‘A horror story’: Staheli siblings speak out nearly 20 years after parents were killed in Brazil

Only children at the time, Wesley, Logan, Madison and Carly are determined to get justice for their family.

(Courtesy photo) The Staheli siblings — from left, Carly, Wesley, Logan and Maddie — take a photo together at their family's summer home in Eden, Utah.

When the Staheli siblings found out in 2003 that their family would be moving to Brazil, the four children were already seasoned world travelers.

Their parents were from Utah, but by then, the kids had walked on white sand beaches in the Maldives and seen the Egyptian pyramids from the back of a camel. They were living in London when their father, 39-year-old Todd Staheli, was sent to South America by his employer, Shell Oil Co.

But not long after they arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Wesley, who was 13 at the time, felt that something was wrong.

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune — their first with any news organization about what happened next — the now-adult Staheli siblings can’t quite name why the move to Brazil was so jarring.

“There is not a logical reason that it didn’t feel right,” Wesley said. “But at the gut level, this did not work. We were not settling in.”

That unease isn’t apparent in the last photo the Stahelis took as a family, in October 2003. In the picture, which was snapped on a boat at a Brazilian resort, Wesley; Logan, 10; Madison (often called Maddie), 8; and Carly, 3; sit close to their parents. They’re all smiling, bathed in the sunlight reflecting off the water.

Still, the apprehension was so pervading that the family even discussed having the kids and their mother return home to Utah, though they decided against it.

“It wasn’t really an option for us to be separated,” Wesley said.

It marked their eighth move as a family, the siblings estimate. Amid unfamiliar cultures, languages and people, the family’s tight-knit bond was the constant.

“We just had each other,” Wesley said.

That was especially true when Todd and their mother, Michelle, 36, were fatally attacked as they slept, one month after that sunny day on the boat.

(Courtesy photo) The Staheli family is photographed together at a resort in Brazil in October 2003, one month before the parents were attacked.

A lonely paradise

As Todd Staheli moved his family from country to country over the years, his kids only vaguely knew why.

“At 10 years old, the goings-on of an oil executive are neither interesting nor understandable,” Logan said.

What the kids did understand was that their father was “very effective and good” at his job, Logan said.

They also considered each move a big adventure. So when Shell tasked their dad with figuring out why its joint-venture pipeline projects with a powerful South American oil company were losing money, the kids were ready to make the trip.

“It was fun and it was exciting,” Wesley said. “It was a new place, I was excited to learn a new language.”

Together, they moved into a luxury condo with a pool in Barra da Tijuca, an affluent suburb in Rio de Janeiro’s west zone that’s known for its shopping center and long, low-key beach.

But the tropical paradise soon felt lonely. Each day, the children had a long routine — an early wake-up call, an hourlong drive to their school, classes all day, and then an hourlong drive back to their gated condominium complex.

Even Carly, barely more than a toddler at the time, attended all-day preschool.

Wesley remembers her stay-at-home mom struggling with being apart from her kids all day. The children’s unhappiness also “weighed on her heavily,” Wesley said.

When the siblings weren’t at school, they stayed home together.

On Sundays, the family would worship with a local congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In those first few months, however, they were still learning Portuguese, which made it harder to connect with people, Wesley said.

She remembers her dad being frustrated with his work, yet determined.

“My dad is one of the most honorable people that you will ever meet,” Wesley said. “And when he says that he’s going to do something, he’s going to finish it.”

‘Wesley, I have to show you something’

Logan woke up in his bedroom feeling confused on Sunday, Nov. 30, 2003, three months after the family moved to Brazil.

His parents’ alarm clock was going off — set to wake up the family to get ready for church — but it wasn’t stopping.

Logan got out of bed and walked down the hall to their room, where he saw the walls and bed “covered in blood,” he said.

As he looked at his parents, his father dead and his mother mortally wounded after both were bludgeoned in the night, Logan couldn’t process what he was seeing.

“I remember looking at them and just being confused, not knowing how to mesh the two thoughts of, ‘It should be my parents sleeping in that bed, but I don’t know who these people are. They don’t look like my parents,’” he said.

“I remember just standing there, not being able to feel or think or hear anything,” he continued.

Logan went into Wesley’s bedroom. “The only thing I could think to say was, ‘Wesley, I have to show you something,’” he said.

Once Wesley saw the scene, she picked Carly up from between their mom and dad — the little girl had climbed into their bed sometime in the night. Then they woke up Madison.

As the four of them tried to figure out what to do next, Logan said they knelt and prayed together, asking for guidance and help.

“I don’t know what we would’ve been praying for other than that, but we knew we’d been taught by our parents that when you’re in trouble, that’s the first thing you can do,” he said.

Wesley called a family friend who lived in their condo complex, and the children stayed there until relatives arrived two days later.

They didn’t know their trouble was only beginning.

“What happened to our parents in itself is a horror story,” Wesley said. “But that horror story just continues on the way that we were treated” during the investigation by Brazilian police.

(Courtesy photo) The Staheli family is shown in the Maldives in this undated photo. Pictured from left is Michelle, Madison, Carly, Todd, Wesley and Logan.

‘These people are not here to help me’

Police considered Wesley a suspect. She said that didn’t really sink in until she saw her picture circulating in the news.

She said that made her feel “alone.”

“Your brain cannot comprehend that people would actually think that about the people that I love most in my life — that I would do anything to hurt them,” Wesley said.

Multiple times, the Rio Civil Police and the FBI separated Wesley and Logan from Madison and Carly, and then separated them from each other, the two older siblings said. They were questioned “for hours” at a time, Wesley said, “without a guardian or a lawyer present.”

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Michelle Staheli was hospitalized, unconscious as doctors performed multiple surgeries to try and relieve the swelling in her brain. Her children weren’t allowed to visit her as often as they wanted to, Wesley and Logan said. She died four days later.

The day before her death, a headline in the Correio Braziliense newspaper said in Portuguese that the police wanted to keep Wesley in Rio.

The article stated that Anthony Garotinho — a former governor of Rio de Janeiro who was secretary of public security at the time and later arrested for corruption — didn’t rule out Wesley potentially being involved in the attack. “The police investigate all possibilities,” he said in the story.

Wesley told The Tribune that when she was questioned, the police focused on the fact that they had found tampons in her bathroom when they searched the family’s home. Authorities wrongfully interpreted the tampons as a sign that Wesley was sexually active, and from there, implied that she had potentially gotten a boyfriend to kill her parents.

As a 13-year-old girl, Wesley said the thought of having a boyfriend that she was intimate with was “just appalling.” Forced to answer the “degrading” questions, she said, “All my privacy was violated.”

The lead investigator on the case asked the court to keep Wesley in Brazil until she gave a formal statement to the police. Logan was detained in the country as well, the siblings said, and their passports were confiscated.

In the Stahelis’ house, police had also found a toy ax — bought as a souvenir on a family trip to Scotland — that authorities believed had been used to kill Todd and Michelle. Later, local newspapers said no blood was detected on the hatchet.

“They asked me to describe [the hatchet], they laughed at me,” Logan said. “The judge, the lawyers, everybody in the room laughed at me.”

That’s when Logan began to believe that the investigators were “not here to find the truth,” he said. “These people are not here to help me, they are not on my side.”

After being detained for 10 days in Brazil, Wesley said it was a “miracle” that she and Logan were able to head to Utah. When the siblings finally got on the plane, hearing the American pilot’s voice over the intercom marked their first moment of “peace” since the morning they found their parents: They were going home.

‘We have not had any justice’

But home didn’t mean rest or resolution. Years later, it’s still not clear who killed Todd and Michelle Staheli — or why.

In April 2004, 20-year-old caretaker Jossiel Conceicao dos Santos was arrested as a suspect in a break-in at the housing complex where the Stahelis had lived in Rio, and he quickly confessed to killing the couple with a crowbar.

In 2006, dos Santos was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison. That year, Todd Staheli’s father, Zera Staheli — who died a few months ago — told The Tribune that he didn’t believe the man had done it.

The now-adult Staheli siblings have their own theory as to what happened, based on records they’ve obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of State.

In February, they filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the Brazilian government-controlled oil and gas corporation Petróleo Brasileiro (known as Petrobras), the company that their father had been investigating all those years ago.

In their complaint against Petrobras, the siblings allege the oil giant had their parents killed just after their father discovered a “corruption scheme involving hundreds of millions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes involving Petrobras.”

They argue that Petrobras, Brazilian law enforcement officials and others sought to cover up the killings and intentionally caused them “severe emotional distress.”

Dos Santos wasn’t the killer, the complaint alleges, referencing government documents that indicate he was “beaten, tortured, and coerced into giving his false confession.” Also, evidence at the crime scene suggested the Stahelis were bludgeoned by at least two individuals with blunt objects, the document continues, noting that DNA taken from underneath Michelle’s fingernails didn’t match dos Santos.

The Brazilian court system later let dos Santos change his plea to say that he let two men into the Staheli home the night of the attack. His current status is murky; various news outlets have reported that he went into witness protection. The Stahelis’ lawsuit against Petrobras says he “disappeared” after he was released from prison in 2018.

Keith Woodwell, one of the attorneys representing the Stahelis in their lawsuit against the oil giant, said Petrobras was served with the family’s lawsuit in March but hadn’t responded as of Monday evening. An attorney for Petrobras hasn’t been listed in court records. A request for comment from prior counsel for the company was not returned.

According to the U.S. District Court, Petrobras must respond to the lawsuit by May 23.

For the Staheli siblings, the shadow of their parents’ deaths still weighs on them. Wesley said it hurts that their killings are virtually unsolved, almost 20 years later.

“We have asked for help from the FBI and the State Department and the [U.S. Department of Justice],” Wesley said. “We have gotten all the way up. And no one will help us.”

Even though Todd and Michelle Staheli were American citizens, and Wesley feels like she knows what happened to them, “We have not had any justice,” she said.

After they returned from Brazil, the children grew up at their grandparents’ Spanish Fork house, which their grandpa and dad built in 1980 on 18 acres of farmland and orchards. It was “a home they could come home to,” Madison said, where they made new, happy memories together.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carly (Staheli) Davis, Madison (Staheli) Jones, Logan Staheli and Wesley (Staheli) Gillies talk together at Madison's home in Spanish Fork, on Sunday, April 3, 2022.

Their arrival fell only a few months after their grandparents’ youngest son left for college. “They raised children and grandchildren from 1964 until 2018, when Carly graduated high school,” Logan said.

As developments in the area encroached on their “little paradise,” though, the couple sold their home in 2007 and moved away. The wide-open land was eventually filled in with dozens of houses, and another family lived in that house for a time.

But in 2020, Madison bought the home, bringing it back into the Staheli family.

Today, all four siblings are married, and two have changed their last names: Wesley Gillies, 31; Logan Staheli, 28; Madison Jones, 26; and Carly Staheli, 22.

Family is everything, their parents taught them. And the relationships they have with their grandparents and other relatives have helped the Staheli siblings adjust to their new lives.

“For me, that’s what has pushed me to be where I am today,” Madison said. “They gave me confidence to move forward and know that when it is hard — and it is hard still — we can go back to them and talk about Mom and Dad and listen to stories and hear from their perspective about who they were.”