State v. Stenson

Decision Date24 July 1997
Docket NumberNo. 61965-4,61965-4
Citation132 Wn.2d 668,940 P.2d 1239
CourtWashington Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Washington, Respondent, v. Darold Ray STENSON, a/k/a Darold R.J. Stenson, a/k/a James Allen Anderson, a/k/a Larry Joe Przybycien, Appellant.

Carney, Badley, Smith & Spellman, James Lobsenz, Seattle, for appellant and Darold R. Stenson, Walla Walla, pro se.

David Bruneau, Clallam County Prosecutor, Port Angeles, for respondent.

GUY, Justice.

Darold R. Stenson appeals his sentence of death and the underlying convictions for the murders of his wife and his business associate.

FACTS

On March 25, 1993, Darold (D.J.) Stenson and his wife, Denise Stenson, were living with their three young children on property they called Dakota Farms, which was their residence and the site of their business raising exotic birds. At 4:00 a.m., Stenson called "911" and stated: "this is D.J. Stenson at Dakota Farms.... Frank has just shot my wife, and himself, I think."

Law enforcement personnel arrived at Dakota Farms within several minutes. Stenson met the officers outside and led them first to a downstairs guest bedroom in which the Stensons' friend and business associate, Frank Hoerner, lay face down on the floor, dead of a gunshot wound to his head. A revolver rested beside his hand next to his head. Stenson then directed the officers to the master bedroom upstairs where 28-year-old Denise Stenson lay in bed grievously wounded with a gunshot wound to her head. She was airlifted to Harborview Hospital but died the following day.

Stenson told the officers that the night before the shootings, he and his wife (Denise), and Frank Hoerner and his wife (also named Denise), had dinner together at a restaurant. Stenson told the officers that when he got home from dinner, he called Frank and told him that he should come to Stenson's house to sign some insurance forms for some ostriches which were to be purchased by Stenson for the two of them. Stenson told the officers that Frank said he was too tired but would come over at 3:30 in the morning on his way to catch the ferry to go to work. Stenson said that he called Frank back and told him to call before he came over in the morning.

Stenson told officers that Frank had come to the Stensons' house early on the morning of the shooting to sign insurance forms. According to Stenson, Frank had invested over $30,000 in the Stensons' exotic bird business, and Stenson had told Frank he was going to Texas to pick up Frank's ostriches and some for himself. Stenson told officers that Frank had not brought any cash that morning, but that he had given Stenson $6,850 for the insurance two weeks earlier.

Stenson told officers that when Frank came over to the Stensons' home a little after 3:30 a.m., the two men went to Stenson's office in a separate building behind the house and that Frank signed the insurance forms. Stenson said that Frank became "glum" when he told Frank that he should raise the ostriches Stenson was buying for him at his own home and not on the Stensons' farm. Stenson said that Frank then left the office building to go to the house to use the bathroom. Stenson said that when Frank did not return to the office, he went to the house to look for him and found him in the guest bedroom shot to death. Stenson said he did not hear any gun shots. Stenson said as he looked at Frank, he heard moaning from upstairs and went up to find his wife also shot in the head. He then called "911" and reported the shooting and suicide. Stenson told officers that his three children, aged six, four and one, were asleep upstairs when their mother was shot.

When asked whether he knew any reason why anyone would kill Frank or Denise, Stenson responded there had been some problems in Frank and Denise Hoerner's sexual relationship. When Deputy Gates said to Stenson, "you mentioned earlier that you ... kind of thought that Frank was sweet on your Denise" (Denise Stenson), Stenson answered he knew that Frank liked her and he said that Frank complained about his relationship with his own wife.

At 5:28 a.m. Stenson signed a consent for the officers to search the entire residence, all of the outbuildings and the vehicles. Stenson also voluntarily gave his clothing to one of the detectives. No other physical evidence was taken until later in the morning, after law enforcement officers had obtained a search warrant for the premises.

At 11:16 a.m. on March 25, a superior court judge telephonically issued a search warrant for the premises called Dakota Farms at 55 Kane Lane in Clallam County. During the course of the investigation, 11 search warrants were obtained to search the Stenson property and records, to obtain various bank account records, phone records, the bookkeeping records of Dakota Farms, and a storage locker.

In the request for the initial warrant, the officers sought permission to look for evidence of a relationship between the Stensons and the Hoerners. The officers seeking the warrant told the judge that the physical evidence of blood spattering at the scene did not appear consistent with Stenson's story that an attempted murder and suicide had occurred. The officers also told the magistrate that Denise Hoerner had told officers the Hoerners were good friends with, and in a business partnership with, the Stensons. Denise Stenson's brother had told officers that Stenson was planning to end the partnership with Frank Hoerner and that there was an attraction between Frank Hoerner and Denise Stenson.

The subsequent investigation showed that Frank Hoerner had not committed suicide but had been beaten unconscious, dragged into the house from the gravel driveway, through the laundry room and into the guest bedroom where he was shot in the head at close range. Evidence showed that Frank's hand had come to rest and then the revolver came to rest on it or it was placed on the hand. Stenson had a collection of nun-chu-ka sticks on the wall of his office and the weapon (which was not found) used to render Frank unconscious was consistent with such a weapon. Dr. Brady, who performed the autopsy on Frank, opined that the appearance of Frank's wounds was consistent with having been caused by that type of weapon. Stenson had been a martial arts instructor. The investigation showed spatters of Frank's blood out in the driveway and in the laundry room, and a bloody fingerprint of Stenson's on the freezer in the laundry room. 1 Stenson's jeans had blood spatters on them which were consistent with Frank Hoerner's blood protein profile. Some of the blood spatters on Stenson's jeans were the type of stains which could not have been deposited on the pants after Frank came to his final resting place on the floor. Ammunition which fit the murder weapon was found in Stenson's garage. Particles of gunshot residue were found inside Stenson's right pants pocket.

The investigation also revealed that Stenson was in difficult financial circumstances. Frank had paid $50,000 to Stenson, which was listed on his business books as deposits on birds, but at the time of Frank's death the books showed that only one purchase for two smaller birds totaling under $2,000 had been made from that investment. The bank account of Dakota Farms had a balance of only approximately $3,400, and an audit of Stenson's accounts showed that investors' money had been spent on the Stensons' personal purchases. The owner of the Dakota Farms, Kit Eldridge, was pressuring Stenson to buy the property pursuant to their buy-sell agreement and Stenson had agreed to do so. Their last conversation was in February 1993, and Stenson had told Eldridge he would buy the property soon because business was going well. The murders occurred March 25, 1993. Evidence showed that Stenson had sought large loans shortly before the murders.

Life insurance policies were found in Stenson's office which showed that D.J. Stenson had purchased a total of $400,000 of life insurance on Denise Stenson's life. A $300,000 policy on her life (naming the owner of Dakota Farms, Kit Eldridge, as the beneficiary) had become effective in May 1992. The insurance agent explained at trial that the $300,000 policy was the Stensons' mortgage insurance.

Stenson was arrested on April 8, 1993, and charged with two counts of first degree aggravated murder; the State filed a timely notice of intent to seek the death penalty. The case was tried to a jury in Clallam County in July and August 1994. The prosecution's theory of the case was that Stenson had killed his wife to collect the $400,000 of life insurance and then had killed Frank Hoerner to get out from under the $48,000 of debt he owed to Frank and to blame Frank for Denise Stenson's murder. The prosecution told the jury that the physical evidence made Stenson's murder-suicide story impossible.

Frank's wife, Denise Hoerner, testified that Stenson had convinced Frank he could double his money by investing in Stenson's exotic bird business and that Frank could get rich and have a better life than working so hard as a carpet installer. In 1992, Frank had started investing in the bird business and had given Stenson over $50,000 from the sale of his house. The only birds which Stenson ever purchased on behalf of the Hoerners were two small rheas; the ostriches were never purchased. Denise Hoerner testified that about a month before he was killed, Frank had become worried about the money he had invested and had told Stenson that he wanted the birds or his money back. She testified that Stenson told her and Frank that he needed to keep their money in his account to show Asian investors that he had money so he could get a loan from them. Mrs. Hoerner testified that Frank became worried again when Stenson went to Texas to get birds for Frank and returned without birds. She testified that Stenson told Frank he was going back to Texas on March 25, 1993, to get birds. Mrs. Hoerner testified that...

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