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Kenneth Stahl, 57, was an admired anesthesiologist. Carolyn Oppy-Stahl, 44, was a respected optometrist. On paper, they seemed to have it all — but their so-called “ideal” marriage and life in upscale Huntington Beach, California curdled into a perverse prescription for a double homicide.
On November 20, 1999, the two were shot and killed in their car on an isolated stretch of the Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano, California that law enforcement had come to regard as “a dumping ground” for criminal evidence. They had been celebrating Oppy-Stahl’s birthday at a Mexican restaurant earlier.
The couple’s 1996 Dodge Stratus was still idling when authorities found the bodies, the Los Angeles Times reported when the couple was found dead. They’d been shot at least 10 times with a handgun, enough times so that the shooter took the time to reload and fire again. And again. And again.
“This is a level of violence and cruelty you don’t see in southern Orange County,” author and former AP reporter Michael Fleeman told “The Real Murders of Orange County,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.
Following the gruesome discovery of the couple’s bodies, investigators weighed possible scenarios. A carjacking gone bad? With valuables including watches, a wallet, and a purse still in the car, officials crossed that off the list. Murder-suicide? Detectives ruled that out, too.
Between a lack of physical evidence and eyewitnesses, investigators “had to start from ground zero,” Dennis Conway, Assistant District Attorney, Orange County DA’s Office, told producers. “So they focused on motive.”
To determine why the Stahls were brutally killed, detectives needed to know more about the couple and what made them tick. They had to find out: Was their union as “wonderful and ideal” as the couple presented to the world?
Turns out, it wasn’t. The Stahls had a very troubled marriage.
“Just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you don’t have skeletons in your closet,” Tony Castillo, former ranch deputy, Rancho Mission Viejo, told “The Real Murders Of Orange County.”
Pulling back the covers on Stahl, authorities saw that “he was having an affair” — and maybe even more than one, Jim McDonald, a former investigator with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, explained to producers.
When authorities searched the couple’s home they found that Oppy-Stahl had amassed “a multitude” of very expensive clothing and accessories, many with tags still on them, worth around $30,00.
Although Oppy-Stahl told friends and acquaintances that the pricey outfits were gifts from her loving husband, she had, in fact, bought them for herself. It was retail revenge on a spouse she knew was chronically unfaithful. Clearly, the marriage had severe cracks in it.
Investigators continually worked around the clock chasing potential leads. To dig deeper into Stahl’s life, they focused on his phone log.
On the day of the murders, there were a number of calls made to then-33-year-old medical secretary Adriana Vasco, whom investigators suspected of being one of Stahl’s mistresses.
Questioned by authorities about the communications, Vasco shrugged off the calls as just being about computer issues. But nearly a year into the still-unsolved case, Vasco became the focus of the investigation. It had come to light that Stahl was her sugar daddy.
“My take on Adriana Vasco is that she’s got a lot of street-smarts and is a master manipulator,” Conway told producers. “One of her gifts is making her way through life using people, particularly men.”
Stahl, the ADA added, “was one in a long line.”
Another man in Vasco’s life — not a doctor but an Anaheim handyman with a rap sheet ranging from weapons charges to larceny and beyond — turned out to be the key that would unlock the case.
The maintenance man’s name: Dennis Earl Godley. Godley also had an alias: Tony Satton. Associates of Vasco’s gave authorities the tip about checking into the shady character.
At the time of the murder, he was using that fake name and “on the run from detectives in North Carolina and Virginia on warrants for robbery and assault on a sheriff’s deputy,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2000.
But Godley’s uncanny knack for eluding arrest and escaping capture over “the course of a lifetime in trouble” had earned him a different nickname — “weasel” — from authorities in North Carolina. The hunt was on for the elusive career criminal.
At the same time, detectives pushed harder to determine the depth of Vasco’s culpability in the double homicide. She agreed to undergo a lie detector test.
Investigators said she indicated that she was not telling the truth on just one occasion during the interrogation. She cracked when asked: Did you know someone was trying to kill Ken or Carolyn?
Her indication of complicity led authorities to arrest her on traffic warrants in order to get her into custody and to secure more time to track down Godley.
Then, Vasco confessed that Stahl approached her about having his wife killed. She turned to Godley to get the job done.
On November 20, 1999, they followed the Stahls in another vehicle. Godley killed Oppy-Stahl, and then, to her shock, murdered Stahl. After he shot the victims he dropped the gun into the ocean.
Godley was eventually located in a mobile park home in North Carolina. Just over a year after the Stahls’ depraved roadside slayings, authorities charged Godley and Vasco with two counts of murder.
But in the run-up to the trials, prosecutors faced an unexpected hurdle. In March 2001, an Orange County judge tossed out Vasco’s confession, declaring that her constitutional rights during questioning had been violated.
Still, the case went onward, and in November 2002, three years after the crimes were committed, Vasco was found guilty of first-degree murder in the slaying of Carolyn Oppy-Stahl, and second-degree murder in the death of Kenneth Stahl. Two months later, she was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
In exchange for a life sentence and not the death penalty, Godley pleaded guilty to killing the Stahls. In June 2004, Godley threw out a grim twist: Through his lawyer, Godley maintained that he killed the husband, but Vasco killed the wife, the L.A. Times reported that year.
Godley would later die in prison from cancer.
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