The murders of Todd Staheli and his wife, Michelle – a Brazilian cold-case mystery
LATEST NEWS, November 21st, 2022 – Has the most valuable potential witness for the Stahelis been overlooked? Click here or scroll down for more details.
My name is Nick Foster. I’m a true crime author (for more about me, see here), currently investigating the cold-case murder of American couple Todd and Michelle Staheli in Rio de Janeiro in 2003 (please read on, or click here for a summary of the case).
The purpose of this website is to shed light on the truth about what happened to the Stahelis. I have investigated this terrible crime – which left the couple’s four young children orphaned – on the ground in Brazil. I have included some of my findings on this website. My intention is gradually to reveal more findings.
This case fascinates me – it has really gotten under my skin. The Staheli siblings have suffered terribly for much of their lives. They have my total sympathy, and deserve to know who murdered their parents, and why.
Most of all, I think the case is probably solvable.
In the meantime, though, I need your help. If you worked for Shell Oil (Royal Dutch Shell) in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and have any information to share on Todd Staheli and his career – in Brazil, Ukraine, London, Saudi Arabia, Houston and elsewhere – please contact me. I will treat your messages in the strictest confidence. I know, for instance, that Todd’s posting in Rio de Janeiro was offered to at least one other executive, who turned it down. Please get in touch. In particular, if you are the gentleman who preceded Todd at Shell’s Rio office, write to me. If you took on Todd’s Brazilian responsibilities after his murder, also please contact me.
You can reach me at [email protected].
If your work in the oil and gas industry brought you in contact with the Transredes gas pipeline – through one of the other oil majors with a share of Transredes – I would also be very keen to hear from you.
Se você trabalhou com o Todd na Shell (ou na Petrobras) no Rio, eu ficaria grato se me escrevesse no seguinte endereço: [email protected]. Falo português.
The Staheli case in a nutshell
In late July 2003, Todd Staheli, (39), a high-flying oil executive from Salt Lake City, Utah, took up a posting with Shell Oil in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Todd had previously worked for Shell in Ukraine and Saudi Arabia, having made a name for himself for being the go-to man when problems appeared in Shell’s overseas joint ventures (JVs). In Brazil, Todd’s JV partner was the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras, majority-owned by the Brazilian state. Shell and Petrobras were building a gas pipeline, known as Transredes, from Bolivia to southern Brazil, and from there to Argentina. Environmentalists and Bolivian nationalist politicians had criticized the pipeline. For Shell, the main problem was that the Transredes JV had a serious and systemic cost overrun – and nobody at the corporation was sure why. They sent Todd to Brazil to find out what was going on.
Todd set up home in the upscale Porto dos Cabritos condominium in the Rio suburb of Barra da Tijuca. Todd’s wife, Michelle, 36, and their four young children joined him in Brazil at the end of August that year. The Staheli family was Mormon – practicing members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) – and they soon found a local LDS church to attend, and a Mormon community to befriend. The only cloud on the horizon was Todd’s situation at work in Rio. He confided to colleagues that Petrobras was “the most difficult partner” he had ever encountered.
The family’s outwardly happy expat life came to a brutal end in the early hours of Sunday, November 30th, 2003. The couple’s son, Logan, then 10, heard the constant beeping of his parents’ alarm clock, and went to their bedroom to investigate. He found his father bludgeoned to death, lying in bed in a pool of blood. His mother Michelle had also been viciously attacked, and was unconscious. Between them, the couple’s youngest child, Carly (3) was asleep, unharmed. After praying with her brother for guidance, the eldest Staheli child, daughter Wesley (13), rang a neighbor in the condominium, who then called the emergency services. Michelle died of her wounds on December 4th. The four Staheli children – there was another daughter, Madison, aged 8 – were now orphans. Nobody could understand who could have committed such a violent and bloody act – or why.
The double-murder of the American oilman and his wife in what was, supposedly, a secure condominium, was a headache for the Brazilian authorities. There was no evidence of forced entry and the alarm in the Stahelis’ house did not go off. How the culprits entered the compound was a mystery, as it was guarded 24/7. In one report, the security guards were not around at the time of the killings. And if it was a robbery, why was nothing stolen? Why, for instance, was Todd’s gold Rolex watch left undisturbed on his nightstand?
But two things did disappear that night. The first was the oilman’s PalmPilot, the height of technology at the time, containing draft reports on his work with Petrobras and Shell. The second was the murder weapon. Neither could be found.
There were rumors from the beginning that the murders were the work of hitmen ordered by enemies of Shell Oil – or by enemies of Todd himself in the opaque world of international oil deals. The public prosecutor assigned to the case said it was “almost supernatural”. One friend of the family wondered if a “kook from the church” could be behind the crime.
Enter Anthony Garotinho, the security minister for the state of Rio de Janeiro at the time and former radio show host. Part politician, part b-list celebrity. Garotinho was supremely well-connected – his wife was Rio state governor – but had a reputation for being a particularly energetic self-publicist. Garotinho assumed leadership of the investigation, angering the Stahelis’ friends and relatives by naming the murdered couple’s daughter Wesley as a suspect. Wesley was subject to a lengthy interview with investigators without a guardian or relative present. She said that her father had been troubled at work and had received a threatening phone call a few days prior to the murders. Garotinho went on TV holding a toy hatchet he said he discovered in Wesley’s bedroom – with the clear implication that the young girl was involved. This was further bolstered by the chief of Rio’s criminal investigation department, Álvaro Lins, who insisted that the involvement of somebody in the family could not be ruled out. As it turned out, Lins himself had a family connection to the security company providing guards to the Porto dos Cabritos condominium.
In May 2004, some five months after the murder, a new lead appeared. Garotinho called a press conference to parade a new suspect: Jossiel dos Santos, a 20-year-old handyman who did jobs for the residents of Porto dos Cabritos. Dos Santos admitted the crime on television. He said on camera that he had killed the Stahelis with a crowbar. It was revenge – he claimed – for a racial slur that Todd had used in his presence. He had acted alone. To anyone who knew Todd, this seemed odd. Todd spoke little to no Portuguese and was a Mormon, known for their politeness. Also, dos Santos was short and slightly built. Todd was a much more powerfully built man. How had dos Santos managed to beat him and his wife to death on his own?
In 2006, dos Santos was tried and found guilty of the murders of Todd and Michelle Staheli, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. That year, Todd Staheli’s father, Zera Staheli, told a Utah newspaper that he did not believe dos Santos had done it. Relatives in Salt Lake City hired lawyers to try to find out more. A new theory emerged, based in part on records the family obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. The family came to believe that the U.S. State Department was withholding evidence gathered by FBI agents in the days and weeks after the crime demonstrating that the Brazilian government-controlled Petrobras might be behind the murders. Meanwhile, a report in the Brazilian media suggested that 40,000 Brazilian Reais (some US$13,500) was offered to dos Santos for access to the residential compound, apparently to facilitate a burglary. It is simply unthinkable that burglars would offer such a huge sum – likely three or four times what a handyman in Brazil would earn in a year.
The bombshell came in February 2022. The now-adult Staheli siblings filed a lawsuit in a Utah District Court against Petrobras, accusing the corporation of having planned their parents’ 2003 murder to cover up a multi-million dollar corruption scheme Todd had discovered. Petrobras rejected these accusations in full, describing them as “entirely groundless”, adding that “the Corporation will defend itself vigorously at trial”.
According to the lawsuit, “hundreds of millions of dollars were being paid in kickbacks and bribes involving Petrobras”. Todd found that cost overruns on the Transredes JV “were the result of rigged contracts at inflated prices and related bribes being paid to politicians and government”. The lawyers for the Staheli siblings made a remarkable claim: that Todd was murdered on the instruction of one or more employees of Petrobras to prevent him from revealing the beginnings of what would come to be known as the ‘Lava Jato’ (‘Car Wash’) corruption scheme – the biggest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history. Lava Jato would be uncovered a decade later as part of a Brazilian Federal Police investigation that led to the arrest of several hundred Petrobras executives, high-ranking government officials and powerful business people. Former president Lula da Silva was even jailed for his part in the scandal. Brazil has always suffered from graft, but what made Lava Jato different was that its corruption was institutionalized, protected by many of the highest offices in the land – not operating outside the law, but within it. Ordinary Brazilians wondered how it could be that powerful politicians and big business, specifically Brazil’s highest-profile construction companies, had gotten away with it for so long. What happened was that the cover-up was complete, on the level of bookkeeping (Petrobras’ internal and external audit reports offered no clues whatsoever) and also in terms of political oversight, since the most important ultimate beneficiaries of Lava Jato were the crooked politicians who were fully part of the scam.
It was only by chance that the rigged contracts at Petrobras came to light. In 2014, a financial crimes investigator at the Brazilian Federal Police noticed a series of high-value bank transfers originating at a suite of offices occupied by a black market money dealer above a car wash in Brasília. The Federal Police team decided to put tabs on the money dealer, and when they saw that the same dealer had bought a US$100,000 SUV for one of Petrobras’ directors, a figurative alarm bell rang. The Lava Jato scam had by then been going on for at least a decade, and its discovery in 2014 was down to diligence on the part of the Federal Police – but also a stroke of luck. In this context, for an American oilman with no knowledge of the Portuguese language to gather evidence of wholesale corruption at Petrobras in four months strains credibility – but it is not impossible.
In the lawsuit, the Staheli siblings are demanding monetary and punitive damages for the emotional distress and trauma they endured, in addition to the cost of their legal fees.
And the lawsuit names the guilty men: Paulo Roberto Costa, Todd’s opposite number on the Transredes JV and a Petrobras director, was the person who masterminded the murder, aided and abetted by Garotinho and Lins – or so the lawyers claim. (For his part, Costa’s Brazilian attorney describes the allegations as a “ridiculous fantasy”.)
Did Todd Staheli really uncover the beginnings of the Lava Jato corruption scandal? How did he do so without an even rudimentary knowledge of Portuguese? How did he access broader Petrobras bookkeeping when his remit was limited to the Transredes JV? How did Costa, acting alone or with others at Petrobras, work out the danger that Todd posed to the kickback scheme, and subsequently organise the hit in four months after the American’s arrival in Brazil? Why does the Utah lawsuit make no mention of Shell Oil? What did Todd report to Shell HQ in the short time he was in Brazil?
The attorneys for the Staheli siblings maintain that dos Santos disappeared after his release in 2018 and “cannot be located”. They also claim the trial documents are missing, and likewise cannot be found. Are either of these claims genuine? If not, what damning evidence might dos Santos and the trial documents reveal? Then there is the matter of the contractors who took part in Petrobras’ rigged tendering. They had a lot to lose, too, if the scam was discovered. If Todd might have angered Costa, it follows he might also have angered one of the contractors. So might one of the contractors engaged in what the Stahelis’ lawyers term the “cartel” which carved up Petrobras’ contracts, or someone linked to one of the contractors in the “cartel”, have ordered the hit?
Petrobras was clearly a corrupt organisation – corruption that amounted to a loss of the equivalent of US$5 billion – but guilt for systemic and profound corruption is not the same thing as hiring a hitman to kill a perceived opponent.
As far as the lawsuit is concerned, the stakes could hardly be higher.
If the Salt Lake City attorneys can demonstrate that it was a functionary of Petrobras who ordered Todd’s murder, the four siblings will surely get a multi-million-dollar pay-out.
If it was anyone else, the siblings will receive not a single cent.
About Nick Foster
I’m a British former diplomat, now a true-crime author. My first book was The Jolly Roger Social Club: A True Story of a Killer in Paradise (Henry Holt, Duckworth, 2016). A television series based on the book is currently in pre-production, and a podcast will appear by the end of 2022.
My follow-up was Murder at Roaringwater: The Inside Story of the Death of Sophie Toscan du Plantier (Mirror Books, 2021, published in French translation as Elle s’appelait Sophie, Archipel, also 2021). The Daily Mail described Murder at Roaringwater as “hauntingly beautiful, breathtaking… unputdownable”.
My journalism has appeared in the Financial Times, the New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, The (U.K.) Times and other outlets.
Who ordered the murders of Todd and Michelle Staheli?
September 1st, 2022. Some thoughts… We can be sure that the murders were no robbery that went wrong. Jossiel dos Santos was not the killer. He was the fall guy. Todd’s father saw right through this, as did other members of the Staheli family. But with dos Santos convicted, the case has been solved as far as the Brazilian criminal justice system is concerned.
Did Todd Staheli uncover (the beginnings of) the Lava Jato corruption scheme? I will return to this question in due course. The answer lies in part in the short time that Todd spent in Rio before his murder and the fact he spoke very little Portuguese. It also, crucially, lies in the level of access that Todd had to a) bookkeeping at Petrobras, and b) the contracting history of the program of engineering and construction works at Transredes, which was anyway broadly complete by the time Todd flew into Rio. More to follow.
The contradiction at the heart of the case, and the reason why it turns in my head at night, is this: First, Todd was surely the victim of a hit – you would bet the house on it. Second, Todd became a target, meaning someone (or several people) arrived at the conclusion he should be eliminated, and planned and executed the murder, in four months. It is an amazingly brief time for a motive for such a callous crime properly to become known, to be weighed up and processed AND for the hit to be contracted and carried out. Full cause and effect in just four months. On the face of it, this does not square. There’s not enough time.
However, solving the case is nowhere near as hopeless as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Why not? Because, I think, whoever (singular or plural) ordered Todd’s killing, and murdered Michelle, too, had access to a slush fund. By “slush fund”, I mean an established and ongoing source of payments that could, for example, buy a man’s silence, and perhaps his family’s silence too (let’s leave it vague for now) over a period of years. Access to a slush fund therefore limits the potential perpetrators.
There is also a chance that Todd made enemies in Ukraine during an earlier posting in that country. I cannot rule this scenario out, particularly as it would mean establishing motive before Todd arrived in Rio de Janeiro.
This is what I know about Todd Staheli: Todd stood up for what he believed in; he set an example for others. He never abandoned the evangelism of his early life – his LDS mission, the certainty of his faith. He took those certainties, those incontrovertible values, to places in the world where they would rub up against a baser form of humanity or, simply, where decisions and choices were corrupted and some form of compromise often inserted itself.
Todd wanted to change the world, and he never stopped trying.
November 21st, 2022. LATEST NEWS on the case. The endgame is approaching. We’ll soon find out if the Honorable Tena Campbell, a judge at the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, Utah, decides if the Stahelis’ lawsuit will go to trial.
But now I’m wondering if the most valuable potential witness of all has been overlooked. More on this below…
For their part, the Washington, D.C.-based lawyers for the defendant, Petrobras, have responded to the Stahelis’ lawsuit, called a “Complaint” in the legal jargon, with a “Motion to Dismiss”. According to the Motion to Dismiss, “Plaintiffs [i.e. the Staheli siblings] have alleged absolutely no facts plausibly linking Petrobras to the murders… Plaintiffs attempt to manufacture a claim by asserting that the murders were connected to the highly-publicized ‘Operation Lava Jato’ investigation in Brazil.” It’s “a provocative theory based on sheer speculation” which “does not allege a single act by Petrobras in any way connected to the murders”. On top of that, the murders were carried out in Brazil (“absolutely no part of these events occurred in Utah”), so the lawsuit should not be heard at the Salt Lake City courthouse (this is an “improper venue” in the legalese of the Petrobras lawyers).
But someone wanted Todd dead. And you’d bet your bottom dollar that it was a person or persons connected with, or working in, the oil industry.
The Stahelis’ lawyers got the chance to add extra arguments to their lawsuit before Judge Campbell’s ruling.
So what else has Team Staheli got?
Two “confidential witnesses” (“CWs”), both individuals with long careers at Petrobras. Neither is named, apparently for fear of reprisals. CW1 worked under Paulo Roberto Costa at the time of the Staheli murders. S/he told the Staheli lawyers that all major decisions for the Bolivia to Brazil pipeline (meaning, Transredes) “were made by Petrobras through Costa” and that Costa and Petrobras were stealing large amounts of money from Shell. Costa was responsible for approving cost overruns on the pipeline project, putting him in the perfect position to inflate the value of contacts with the connivance of contractors. CW2 was a peer of Costa, and confirmed to the Stahelis’ legal team that Costa had a “demonstrable” history of approving corrupt deals – other employees at Petrobras either had their snouts in the trough or chose to turn a blind eye to the thievery in order to (as the Complaint rather coyly puts it) “avoid negative consequences for themselves”. Meanwhile, “less than two months after the murders of Todd and Michelle, Costa was suddenly promoted from his mid-level management position [surpassing] dozens of other higher ranking and better qualified internal candidates at Petrobras”. According to CW2, Costa’s promotion “only make sense when viewed as a reward from Petrobras […] for silencing Todd and preventing the disclosure of Petrobras’ corruption…”
No smoking gun there.
But has a key potential witness been missed?
I recently came across a man who received what he understood to be a grave verbal threat on a Rio de Janeiro street, in the period before the Lava Jato scandal broke in Brazil. This man hated the rampant corruption at Petrobras and was keen to do something about it. Going public via the media was, as I understand it, out of the question for him. Instead, the man tried to call out the wrongdoings at Petrobras internally. His reward? An encounter – very unlikely to be by chance – with another man on that Rio street, who gave him a message. The messenger told the man who hated the corruption at Petrobras that he should be very, very careful. Someone high up in Petrobras was not happy with this man. The messenger on the Rio street mentioned the person high up in Petrobras by name. And on hearing the name, the would-be whistleblower was afraid enough to believe his life was in danger.
Check back regularly for updates on my investigation and on the passage of the Stahelis’ lawsuit through the Utah court system.
© Nick Foster. Brief passages may be quoted with acknowledgement of source. This website was produced in, and operates from, the Kingdom of Belgium.