The way detectives see it, Dr. Kenneth C. Stahl was a man who became snared in a deadly double-double cross.
For months, they said, he had meticulously planned the murder of his wife.
He left no detail to chance, from the romantic dinner to the impromptu ride later that night along a remote stretch of Ortega Highway, where two hired killers were supposed to meet the couple and carry out the hit.
But something went wrong.
Orange County sheriff’s officials, outlining their case Tuesday, said the hit men ended up killing not just Stahl’s wife, Carolyn Oppy-Stahl, a 44-year-old optometrist, but also turned their handgun on the doctor himself.
For more than a year, the case had baffled detectives, who were left with very little physical evidence from the desolate crime scene and no apparent motive for anyone to kill the popular Huntington Beach couple. Both were found shot execution-style, with the car’s headlights on, engine idling and transmission in park.
But in the last few weeks, detectives said, they finally began unraveling details of the mystery. Checking Kenneth Stahl’s cell phone records, detectives said, they determined that he had been carrying on a protracted love affair with a 33-year-old Anaheim woman, Adriana Vasco.
That led them to an unexpected conclusion: that Vasco and her other boyfriend had murdered the couple after receiving about $30,000 from Stahl for carrying out the hit.
Vasco and the boyfriend, Dennis Earl Godley, were charged this week with murdering the couple. In addition, they face three special circumstance allegations--multiple murder, killing for financial gain and lying in wait--that make them subject to the death penalty.
Vasco and Godley could not be reached for comment. Vasco is in Los Angeles County Jail and Godley is being held in Virginia.
Stahl’s family issued a brief statement through the Sheriff’s Department saying they are “devastated with the revelation of these allegations.”
Detectives said they believe Godley was the triggerman but are unsure why Stahl was killed. Sources familiar with the probe said investigators are examining a number of theories, including the possibility that Godley was jealous of the doctor’s relationship with Vasco, wanted to eliminate all witnesses to the killing or simply panicked.
The case took detectives from hospital corridors of Orange County to a small town in North Carolina, where Godley allegedly fled after the murder.
“It’s a tale of intrigue, a tale of murder,” said Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona. “But most importantly, it’s a tale of some outstanding police work, some outstanding detective work.”
Kenneth Stahl and Carolyn Oppy met at a doctor’s lounge in the Pico Rivera hospital where he worked as an anesthesiologist, said her younger sister, Linda Dubay.
Both had been married before--he twice, her once--and seemed eager to tie the knot again. At first, they enjoyed a loving relationship, Dubay said.
Throughout their 14-year marriage, the two doctors were something of a power couple. Stahl even served on a state medical board. But behind their professional image was a fast-fading romance, and the strain intensified when Oppy-Stahl discovered her husband had had affairs, Dubay said.
“It saddened Carolyn,” Dubay said. “At one point, she talked about getting a divorce. But Ken’s mom encouraged them to go and get marriage counseling. That was four or five years ago.”
Oppy-Stahl remained hopeful to the end that the marriage would improve, family members said. By this time, though, Stahl was looking around for someone to murder his wife, authorities said.
Detectives say they are still unsure of his motive. The doctor had no financial incentive to kill his wife, given that the couple had signed a prenuptial agreement, they said. Why didn’t he just file for divorce?
With murder on his mind, Stahl eventually turned to his girlfriend, Vasco, hospital receptionist, to get the plot off the ground, investigators said. “He found the right person,” said Orange County sheriff’s Capt. Steve Carroll.
According to investigators, Vasco then asked her other boyfriend, Godley, for help in planning the attack. Godley had not lived in the area long, arriving in Orange County only a few months earlier from North Carolina, where he was wanted on robbery charges.
On Nov. 20, 1999, Stahl and his wife planned to celebrate her 44th birthday. Oppy-Stahl told her mother during a telephone conversation that day that her husband was planning a surprise for her, family members said.
The couple ate at a Mission Viejo restaurant before their death.
After dinner, they headed east along Ortega Highway. Stahl, who was at the wheel, pulled his wife’s 1996 Dodge Stratus to the side of the road in a desolate spot two miles east of Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park. An emergency call box stood just feet away.
Stahl “pulled over, knowing that the other two--Vasco and Godley--are going to go up and shoot her,” said Carroll. “He’s not expecting to get killed.”
The killers stopped their car across the highway from the Dodge, and both Stahl and his wife were shot more than once in the head with a handgun, sheriff’s officials said. There were no shell casings left at the scene, they said.
Around 10:30 p.m., a security guard found the couple’s car. Forensic experts estimate that the couple had been dead for up to 90 minutes.
Detectives found no witnesses, no sign of a struggle, only a shattered driver-side window. The case was at a standstill. Then new investigators took over the case earlier this year.
Their examination of Stahl’s cellular phone records led them to Vasco. From there, interviews led them to Godley and their theory of the case. But detectives Tuesday declined to elaborate on the evidence they have.
They’re still trying to determine who else knew about the murders and whether anyone else played an active role in the plot or helped cover it up, said sheriff’s officials. And they’re still hunting for the gun.