Investigation Into Death of Shell Exec. Continues

Investigation Into Death of Shell Exec. Continues

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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) -- A 20-year-old handyman's recanted confession in the bludgeoning of an American Shell Oil executive and his wife is just the latest twist in a bizarre murder mystery that drew international attention.

The Nov. 30 death of Todd Staheli, a 39-year-old oil executive from Spanish Fork, Utah, and his wife Michelle, 36, has stumped police for months.

The case seemed to get it's first big break Thursday when Jociel Conceicao dos Santos' confessed to everything. But only a day later, dos Santos retracted his confession and Rio police seemed to be back at square one.

The killing has fascinated many in this violence-prone city not so much because a young successful American couple had been brutally killed, but rather for where the slaying took place.

The Staheli's were killed in their bedroom in a high-security gated community -- the kind of place favored by wealthy residents seeking to protect themselves in a city with one of the world's highest murder rates.

There were no signs of forced entry and the killers managed to foil the compound's guards, alarms and video cameras which failed to record anyone entering or leaving the house.

The couple's four children, ranging from 3 to 13, slept through it all and reported hearing no sounds of struggle or attack.

Nothing was robbed and authorities could only describe the murder weapon as a sharp object but not a knife.

"The crime is very strange and very complex," state security secretary Anthony Garotinho said shortly after the attack. "Nobody could have entered the house unless there was a mechanical failure or someone helped from inside the house."

Garotinho -- a former radio host who went on to be Rio's governor before running for president in 2002 -- quickly associated himself with the investigation into the high-profile killing.

When Rio police could provide no meaningful leads in the case, Garotinho appeared on TV displaying a small antique-looking hatchet he said had been found in the room of the oldest daughter.

An investigating judge heard the testimony of the couples two oldest children, a 13-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy, and ordered them to remain in the country until the investigation was completed.

But Garotinho's suggestion that the children were behind the killing left many here appalled and when tests failed to turn up traces of blood on the hatchet the children were allowed to return to Utah.

When DNA tests failed to link the family's driver and a security guard to a skin sample collected from beneath the fingernail of Michelle Staheli police admitted they had no other suspects.

Garotinho claimed police were pursuing 14 separate lines of investigation -- one of them being that Staheli was killed in a contract hit for something he had done while working for Shell -- but to many here the case appeared stalled.

Then on Thursday a neighbor's handyman was caught trying to rob another house in the same complex.

Shortly after being arrested dos Santos confessed to killing Staheli and his wife, claiming he was avenging a racial slur.

Santos repeated his confession at hastily arranged press conference presided over by Garotinho, who conducted the event as if it were an afternoon talk show.

"It was me, yes sir, I did it with this weapon. A crowbar," dos Santos said after Garotinho asked him if he was responsible.

The news conference, with the suspect present and freely answering questions, was odd even by Brazilian standards of justice.

Hours later, a judge refused to charge dos Santos with the crime, saying the state lacked evidence -- his confession had no weight since it was made without a lawyer present.

The alleged murder weapon and the clothing dos Santos said he was wearing when he committed the crime hadn't even been tested for blood or DNA -- not particularly surprising, in a city where the police are better known for eliciting confessions than for forensic investigation.

But there was one more twist.

Upon being ordered freed, authorities said, dos Santos changed his testimony claiming he had received 40,000 reals (US $13,800) to help two men carry out the slayings.

Police quickly reclassified dos Santos as a key witness, rather than as the main suspect, and sent him into the state's witness protection program.

"They can't keep him under watch as a prisoner, but they can keep him under watch as a witness," said Joao Mestieri, who had represented the Staheli children.

"The government is in a complicated position now because it was in a hurry to reveal the killer. Worse still, it could contaminate the investigation, the hypothesis that this guy had something to do with the murder," Mestieri added.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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