The Murders of Ken Stahl and Carolyn Oppy-Stahl
"Trauma and Trouble"
On December 12, 2000, Adriana Vasco and Dennis Godley were charged with the murders of Ken Stahl and Carolyn-Oppy Stahl. Vasco was in jail, watching the news on television, when she learned that she would be tried for murder. She was stunned.
Orange County Register reporter Bill Rams succeeded in getting jailhouse interviews with both Vasco and Godley. On the phone from the Western Tidewater Jail in Virginia, Godley stuck to the story he'd told Detectives Heaney and Villalobos, maintaining that he had never met Ken Stahl and had never received a $30,000 payment to murder Stahl's wife. He said he was with a former roommate at the time of the murders and that the roommate would vouch for him. Godley was playing it cool. If he had any worries that Vasco would roll over on him, he wasn't showing it.
Vasco opened up to Rams in her interview and said that Godley had killed Carolyn in cold blood and murdered Ken to eliminate a witness. She would later regret giving the interview when her attorney informed her that the reporter could be subpoenaed to testify for the prosecution at her trial. She then compounded the mistake by writing in a letter to another inmate, "...all I have to do is get rid of Bill Rams." Prison authorities intercepted the letter and revealed its contents to the DA's office.
Godley was transported to California to face the charges against him. He and Vasco were each charged with two counts of murder with "special allegations of multiple murder, murder for financial gain and lying in wait." According to author Michael Fleeman, this made them both eligible for the death penalty, but the Orange County District Attorney's Office decided not to pursue the death penalty in their case against Vasco. They would, however, seek the death penalty for Godley because he had actually committed the murders.
Vasco and Godley would be tried separately with her trial starting first on November 12, 2002. With little physical evidence linking Vasco to the crime, the case against her was built on circumstantial evidence (her association with Godley, her ongoing relationship with Ken Stahl, the hateful statements she had made to friends and co-workers about Carolyn Oppy-Stahl) and the statements she had made to reporter Bill Rams, which amounted to a confession of her participation in the murders.
Vasco took the stand in her own defense and testified that she had been victimized by most of the men in her life. She had been conceived, she claimed, as the result of a rape and had been abused by a violent stepfather. Even the love of her life, Ken Stahl, had sometimes been sexually abusive. She testified that Dennis Godley was the worst of many bad choices she had made in her life. Dr. Nancy Kaser-Boyd of UCLA reinforced Vasco's self-portrayal, testifying that Vasco suffered from Battered Women's Syndrome.
Ultimately the jury found Vasco guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Carolyn Oppy-Stahl and second-degree murder in the death of Ken Stahl. Despite her emotional testimony, jurors did not see her as a victim. "We thought she was a pretty tough, street-smart person," one juror said after the trial. Vasco was sentenced to 15 years to life for the murder of Ken Stahl and life without the possibility of parole for the murder of Carolyn.
Realizing the risk of trying Godley with only circumstantial evidence, the DA's office reconsidered and decided not to seek the death penalty. Prosecutors hoped he would be convicted and receive the same sentence as Vasco, life without the possibility of parole. But Godley made it easy for them. In a surprise move, he pleaded guilty to all the charges against him and, as expected, was sentenced to life without parole. Godley, who, while awaiting his California murder trial, had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for the convenience store robbery in Virginia, admitted in open court on May 21, 2004, that he had murdered Ken Stahl and his wife.
Godley's attorney, Denise Gragg, wrote in a probation report prior to his sentencing that her client chose to plead guilty rather than "putting the victims' families and the State through the trauma and trouble of trying him." Gragg wrote that Godley had shown remorse for his crimes but added that "there is good argument that Ms. Vasco and Mr. Stahl bore the primary blame for this tragedy."