Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Psychological Autopsy for Death Investigation

Jumped, Fell or Pushed?

Linda Stangel, headshot
Linda Stangel, headshot
  

In Portland, Oregon, a young couple went drinking one night in 1995, going about their usual routine.   As featured on Dateline and in several media reports, David Wahl, 27, and Linda Stangel, 23, had met at work, had quickly become inseparable, and had moved in together into his parents home.  Linda and David spent most of their free time drinking.  Our relationship was based on alcohol, she admitted.

On November 12 at 3 in the morning, according to Linda, they decided to drive out to the Oregon coast.  They went first to a town called Seaside and then drove down to Ecola State Park, arriving mid-morning.  This is a rugged area with high cliffsand can be a dangerous place to go walking after a sleepless night of drinking.  More than 300 feet over the ocean, the rocky path has no guardrail. Linda says that while they were sitting in the van, David had decided to take a short walk, saying he would be back in 10 minutes.  He wasnt dressed for much more than that on that brisk morning.  He took a can of beer and left.

She waited in the car.

Ten minutes went by, then 20.   Linda grew more frustrated.  She says that she fell asleep, then woke up and discovered that David still was not back.  She had the car keys, so she decided to just go home.  She had no idea why hed gone off like that, but she was not about to sit there in the cold so she drove back to Portland.

She expected a call on the answering machine, she says, so upon arriving back at their rooms, she checked.   No call.  At about 8 that night she called her sister to tell her what had happened and then called 911.  Now she was getting worried.  David had been missing for seven hours.

Lindas mother understood.   Her own husband, Lindas father, often did such things after drinking, disappearing for days at a time.  She advised Linda to call Davids mother.

Ive lost David, she told them.

The police, volunteers, and Davids family went to the park, searching the entire area extensively, but there was no sign of David.   According to Davids mother, Linda offered no assistance.  It didnt faze me to be worried, she said.  No one could believe that Linda would have just left him there without a coat.  She herself did not think it was that strange.  After a week with no luck, she went to be with her family in Minnesota.  No one expected that David was still alive.  Finally after two weeks, the search was called off.   

A month later, a headless male corpse washed ashore some 60 miles north in Washington State.  In May 1996, a fingerprint and partial jawbone were matched to David Wahl.  His death was declared a suicide, with the assumption that he had gone into the ocean, either from the cliff or from the beach, on a day when it was far too cold to be swimming.

The Wahls were outraged.   They insisted that David would not have done such a thing.  At the very least, he had slipped and fallen by accident, but they believed the manner of his death was more sinister.  They wanted a full investigation.  They asked Linda over and over again what had happened and she stuck to her story.  Yet they still believed she had not told them everything.  They knew, because they had lived with this couple, that Linda and David had been fighting a lot and were considering breaking up.  Davids sister, Debbie, expressed her belief on Dateline that David was going to break up with Linda that night and that Linda might have pushed him off the cliff to his death.

But Linda had left the state, so she was out of reach of the police.   When theyd first questioned her, she had taken and had passed a polygraph, so they had not charged her with anything.  Now the Clatsop County DAs office wanted to get her back, so they lured her in July with the premise of a memorial service for David.  Linda returned to Oregon, never suspecting a thing.

Two detectives came to see her, and they took her back to the park, now eight months after the incident, and asked her to help them reconstruct the events of that day.   They had her climb the 340-foot high cliff with them, urging her to tell them what had happened.  According to the report on Courttv.com, investigators suspected that Stangel knew more than she was admitting.  Apparently, they were right.  All of a sudden, up there on the cliff, after hours of questioning by the detectives and their encouragement to remember that day, she changed her story. 

David had come back to the car, she admitted, and they had gone up the trail together to the cliff.   They were discussing their relationship.  He had fake-pushed her to scare her and she had pushed him back, inadvertently causing him to lose his balance in a precarious place, and he had fallen to his death on the rocks below.  She had kept quiet about it, fearing she would be blamed.  She then repeated all of this on tape, and told it later to the DA.

D.A. Joshua Marquis
D.A. Joshua Marquis
 

Now David Wahls death was being considered accidental.   For the moment, anyway.

The family was not happy with this and neither was DA Joshua Marquis.   He charged Linda with first-degree manslaughter and bound her over for trial.  She pleaded not guilty.

Yet at trial, Linda changed her recollection once again.   She said that she had made up the story about pushing David because she was afraid of heights and she thought it was the only way to get the officers to let her off the cliff.  Unless I made a statement, she declared, I knew I wasnt getting off that trail.  I was scared.

Richard Ofshe, headshot
Richard Ofshe, headshot
 

Her attorney hired sociologist and confession expert Richard Ofshe to tell the jury that her confession was coerced under her extreme fear, and should be considered false.   She had retold an incident from Seaside earlier that morning as if it had occurred in the park.  The detectives had encouraged her, the defense stated, by reassuring her that if it had been an accident, no one would blame her.

Tearfully, Linda retold her original story for the jury and explained why she had made up the second one.

They did not buy it.   As they saw it, Linda had made no effort to ask anyone if they had seen David and had not considered the consequences of just leaving him there.  A man at the park recalled seeing her outside the van, although she said she had never gotten out.  Her story just did not add up and she clearly had no trouble lying.

On January 16, 1997, they sentenced her to six years in prison for second-degree manslaughter.   She got out in February 2003, with three more years on probation.

David Wahls family expressed their concern that his death had been neither suicide nor accident, but outright homicide.   Linda, they believed, had planned it.  Given the ambiguous circumstances, the truth may never be known.

So how might one go about doing a psychological autopsy for a case like this?

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