Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Couple's slaying is still unsolved; Brazilian suspect freed; children live in Spanish Fork

Family members gather at graveside service for Todd and Michelle Staheli in Spanish Fork last year.[Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News] reports:

A year has passed since a Utah couple was brutally bludgeoned to death in their posh Rio de Janeiro condominium, and the prime suspect in the case remains free.

Todd Staheli, 39, and his wife, Michelle, 36, of Spanish Fork, were killed on Nov. 30 of last year as they slept in their high-security home, according to Brazilian police authorities.

In April, a 20-year-old handyman confessed to using a crowbar to commit the grisly murders, but the next day he recanted the confession, saying two other Brazilians committed the crime after he let them in.

The handyman, Jociel Conceicao dos Santos, lived with the Stahelis' neighbor. He was arrested in April after allegedly trying to break into another condominium in the complex where the Stahelis lived.

Dos Santos said he killed the couple because Staheli, an executive with Shell Oil, had called him a racial slur. But after relatives said Todd Staheli didn't even speak Portuguese, Dos Santos recanted his confession. He was placed in Brazil's witness protection program.

A few weeks later, police again identified Dos Santos as the prime suspect, saying DNA from blood found on his shorts and backpack matched that of the Stahelis. Dos Santos said the DNA evidence had been planted and that he had confessed because police had pressured him to.

A judge refused a prosecutor's request to keep Dos Santos behind bars and instead ordered psychological tests.

The Staheli family in Utah has been skeptical that Dos Santos had anything to do with the murder.

"It would be nice if they found out who did it," said Todd Staheli's uncle, Elias Staheli. "But I don't think they ever will."

The murder has generated intense media attention and speculation in Brazil. Some still wonder if Staheli was killed because of his position as an oil executive with Shell. There were rumors the Stahelis had received threatening phone calls related to an international oil pipeline.

But Shell officials say they were never alerted of any threats. Before moving to Brazil, Staheli had worked for Shell in London, Switzerland, Ukraine and Saudi Arabia.

Initially, investigators thought the couple was murdered during a botched robbery attempt, but little was taken from the house. Even a $15,000 gold Rolex was left sitting on the nightstand near the couple's bed.

Elias Staheli said the family is trying to move on. He said his brother, Todd's father, was relieved to leave Brazil with the couple's four children, ages 3 to 13. The grandparents have custody of the children and live with them in Spanish Fork.

"I don't think my brother dwells on it too much. He doesn't want to go on with resentment in his life," he said.