Did a Brazilian oil company order the murders of a Utah couple in 2003?

The couple’s children sue the U.S. State Department for documents they hope will prove Petroleo Brasileiro was behind the killings.

( Courtesy image) Todd Staheli and his wife Michele Staheli appear in an undated family photo. Their children found them bludgeoned in their bed on Sunday, Nov. 30, 2003, at their home in Rio de Janeiro, where Todd Staheli worked as an oil executive. Now adults, the Staheli children are suing the U.S. State Department for documents related to the murders.

Z. Todd Staheli worked around the world as an executive for Shell Oil, and when Brazil became his next stop in 2003, his family moved to Rio de Janeiro. He and his wife Michelle were Utah natives, and she was a stay-at-home mom to their four children.

On a Sunday morning that November, their 10-year-old son heard an ignored, beeping alarm clock — set to awaken the Latter-Day Saint family for church — and went into his parents’ bedroom to check on them, The New York Times later reported.

He found them bludgeoned in their bed, bloodied and dying. His 3-year-old sister was asleep between them; she later told police she thought they were ’'dirty with mud,’' The Times said. Todd Staheli, 39, was pronounced dead there; Michelle, 36, who never regained consciousness, died in a hospital four days later.

The savagery of the killings, the mystery of how the assailant entered the high-security condominium and killed the Stahelis as their children slept without leaving any sign of a forced entry, and the lack of a clear motive grabbed international headlines. A handyman was eventually convicted, but valuables had been untouched and the Stahelis’ Utah relatives told reporters they questioned the official account of the crime.

Now the Stahelis’ children, as adults, are pursuing their own theory — they are suing the U.S. State Department for documents they believe will prove the murders were ordered by Petrobras, a Brazilian government-controlled oil and gas company headquartered in Rio de Janeiro.

Todd Staheli “had been assigned the task of extracting Shell from certain joint ventures in Brazil,” according to their lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Salt Lake City. He was in the process of “conducting an audit of certain joint ventures … due to suspicious activity regarding the misappropriation of joint venture funds.”

One of those joint ventures was with Petrobras, or Petroleo Brasileiro, which “has a long and complex history of engaging in corrupt and illegal business practices,” according to the lawsuit.

At the time of the murders, The New York Times reported that oil executives had dismissed the possibility of a connection to Todd Staheli’s job, “citing a lack of serious political or business intrigue in the region.”

But the new lawsuit cites a 2018 order by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which found that former senior executives of Petrobras ran a massive corruption scheme that dated at least back to 2003. Its contractors and suppliers paid billions of dollars in kickbacks, the SEC said, money that flowed to corrupt Petrobras executives and conspiring politicians and political parties.

“We believe there’s probably a lot of significant documents [the State Department is] not releasing,” said Rodney G. Snow, one of the lawyers representing the Stahelis’ children. “Petrobras is 51% owned by the Brazilian government. So that makes this a little more sensitive to the State Department.”

According to a report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Brazilian law requires that its federal government owns a majority of Petrobras voting stock and has the power to elect a majority of the board of directors.

The Stahelis’ adult children “believe, and the evidence demonstrates, that Todd and Michelle Staheli were murdered as a result of Todd Staheli’s extraordinarily dangerous assignment and investigation into Petrobras,” their lawsuit said.

A demand for records

Todd Staheli’s father, Zera Staheli, told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2006 that he believed the killer or killers were still out there.

“The police had to close that case, and I think they found a way to do that,” Zera Staheli said, adding that the conviction that year of 22-year-old handyman Jossiel Conceicao dos Santo “didn’t put a closure on it for us at all.”

Logan Staheli and his sisters, Wesley (Staheli) Gillies, Madison (Staheli) Jones and Carly (Staheli) Davis, have spent years trying to get that closure, and proof that their parents’ killer or killers were acting at the behest of Petrobras executives, their lawsuit shows.

The siblings’ lawyers filed a Freedom of Information request with the State Department in March 2019 and the department did not respond within the 20 days mandated by law, according to documentation filed with the lawsuit.

In June 2019, the lawyers received a response that the State Department needed additional time to locate the records. In July 2020, the lawyers requested an update, and the State Department replied with an estimated completion date of Nov. 30, 2022 — which would be more than 3½ years after the initial request, and which the department said would be subject to change.

The suit seeks to now “compel the release of any and all records related to the murder” of their parents.

The lawsuit doesn’t specify which documents the Stahelis’ children are looking for, but asserts that the State Department “routinely” investigates when Americans are murdered in other countries and “likely conducted an investigation or, at a minimum, collected documents and followed the local investigation conducted” by Brazilian authorities.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. Petrobras did not respond to an email seeking comment Thursday, and lawyers representing the Staheli children did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A questioned conviction

After the murders, police questioned the two oldest Staheli children, then 13 and 10, and a judge temporarily ordered them to stay in Brazil. But within days, they were allowed to return to Utah with relatives.

In early December 2003, Dr. Roger Ancillotti, then head of Rio’s legal medicine institute, told The New York Times that the killings would have taken “substantial strength and dexterity.” But the investigation had already gone cold: ’'It’s as if some ninja had appeared by magic in the bedroom, attacked the couple and then disappeared in a puff of smoke,’' Ancillotti told The Times.

In April 2004, dos Santos was arrested as a suspect in a break-in at the housing complex and quickly confessed to the Staheli murders. He said he hit Todd Staheli in the head with a crowbar, then killed Michelle Staheli when she woke up and saw him, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Dos Santos claimed he was angry because Todd Staheli used a Portuguese racial slur against him, but that soon seemed suspect — relatives said Todd Staheli, who had lived in Brazil for less than four months, didn’t speak Portuguese, the newspaper reported.

The handyman later recanted his confession multiple times, and was, at one point, released from custody by a judge who cited a lack of physical evidence. Authorities later said they found traces of DNA that matched the Stahelis on dos Santos’ clothing, but his defense attorney argued dos Santos, with a short stature, wouldn’t have had the strength the bludgeoning murders would have required.

Snow said he is aware that there is an unconfirmed document on Wikileaks that purports to be a November 2005 cable from the American consulate in Rio, reporting that Brazilian authorities had determined that DNA found under the fingernails of Michelle Stahili did not match dos Santos, fueling speculation that he either was not the killer or that he did not act alone.

“We’d like to know if that’s true,” Snow said. “At this point, we’re just trying to gather documents.”

He added: “The other question is — why wasn’t this case investigated in Rio? Once they convicted dos Santos, that was the end of it. If they found out the DNA didn’t match, it should have been further investigated.”

After dos Santos was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison in March 2006, Michelle Staheli’s brother, Michael Davis, told The Salt Lake Tribune: “I don’t think he could have done it alone. It just doesn’t make sense. … They just want to get rid of it and move on.”

Todd Staheli was a native of Spanish Fork and his wife was from Logan. They met at Utah State University, her family told The Herald-Journal in Logan, and the couple were married in the Logan temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1987.

Todd Staheli had joined Shell in 1991, the Davis family told The Herald-Journal, and the family had been living in Saudi Arabia before moving to Brazil. And earlier, the family had lived for three years in The Woodlands community north of Houston.

After the murders, their former neighbors in The Woodlands tied large, white ribbons around trees in their memory, the Houston Chronicle reported.

“This was one of the sweetest families that one could ever meet,” said Bishop Art Rascon of The Woodlands’ Latter-day Saint church. “He was down to earth, he was humble, he was sincere; she was a wonderful mother, beautiful children — the ideal family that everyone would love to know.”

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