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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — Dunn County Circuit Court Judge James Peterson has set a preliminary hearing for Gary Styer, who is accused in his death of his father, Edward Styer of Colfax, on January 15.
Gary Styer appeared before Judge Peterson by video-conferencing from the Dunn County jail with his attorneys, Liesel E. Nelson and Jeremiah Harrelson, on January 24 in a continued initial appearance.
Styer started his initial appearance before Judge Peterson January 21 with Laurie Osberg, manager of the public defender’s office in Hudson, who said she had not yet been able to assign an attorney to Gary Styer because she was still checking on potential conflicts of interest.
At the January 21 hearing, Osberg was unwilling to release Edward Styer’s body to his family.
A funeral was scheduled for Edward Styer on January 25.
Judge Peterson continued the initial appearance to January 24, when it was expected that the public defender’s office would have been able to assign an attorney to the case.
At the January 24 hearing, Nelson said she was reluctant to release the victim’s body because she was concerned about the “preservation of exculpatory evidence.”
“Exculpatory” refers to evidence that shows a defendant is not guilty.
The complete autopsy report will be ready in four to six weeks, and then after the complete autopsy report is available, then the defense can decide if a second independent autopsy is necessary, Nelson said.
Dunn County District Attorney Andrea Nodolf objected to holding Edward Styer’s body for that long.
Is Dunn County setting a precedent where bodies are held for months and families cannot get on with the process of grieving? Nodolf asked.
Nelson said she was sensitive to the issues involving the family but that there was the potential for exculpatory information.
The Dunn County Medical Examiner’s Office had made arrangements for Edward Styer’s body to be cremated in time for the funeral on January 25, Nodolf noted.
A body is a very different piece of evidence than a car, a cell phone or drugs, Judge Peterson said.
While Judge Peterson said there is no case law in Wisconsin he was aware of, an article highlighting similar cases in other states concluded that in none of the cases where the body was returned to the family for burial before an independent autopsy could be performed were the due process rights of defendant violated.
There is “significant interest” in getting the body to the family, Judge Peterson said.
The way the court sees it is whether there is reason to believe “beyond speculation,” not just to “cover bases” to preserve the body “to be on the safe side,” he said.
If the defense can demonstrate the value of waiting for an independent autopsy, then the court will have to consider holding the body for an extended period of time, Judge Peterson said.
Holding the body “just in case” and “to play it safe, just does not cut it,” he said.
Judge Peterson said while he did not want to rush the defense on a decision about preservation of the body, he also was not willing to wait indefinitely and indicated he would set another court hearing in two weeks.
In two weeks, the defense should be able to give specific concrete reasons for a second autopsy, and if not, Judge Peterson said he would not extend the time.
Considering the different degrees of homicide, the evidence could be significant to the degree of homicide, Judge Peterson said.
Degree of homicide could “potentially” be a reason why an independent autopsy would be needed, he said.
Judge Peterson ordered Edward Styer’s body not be released for two weeks and scheduled another court hearing on the matter for February 5.
The preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for February 13.
During a preliminary hearing, witnesses give testimony, and a judge decides whether there is probable cause to continue with the case. If the defendant waives the preliminary hearing, the judge has the ability to find probable cause from the criminal complaint.
At the time of the January 24 court hearing, Gary Styer remained in custody on a $250,000 cash bail set on January 20.
According to the criminal complaint, a caller had contacted the 911 Communications Center on January 15 and said he or she had received information from a client that Edward Styer may or may not be alive and requested a welfare check.
Dunn County deputies were dispatched to the Styer residence on state Highway 40 in the Town of Colfax at around 6 p.m. January 15.
The deputies discovered the main door of the residence was locked and secured and then received additional information from another investigator that Edward Styer was in a bedroom on the first floor of the residence and deceased, according to the criminal complaint.
The investigator had gone to Eau Claire and was speaking with Gary Styer at the Eau Claire Public Library.
The deputies forced the door open, and after clearing the first floor of the residence, came to a bedroom door that was open six inches and observed a white male lying on his back, covered in blood.
The deputies initially suspected there had been a gunshot wound to the head, the complaint states.
Investigators accompanied Dunn County Medical Examiner Marcie Rosas to the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office in Minnesota on January 16 where the autopsy was performed.
Investigators observed deep lacerations to the victim’s head and face as well as bruising and lacerations on the hands, arms, torso and legs.
The provisional autopsy report indicates Edward Styer sustained multiple blunt force injuries, including facial fractures, skull fractures, cerebral contusions, vertebral fractures and soft tissue hemorrhage, according to the criminal complaint.
“The cause of death was determined to be due to multiple blunt force head injuries and the manner of death was indicated as homicide,” the complaint states.
Investigators conducted an interview with Gary Styer on January 16 regarding the death of his father. Gary Styer had made previous written statements to other officers that he had killed his father with a two-by-four, according to the complaint.
All together, three interviews were conducted on January 16, and during the interviews, Gary Styer was unable to give “verbal commands” and instead used gestures and answered questions in writing on paper, the complaint states.
During the first interview, investigators read the Miranda Warning to Styer, and he indicated he understood and wished to have an attorney present. Styer asked the investigators questions that were not related to the events which had happened at the residence on Highway 40, and investigators answered his questions and did not ask anything incriminating and reminded Styer not to write about anything incriminating, according to the criminal complaint.
Styer returned to the jail, and about 20 minutes later, jail staff contacted investigators and said Styer wished to speak with them.
During the interview, Styer said he had taken a two-by-four and had entered his father’s bedroom before dawn, when it was still dark outside, and that he had begun to strike his father with the two-by-four. When he was finished, Styer said he had covered his father with a blanket, according to the complaint.
Investigators noted Styer’s description of the victim and the placement of the two-by-four matched what had been found at the residence.
Gary Styer told investigators he had done this “as a result of years of emotional abuse as well as noting physical abuse when he was a child. The Defendant also stated that his father’s comments regarding the Defendant’s lack of employment only re-enforced the Defendant’s own feelings about himself,” according to the criminal complaint.