed them to a boat dock in the park. He said that he got scared because he didn’t mean to kill Crain, so he put the body into the water at the boat dock.

On August 20, 2013, Hostetler accepted an offer from the prosecution to plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter and tampering with physical evidence. Seven days later, Hostetler, acting without a lawyer, filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea. He contended that his defense lawyer, Crystal Thompson, coerced him to plead guilty by telling him that if he didn’t, he would be charged with “an even more heinous crime of murder.”

The court appointed Hostetler another lawyer and held a hearing in September 2013. Thompson testified that she did tell Hostetler that there was a “possibility” of a murder charge. She said she thought it was in his best interest to take the plea offer, but that it was his decision in the end.

The judge found Hostetler’s testimony not credible and denied the motion to withdraw his plea. He then sentenced Hosteler to 13 years in prison.

In April 2014, Hostetler filed another motion asking for appointment of a lawyer to file a motion to withdraw his plea because Thompson failed to investigate his case. Ultimately, the Kentucky Department of Advocacy and lawyers with the Kentucky Innocence Project, Ryan Chailland and Aaron Baker, began investigating the case.

An evidentiary hearing was held over several dates beginning in March 2016. At the hearing, the defense introduced records showing that Hostetler did not own a Mustang car at the time of the crime as his confession stated. In fact, he signed a title transfer on June 1, 2012—more than four months after Crain disappeared.

Hostetler testified that he returned home to Flemingsburg in early January 2012 and did not leave until January 29, 2012—after Crain disappeared.

Hostetler’s original lawyer, Crystal Thompson, testified that she tried to call Joey Thompson, but the phone number that Hostetler gave her was not working. She testified that just before a pretrial hearing, Hostetler—after maintaining for weeks that he killed Crain accidentally—denied killing Crain. However, a few days later, Hostetler said he killed Crain after Crain made a homosexual advance, but Hostetler demanded that Thompson not reveal that in court.

Johnson—the man that Hostetler claimed in his confession that told him to pick up Crain—testified that he knew Hostetler, but they did not meet until months after Crain disappeared. Johnson said he never met Crain and he never told Hostetler to pick up Crain.

The defense also presented the diary of Hostetler’s sister-in-law, which had an entry on January 17, 2012, that said, “Dan is home.” The entry on January 31, 2012, said, “Dan left again.” The entries suggested that Hostetler was in Flemingsburg at the time that Crain went missing—more than three hours away from Mundfordville. Thompson testified that she never was informed of the existence of the diary.

The defense presented evidence that the video showing the limping man walking toward the Green River was never disclosed by the prosecution. The video had been described by the prosecution to Thompson prior to his guilty plea, but at that time, even Crain’s sister was not sure it was her brother in the video. However, by the time of the evidentiary hearing, the video had been turned over to the defense. Numerous witnesses concluded the video depicted Crain.

Hostetler testified that on the day police interviewed him, he had taken Suboxone, drank alcohol, and smoked marijuana. He said he had no memory of the confession. He said he made up the story because he didn’t want to return home from Rumspringa. Hostetler’s mother testified that Hostetler was in Flemingsburg between January 17 and January 29, 2012, and that he had no car.

In April 2017, Hart County Circuit Court Judge Charles Simms granted the motion for a new trial. Judge Simms denied relief on the claim that Thompson had provided an inadequate legal defense, but granted the motion based on the failure of the prosecution to disclose the video. The judge noted that Hostetler’s statements to police and to Thompson were “contradictory and portions are completely false.”

The prosecution appealed and in May 2018, the Commonwealth of Kentucky Court of Appeals reversed Judge Simms and reinstated Hostetler’s convictions. The Court noted that the prosecution had advised Hostetler and his lawyer of the existence of the video and that more importantly, the prosecution had no obligation to disclose the video prior to Hostetler entering a guilty plea.

On December 5, 2019, in response to a request filed by Chailland and Baker, Hostetler’s defense attorneys, outgoing Kentucky Governor Matt Bevins granted Hostetler an unconditional pardon and Hostetler was released.

Bevin said Hostetler had not been “well-served by the sloppy and unjust prosecution and defense of his case. I am sickened, saddened and outraged at the multiple degrees of incompetence displayed by many individuals during their multiple efforts to incarcerate a simple man for a crime that zero evidence shows he committed. There is, however, much evidence and testimony to the contrary.”

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 1/2/2020
State:Kentucky
County:Hart
Most Serious Crime:Manslaughter
Additional Convictions:Other Nonviolent Felony
Reported Crime Date:2012
Convicted:2013
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:13 years
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No