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Gunman Who Pleaded Guilty to Killing O.C. Pair Sentenced to Life

June 12, 2004|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

A hit man who pleaded guilty to killing a married couple in a love triangle gone awry was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

But former Anaheim handyman Dennis Earl Godley, 34, also said -- through his lawyer -- publicly for the first time that he gunned down only one of the victims.

The slayings stemmed from a murder-for-hire plot devised by Huntington Beach anesthesiologist Kenneth Stahl and his longtime mistress, medical secretary Adriana Vasco. Through Vasco, Stahl hired Godley for $30,000 to kill his wife, optometrist Carolyn Oppy-Stahl, 44, on a deserted stretch of Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano.

In a confession to police and at her trial in 2002, Vasco said Godley killed Oppy-Stahl, then, to her surprise and dismay, turned the gun on Stahl, 57, in November 1999. On Friday, though, Godley's lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Denise Gragg, said a key part of Godley's trial would have been his contention that he shot only Stahl and that Vasco killed Oppy-Stahl.

Orange County prosecutors decided in May not to pursue the death penalty against Godley, partly from hearing the new claims about the circumstances of the killings and learning details of his childhood, which was marked by neglect and abuse.

"Some of the things presented were compelling to me, so I assume it would carry the same weight with a jury," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Dennis Conway, who also prosecuted Vasco.

He emphasized that the decision not to seek the death penalty was unconnected to Godley's guilty plea.

During the sentencing, Godley appeared almost jovial as he smiled and laughed with his attorney. Dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit with glasses and a military-style buzz cut, he toted a paperback by Western novelist Louis L'Amour.

He is relieved that the case is now resolved, Gragg said afterward.

"He recognized he committed this crime, and he's really remorseful for his part," she said.

She said her client would ask the California Department of Corrections to move him to an East Coast prison so he could be closer to his two children.

Some members of Oppy-Stahl's family did not attend the sentencing.

But Stahl's nephew did, craning his neck to peer at Godley as the defendant entered the courtroom.

The nephew declined to comment afterward.

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