Suspect Who Confessed to Killing Shell Executive Freed

Suspect Who Confessed to Killing Shell Executive Freed

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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) -- A day after confessing he killed Utah couple, a 20-year-old handyman was ordered freed Friday after a judge determined police did not have sufficient proof to detain him.

The handyman, Jociel Conceicao dos Santos, was technically still in police custody Friday night as he was taken after the decision to speak with human rights officials about his confession, a Rio state police spokesman said.

But the judge, Renato Barbosa, said police must free dos Santos because they did not present enough evidence that he used a crowbar to bludgeon the couple Nov. 30 as they slept in their high-security home. Dos Santos worked for a neighbor of the Stahelis.

It was not immediately clear whether dos Santos would be free to leave the state human rights office on his own Friday night or if police would seek some other legal way to keep him in custody.

His calm confession at a news conference after his arrest Thursday raised doubts after he said his motive was to punish Todd Staheli for calling him a racial slur in fluent Portuguese. But Staheli's relatives in the U.S. state of Utah said the executive spoke little or no Portuguese after arriving in Brazil less than four months before the killings.

Earlier Friday, police led dos Santos through a reenactment of the killing of Staheli, 39, and his wife, Michelle, 36, at the luxury condominium complex where they lived with their four children. But people who have been involved with the case said the confession wasn't enough to convince them that dos Santos was the killer.

The confession "is a version that can be consistent with the truth, with a half truth or even with a lie. We'll have to wait for corroborating evidence before we know what happened," said Joao Mestieri, a lawyer who represented the Staheli children immediately after the killings.

Dos Santos was taken into custody early Thursday after allegedly trying to break into another condominium in the complex where the Stahelis lived. He then confessed to the killings and led police to the murder weapon, a rusty crowbar, and to the clothing he says he wore during the crime -- but the items had not been tested Friday for evidence, such as blood traces.

Dos Santos could also be linked to the crime if his DNA matches traces of skin found beneath Michelle Staheli's fingernails, although the suspect claims not to have struggled with either of the victims.

Dos Santos, who is black, told reporters at the news conference that he wanted revenge after Staheli calling him "crioulo" -- one the worst racial slurs for Brazilian blacks.

"I didn't want to rob anything. I went to get revenge. I hit him first. I regretted it after the first strike. I was going to leave but she saw me. I hit her and then I hit him again," dos Santos said as he sat next to Rio State Security Secretary Anthony Garotinho at the news conference.

Garotinho said he was convinced that police had arrested the killer and had the murder weapon but was unconvinced by the motive dos Santos offered and that others may have also been involved in the killing.

The FBI, which has been monitoring the case, does not consider the case closed, said Wesley Carrington, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia.

"We understand that this is still an ongoing investigation," he said. "The FBI continues to follow the case and remains in a position to offer continued investigative support if necessary."

A security guard at the complex where the Stahelis said he agreed with many Rio residents that the case probably was a robbery that went bad.

"To me, Jociel went in to rob and ended up killing the couple," Cezar Almeida told reporters gathered Friday outside the gated entrance to the condominum complex. "The racism story is an excuse."

Almeida, who is also black, added that Staheli kept to himself but never uttered any racist slurs.

The arrest of dos Santos also did little to bring closure for the victims' relatives in Utah.

"I just doubt it myself, that the caretaker would do it," said Elias Staheli, Todd Staheli's uncle.

Early in the investigation, Garotinho suggested the murder was carried out with a small toy hatchet that belonged to one of the Staheli children. They were forced to stay after the killings in Brazil for questioning, but then were allowed to leave to live with their grandparents in Spanish Fork, Utah, Todd Staheli's hometown. His wife was a native of Logan, Utah.

Before the arrest of dos Santos, Brazilian authorities also speculated that Todd Staheli may have been targeted in a contract killing because of his work for Shell.

Staheli was vice president for joint ventures in the Southern Cone gas and power unit of Shell. Before transferring to Rio, he worked for Shell in London, the Ukraine, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia.

Shell's spokesman in Brazil, Ricardo David, said the company does not plan to comment on the case unless the police say anything about the oil giant in the course of their investigation.

Although the Rio homicide rate hovers around 50 per 100,000 residents, violence rarely spills into the city's high-security condominiums.

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

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