Judge, slain woman's son say it's time to free Jimmie Dean Stohler in 1982 crossbow killing
BY CARY ASPINWALL World Staff Writer
Sunday, March 03, 2013
3/03/13 at 7:07 AM
Kill Michele, and I'll buy you a Ken's pizza. It was a joke between two men, until it became real. In the end, Jimmie Dean Stohler told investigators, Michele Rae Powers' life was traded for $400 and a crossbow. The 30-year-old single mother had been fighting for custody of Joel, her 4-year-old son fathered by Robert Doss, a Tulsa police officer with whom she'd had a tumultuous six-year relationship. Doss obtained custody of their infant son after he alleged Powers abused Joel. In January 1982, Powers was granted increased visitation and expanded custody rights by the courts. Two weeks later, she was found crumpled in her car, gasping for breath with a 14-inch razor-edged bolt 6 inches deep in her chest, which filled her body with poison. It took six days for her to die. Thirty-one years later, the state of Oklahoma is contemplating paroling the only man convicted in Powers' murder: Jimmie Dean Stohler.
Most of the known details about Powers' gruesome 1982 death by a poisoned crossbow bolt came directly from the testimony of Stohler, currently serving life in prison for her murder.
Now, Powers' own son and the judge who presided over her murder trial are supporting the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board's recommendation to grant Stohler, now 59, parole after 30 years in prison.
Letters of support for Stohler written by both men add to a legacy of strange twists and turns in a murder case that has fascinated Tulsans since the early 1980s.
Was Stohler the sole mastermind behind Powers' death? Were there others involved who escaped prison time? Why is her own son advocating for his mom's killer to be set free?
'Whole life ahead of her'
Rochelle Ruth traveled to Oklahoma City late last month for her five minutes to tell board members why she thinks Stohler should die behind bars.
The man who planned her twin sister's murder deserved the death penalty, she said.
"I wanted them to know how he stalked her for four months and tried to kill her by a knife first," Ruth said. "He took an extra change of clothes in case he got too much blood on them."
Michele Rae Powers
Stohler and others have made allegations that Powers was an unfit mother, possibly even abusive to her son.
"My sister wasn't a deadbeat person," Ruth said. "I loved her dearly. She was a good mom; she was trying to build a relationship with her son. She had her whole life ahead of her."
Powers was a respiratory therapist studying to be a paramedic. She worked at St. John Medical Center, but before that she worked at Hillcrest Medical Center. That was where she met Bob Doss, a police officer moonlighting as a security guard.
They began a tumultuous relationship, and she ended up pregnant.
"Her and Bob had some pretty rough arguments, I know," Ruth said. "Michele was desperate to stay with him."
In November 1978, Powers filed a paternity suit against Doss, saying he was the father of her son, Joel, born earlier that year. A week later, Doss made allegations of child abuse against her, and "they took Joel out of our arms," Ruth said.
"There was no medical evidence of any type of abuse," Ruth said. "We were desperate to get him home."
But Doss prevailed in court (the records are sealed because they involve a juvenile), and Powers fought to get visitation rights.
Jack “Butch” Ensminger:
"She was trying desperately to get him back; she just wanted that family," Ruth said.
He was acquitted in
the death of Michele Powers.
Two weeks after Powers was granted expanded custody rights, she was murdered.
'Wanted her dead'
At his 1985 murder trial, Stohler testified that he hated Powers "probably from the first day I saw her."
He said she got in his face and accused him of causing problems between her and Doss, threatened to hurt their child to get back at Doss and vandalized an apartment that the two young police officers shared.
"I knew that Doss wanted her dead," Stohler told investigators. He said he'd seen her abuse the child.
Stohler left the Tulsa Police Department after facing a series of disciplinary actions that resulted in suspensions and loss of pay, records show. He started working at the post office. The custody battle between Doss and Powers grew even more bitter.
Jokes about trading her life for a Ken's pizza soon turned into plans. Stohler told investigators he first planned to kill Powers with a revolver or a knife. Then he recruited a post office co-worker, Jack "Butch" Ensminger Jr., and offered him $400 to get the job done, he testified. Stohler bought a crossbow, bolts and a "poison pod" filled with curare - a powerful botanical drug that can cause respiratory paralysis in high doses.
Doss drew a map of Powers' apartment complex so they would know the layout, according to court testimony.
He won custody of Joel Doss after alleging child abuse by Powers.
Ensminger and Doss were both charged with conspiracy and murder in Powers' death. Both men were acquitted in trials before Stohler's and denied any role in her killing.
According to an archived news story, Doss told a jury that he likely told Stohler: "I wish she was dead. I would like to see her dead. I have said that for years. That's not a secret."
Attempts to contact Ensminger and Doss for this article were unsuccessful.
As Stohler was returning to jail following a 1983 court appearance in one of the earlier cases, a reporter in the hallway asked him if Powers "deserved it."
He replied: "I wouldn't have done it otherwise."
'Has justice been served'
At one point, Stohler was offered a plea deal, a 15-year-to-life sentence for a reduced charge of second-degree manslaughter, in exchange for his testimony.
Former Tulsa District Judge Don Lane, who presided over Stohler's murder trial, struck down the offer.
"I just felt like, with everything that had occurred, we needed the evidence to be heard in open court," said Lane, now retired.
He vividly remembers the tension that filled his courtroom during the 1985 trial. He has no doubts or regrets about the jury's decision in Stohler's case.
That said, when he read in the Tulsa World last week that the Pardon and Parole Board had recommend Stohler for parole, he decided to write Gov. Mary Fallin a letter. Lane said he wanted to let Fallin know about "facts which I feel strongly compelled to reveal to help see that justice is served."
Lane's letter details that Stohler had admitted guilt and said he was motivated by Powers' alleged threats toward Doss and their son. It also states that Stohler's trial attorney, Tom Gann, ended up marrying Stohler's wife several years after the trial.
In subsequent appeals, Stohler questioned whether Gann provided adequate defense for his client in light of the conflict that eventually developed. Gann could not be reached for comment. Lane's letter to the governor says these are the important things to consider with regard to Stohler's parole: "Has punishment been sufficient? Has rehabilitation been achieved? Can the defendant lead a non-violent life in society? Are there others more in need of incarceration? Is there likely to be retribution? Has justice been served, after 30 years, under the circumstances of this particular case?"
Stohler had several factors in his favor when appearing before the Pardon and Parole Board on Feb. 20 via video conference from Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. He has an experienced parole attorney, Gary Wood; family with whom he can live after his parole; a job promised to him by the telemarketing firm that employs him through a contract with Oklahoma Correctional Industries; and 30 years in prison with few misconducts on his record.
But the single most persuasive factor for the board was the appearance of Powers' son, Gavin Doss, on behalf of his mother's killer, Chairman Marc Dreyer said.
Doss' name was legally changed from Joel in the years after his mother's death. He did not speak at the hearing but wrote a letter included with records the board reviewed in Stohler's case, information that the governor will also review. Wood declined to supply a copy of the letter to the Tulsa World.
Wood detailed for the board how Stohler had reached out to the boy at age 10, to tell of his remorse and apologize for his role in Powers' death.
"The fact that you went out and did it, and were able to arrange a relationship with the son of the victim - is very significant," Dreyer told Stohler during the hearing. The board recommended parole by a vote of 3-2.
Through family members and attorneys, Gavin Doss declined interview requests from the World.
Fallin will review the board's recommendation and ultimately decide whether to grant Stohler's parole. Typically, the governor takes action on each month's paroles within about 30 days, records show.
Powers' sister said their deceased mother, Virginia McGill, reached out to Gavin Doss when he turned 18 because he had been raised by his father and had no contact with his mother's side of the family.
The relationship never really developed, Ruth said. She'd like to try again, she said, but isn't sure her nephew is interested.
Ruth remembers vividly that on the day her sister was murdered - Jan. 21, 1982 - they threw a belated birthday party for Joel, then 4, and had cake and a few small presents.
The boy accidentally put his mom's car keys in his aunt's purse while playing. Ruth drove back to her sister's apartment that night to make sure she had her keys so she could go to work.
It was the last time Ruth saw her sister alive.
Ruth said she doesn't understand why Stohler should be given another shot at freedom.
"Look what he's ruined for me. Why should he have a life?" Ruth said. "I don't have my sister or my nephew, and my mother went to an early grave because of it."
World Researcher Hilary Pittman and World Staff Writer Bill Braun contributed to this story.
Original Print Headline: Should he be freed?
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477
Shown here is Tulsa World Staff Writer Bill Braun's case file and notes from the 1982 crossbow killing of Michele Rae Powers. Photo illustration by CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
Jimmie Dean Stohler leaves a Tulsa County courtroom during his 1985 trial for the crossbow slaying of Michele Rae Powers. Stohler was the only person convicted in the case. Tulsa World file
Rochelle Ruth holds a picture of herself (left, top), her twin sister Michele Rae Powers, who was murdered in 1982, and their sons. Ruth says the man responsible for the killing, Jimmie Dean Stohler, is up for parole but should remain in prison for his actions. CORY YOUNG / Tulsa World
Retired Tulsa District Judge Don Lane discusses the trial of crossbow convict Jimmie Dean Stohler at his home in Tulsa. Lane and the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board are recommending Stohler be paroled. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World