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Dawn Houck had a problem: The woman she was in love with was having a baby with Chris Rotenberger. Houck turned to bloody means to get rid of that problem.
Christopher Wayne Rotenberger was born in 1991 and raised in Pinellas County, Florida, across the bay from Tampa.
“He came out of his shell as he got older. Never was in trouble. Very, very book smart. Just a great kid all around. Everybody that met him, liked him,” family friend Elissha Kreiter told “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
During his junior year of high school, Rotenberger began dating Stephanie Dalrymple. They broke up while still in high school but rekindled their romance in their early 20s. Rotenberger inherited his grandparents’ home following their deaths and lived there with friends, including Dalrymple.
But the pressures of adulthood put a strain on Rotenberger and Dalrymple’s relationship. Both were trapped in dead end jobs, him as a dishwasher and her at a McDonald's. In August 2015, Rotenberger and Dalrymple had a major blowout. In the middle of the night she called her friend Dawn Houck, asked for a ride, and left.
Dalrymple moved back home with her parents but she and Rotenberger continued to see each other off and on. In October 2015, Dalrymple learned she was pregnant with Rotenberger’s child and the couple decided to give their relationship another try.
“They wanted the best life for their child. Chris’ dad wasn’t in the picture and that was something he was real big on. He wanted to be there all the time as a daddy,” Kreiter told producers.
But Rotenberger's dreams of fatherhood never materialized. On the morning of November 11, 2015, deputies responded to reports of a dead body in the yard of a home in unincorporated Seminole, Florida, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
“The victim was a young male in his early 20s,” Pinellas County Sheriff's Lieutenant Jonathan Tobeck told producers. “He had an apparent gunshot wound to the right side of his head.”
As sheriff’s deputies converged on the crime scene, the residents of the home emerged from inside. They identified the victim as 24-year-old Christopher Rotenberger.
The crime scene revealed little. There were no shell casings, footprints, or tire tracks: just the body of a young man cut down in the prime of his life.
“I saw nothing from my trained experience that led me to believe there was a struggle or any kind of fight,” Tobeck said.
Police interviewed Rotenberger’s roommates. Living with him at the time was his friend Ali Kreiter, her boyfriend, Jordan, her brother Aaron, and their father, Christian.
Kreiter told detectives Rotenberger got home from work around 3 that morning. He spoke to Jordan briefly before going out front to chew some tobacco. She said she heard a loud bang outside around 3:30 a.m. She assumed it was one of the dogs roughhousing.
While detectives were interviewing Rotenberger’s roommates, they learned that Dalrymple was at his house in hysterics. Due to her pregnancy, she was taken to a local hospital. Her mother, however, suggested a possible suspect to police.
“Stephanie’s mother told me on the scene that Stephanie had developed a friendship with a female manager at the McDonald’s where she worked and that the manager had become possessive of Stephanie,” Tobeck told producers.
The manager was Priscilla Dawn Houck. Born in 1978, Houck was 14 years Dalrymple’s senior. She carried with her the scars of myriad failed relationships.
“Dawn has unfortunately had terrible luck when it came to romance and being in love,” friend Matthew Cleary told producers. “A lot of the women she dated would claim that she was getting a little clingy.”
While the women in her life found her clingy, others say she was loyal and always looked out for her friends.
“Dawn was very protective of anyone that she was close with. She was the kind of person that would put herself in front of harm to prevent harm from happening to other people,” Cleary said.
Dalrymple’s mother said her daughter’s relationship with Houck had recently become more than just friends. Once she was cleared by doctors, Stephanie agreed to talk to detectives.
Dalrymple told detectives someone had recently been sending her harassing text messages. The text messages were trying to drive a wedge between her and Rotenberger.
“It was right after I found out I was pregnant. This number texted me saying, ‘Look here you stupid, fat ****, you need to leave Chris alone. He’s mine now ... you’re just trying to trap him,” Dalrymple is seen telling detectives in her videotaped interview, which was obtained by “Snapped.”
When asked about Houck, Dalrymple said they had been intimate but that it wasn’t “an actual relationship.” She had broken it off because she felt Houck was getting too serious too fast.
Houck told Dalrymple she was in love with her and said that she didn’t like Rotenberger.
“She sent him a message on Facebook ... basically to leave me and her alone,” said Dalrymple.
Detectives interviewed Houck, who downplayed her relationship with Dalrymple and said she always knew she would end up with Rotenberger. She claimed on the night of the murder she watched a movie, then went for a drive.
Police were granted access to Houck and Dalrymple’s cellphone. In reviewing text messages between them, it became apparent the older woman was infatuated with the younger.
“There was a tremendous amount of text activity from Dawn directed to Stephanie, like, over a thousand [messages],” assistant prosecutor Richard Ripplinger told “Snapped.”
“My feelings for you are pretty overwhelming sometimes,” Houck texted Dalrymple two months before Rotenberger’s murder. “There are times I really can’t get you off my mind,” read another.
Houck had purchased tickets for her and Dalrymple to share a cabin on a cruise together in November 2015. A week before they were to leave, however, Dalrymple broke the news that she was pregnant and couldn’t go.
“That hurts a lot,” Houck replied via text message.
And while lovelorn text messages didn’t necessarily suggest murder, Houck's search history told another story.
“I found that she had searched internet ads for approximately 10 hours on Nov. 6, 2015, for firearms,” says Jonathan Tobeck. “She had also searched for ‘how to buy a gun without a background check’ and ‘cheap guns for sale.’”
In Feb. 2016, investigators subpoenaed Houck’s bank records, and found she had bought a burner phone. They traced that phone as the one that had sent the threatening text messages to Dalrymple.
Though the circumstantial evidence against Houck was substantial, it still wasn’t enough to obtain an arrest warrant. In February 2017, however, they found vague text messages which suggested the purchase of a firearm from a co-worker named La’teik Samuels.
Text messages between Houck and Samuels referred to a meeting on Nov. 9, 2015. That same day, Houck withdrew $200 from her bank account, rented a car, and purchased binoculars, vinyl gloves, and a black hoodie.
Samuels was interviewed on March 1, 2017.
“La’teik tells detectives at that time that Dawn had approached him about buying a firearm,” Tobeck told producers. “He said that he ultimately obtained a firearm and sold it to her for $200 in cash.”
When Samuels asked what she needed a gun for, Houck replied, “It’s just protection.”
Samuels was asked to wear a wire and get Houck to talk about the gun she purchased from him. When asked where it was, Houck replied, “It’s gone,” on recordings obtained by “Snapped.”
Dawn Houck, 38, was arrested on March 2, 2017, and charged with first-degree murder, according to Tampa Bay Fox-affiliate WTVT.
In December 2018, a jury found Priscilla Dawn Houck guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of Christopher Rotenberger. She was subsequently sentenced to life in prison.
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