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Couple Found Dead in Car

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Huntington Beach couple were shot and killed late Saturday night on a desolate stretch of highway east of San Juan Capistrano after an evening out in celebration of the wife’s birthday, authorities and relatives said.

The couple, Dr. Kenneth C. Stahl, 57, an anesthesiologist, and Carolyn Oppy-Stahl, 44, an optometrist, were found slumped upon one another inside their car, just steps from a call box along Ortega Highway, Orange County sheriff’s homicide investigators said. They had been shot numerous times.

Stahl’s mother, Bobbie C. Stahl-Polley, said her daughter-in-law turned 44 Friday and the couple had driven to San Juan Capistrano the following evening to mark the occasion. Sunday, Stahl-Polley struggled to find meaning in the deaths of her daughter-in-law and son, who had survived risky heart surgery just four months earlier.

“The thing that is so devastating is the violent way they died,” said Stahl-Polley, 87, of Newport Beach. “It’s so senseless. I want to see Kenny and hold him once again.”

Deputies were summoned to the scene at 10:32 p.m. by a Mission Viejo Ranch security guard who was on patrol in the area. Sheriff’s officials said the guard found the couple’s 1996 Dodge Stratus with its engine running parked on the shoulder of Ortega Highway about 1 1/2 miles east of the entrance to Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park. The guard saw the window on the driver’s door shattered and called police.

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Stahl-Polley said detectives arrived at her home at 7:15 Sunday morning to tell her the grim news. She said that investigators told her about a possible motive for the attack but asked her not to reveal it. Sheriff’s Lt. Dennis DeMaio said that murder-suicide has been ruled out but refused to comment further.

The Stahls’ car was parked next to a roadside call box on the dirt shoulder of the winding, two-lane highway that connects San Juan Capistrano and Lake Elsinore in Riverside County. Investigators would not say whether the couple had used the call box.

Investigators closed Ortega Highway, the only road in and out of the area, most of Sunday morning while they searched unsuccessfully for a murder weapon, Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Fauchier said.

Autopsies were performed on the bodies Sunday, but authorities did not release any details, including the caliber of the weapon used in the shootings.

On Sunday, Dr. Carl Hartman, Oppy-Stahl’s anguished employer, said the Stahls were “a wonderful and ideal” couple.

“There are some people whom you know in your life who are too perfect to be real, and this is them. I can’t conceive of anybody disliking them,” said Hartman, an owner of the Lakewood Eye Physicians and Surgeons clinic, where Oppy-Stahl had worked for about four years.

Stahl, a California native, graduated in 1968 from the University of Health Sciences, College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kansas City, Mo. In the mid-1980s, he had an Irvine practice specializing in osteopathic medicine and anesthesiology. In June 1985, Gov. George Deukmejian appointed Stahl to a three-year term on the state Board of Osteopathic Examiners.

Bryn Henderson, who served on the board with Stahl, said Stahl was “revered by his peers” for his sound judgment.

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Stahl is also survived by three sisters, an elementary school principal and two teachers, who all live in Orange County. His father, Dr. William C. Stahl, a surgeon who practiced in Pomona, died about 15 years ago. His mother, Stahl-Polley, is a retired registered nurse.

Stahl’s death occurred about four months after he underwent quintuple-bypass heart surgery, which his family did not expect him to survive, his mother said.

“I would’ve accepted it if he hadn’t made it through his eight-hour surgery. I was prepared then to let him go,” she said. “But he survived.”

Family members and neighbors said Stahl was a physical fitness buff who returned to the gym to work himself back into shape after his surgery.

Neighbors at the Pacific Ranch community where the couple lived in Huntington Beach said Stahl had worked at Pacifica Hospital, which closed last November, and still maintains an office in the building. At the time of his death, he was working at local hospital and clinics in Studio City and Newport Beach, his mother said.

Stahl has an adult son from a previous marriage who is going to college in Houston, where he studying occupational medicine, Stahl-Polley said. Oppy-Stahl, a Michigan native, did not have children, she said. The couple had been married 14 years.

The couple’s trilevel townhouse was decorated in an Asian motif that featured Stahl’s collection of antique swords.

“They were very meticulous . . . quiet people,” said Randy Budihas, who rented to the Stahls for about a year before the couple purchased another home in the gated community.

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Budihas and other neighbors said that the Stahls worked long hours, as many as six days per week, and were rarely home. But the couple appeared to enjoy their hectic lifestyles, neighbors said.

“They seemed like they were very happy people,” Carol de la Torre said. “But she worked a lot. I think her life is pretty much devoted to her practice.”

Hartman said Oppy-Stahl was “the best optometrist we ever had” and remembered her as always having a smile.

Stahl-Polley said her daughter-in-law’s family is en route from Michigan, where her father is an executive at Chrysler Corp. and her sister and brother are doctors.

“You couldn’t ask for a better friend and employee. Ken and Carolyn were both incredibly caring people. They would actually cancel their vacations if it would inconvenience anybody at work,” Hartman said.

“I have no idea why they were out there [on the Ortega Highway] last night,” said Marilyn Lord, one of the Stahl’s neighbors. “Their lights were on at the house all night, but I never thought anything of it.”


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