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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — Gary Styer has been sentenced to life in a mental health institution after pleading not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect in the death of his father, Edward Styer of Colfax.
Styer, age 51, appeared with his attorneys, Liesel E. Nelson and Jeremiah Harrelson, for a plea and sentencing hearing September 4 before Judge Rod W. Smeltzer in Dunn County Circuit Court.
Styer was charged with one felony count of first degree intentional homicide, with the modifiers of use of a dangerous weapon and domestic abuse inflicting physical pain or injury, in the bludgeoning death of his 78-year-old father on January 15 at the Styer home south of Colfax.
First degree intentional homicide carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
Section 971.15 of the Wisconsin Statutes defines not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, which is also referred to as “NGI.” A defendant can be considered NGI if the defendant lacks the capacity to understand his or her conduct was wrong and is so ill, he or she cannot understand what has been done is illegal. A defendant also can be considered NGI if the person is so ill, he or she cannot control his or her actions.
Styer has been mute at court hearings, and during the plea and sentencing hearing, Judge Smeltzer asked Styer to hold up placards saying “yes” or “no” to answer questions from the judge.
In response to questions about whether Styer understood he was being charged in connection with the death of his father, whether he had been diagnosed with a mental health condition but the condition did not affect his ability to understand and whether he understood he could have had a jury trial but was willing to waive his right to a trial — Styer held up the “yes” placard, which the judge read into the court record.
When asked whether Styer was pleading NGI and waiving his constitutional rights, including his right to remain silent and that his silence cannot be held against him, Styer held up the “yes” placard.
And when asked if Styer was agreeing with the underlying criminal complaint that he caused the death of his father on January 15, that in the early morning hours he struck his father with a two-by-four repeatedly, causing his death, that he self-reported the incident to a counselor in Eau Claire and that the court is using the admission of facts to accept the NGI plea to first degree intentional homicide — Styer held up the “yes” placard.
Several of Edward Styer’s relatives gave victim impact statements to the court.
Gary Styer should serve life in prison, said Patricia Hanson, Edward Styer’s younger sister.
Gary “had a plan” and “knew what he was doing.” He was angry he had to move back home after having an apartment in Eau Claire, and he only moved back home to “get rid of” Ed Styer so Gary could collect his inheritance, Hanson said.
Hanson went on to say she had never heard a bad word about Edward Styer and that “people loved Ed.”
When Edward Styer was married, 500 people came to the wedding, and there were 400 people at his funeral, she said.
Everyone loved Ed and misses Ed “so so much,” Hanson said.
Edward Styer attended basketball and softball games in Colfax and Menomonie, and “so many people loved Ed,” she said.
Hanson concluded by saying she believed Gary Styer’s inheritance should be used to pay for his time in prison and that he should serve life in prison with no possibility of parole.
As he had done at a previous court hearing, Judge Smeltzer acknowledged that he knows the Styer family and said he had graduated from high school with one of Edward Styer’s younger brothers.
Judge Smeltzer said he remembered Ed Styer’s “infectious laugh.”
Not la-la land
Sylvia Styer, another of Edward Styer’s sisters, said Gary Styer was upset because Ed Styer had told him to get a job and that Gary “has never worked” and has “lived off the system all his life.”
Gary Styer should be sent to prison and not a “la-la land”prison but a maximum security prison with no chance for parole, Sylvia Styer said.
If Gary ever got out of prison, “the rest of us would fear for our lives,” she said.
Jeff Styer, who said he was representing his father, another younger brother of Edward Styer, said that Ed Styer’s siblings would be fearful if Gary Styer went to a hospital because he could ask for his release every six months.
Jeff Styer said his father believed that Gary Styer had planned the murder.
Dunn County District Attorney Andrea Nodolf read a statement from Dale Styer, another of Edward Styer’s brothers.
Dale Styer also believed Gary Styer had planned the murder and that when Ed Styer “fought back” it frightened Gary Styer and asked, “is that why you don’t speak?”
In his statement, Dale Styer said Gary Styer’s plea should be “guilty” and that he should be confined for the rest of his life.
District Attorney Nodolf told the court she was stipulating Gary Styer’s plea of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
The evaluations of Styer performed by several mental health professionals state that Styer is not malingering or is not faking a mental health condition, she said.
According to the evaluations, Styer lacked the capacity to conform to the law at the time of the crime, and Styer was suffering from depression and hopelessness to the point where Styer’s perception of reality had been altered, Nodolf said.
Styer suffers from profound despair and repressed anger at his father, and the murder was an impulsive act of physical aggression, according to the mental health evaluations, she said.
Nodolf said all together, she had reviewed a thousand pages of mental health reports on Gary Styer, who has been hospitalized four times with suicidal ideations or suicide attempts.
Gary Styer has seen numerous mental health professionals dating back to the time he was in his 20s, and there are 30 years of records from mental health professionals, Nodolf said.
Styer qualifies under state statute for the NGI plea, and the state does not have much of a defense against the plea of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect because Styer has not been faking mental illness for the last 30 years, she said.
Gary Styer’s mental health problems have been pervasive and complicated, said Nelson, one of the attorneys representing Styer.
Judge Smeltzer again noted that he knew Edward Styer and his brothers and sisters.
“Our roots run deep in the Rusk Prairie where we all grew up,” he said.
Gary Styer’s struggle is “clear to the court,” Judge Smeltzer said, adding a paraphrase of something Gary Styer had said — “My life was gone before I killed Ed and after I killed him.”
There was no benefit to Gary Styer to have his father gone, and Gary Styer’s burden is no less after the murder of Edward Styer, Judge Smeltzer said.
Gary is not denying that he killed Edward Styer and admits that he committed the murder, he said.
To accept an NGI plea, there must be a mental illness. Two doctors have reported that Gary Styer suffers from more than one mental illness, Judge Smeltzer said.
The second criteria for an NGI plea is that as the result of a mental illness, did Gary Styer lack the capacity to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law? he said.
At the time the murder occurred, Gary Styer could not conform his conduct to the requirements of the law, Judge Smeltzer said, adding that he found there was a factual basis for the plea of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect and that he was accepting Gary Styer’s plea.
Judge Smeltzer asked if Styer’s attorneys or the district attorney believed a predisposition evaluation should be ordered.
Nodolf said she did not believe a predisposition evaluation was needed and that Styer had exhausted all of the resources available in the community.
Medications have not mitigated Styer’s mental illness to allow him to reside in the community, she said.
Documenting the resources available in the community would be helpful toward future decisions concerning Gary Styer, Nelson said.
A commitment order will mean services are more coordinated, but it would be helpful to know what other resources would be available for a highly structured group setting, she said.
If Gary Styer is committed to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, a plan would have to be put in place for him to be discharged, and the plan would require sufficient community health resources, Judge Smeltzer said.
The two evaluations reviewed by the court and the recommendations to address Styer’s mental health issues show the community could not find an effective treatment for Styer and additional information would not be helpful to the court, Judge Smeltzer said, adding he would not order a predisposition report.
Nodolf said she believed Styer should be in institutional care and that a conditional release would pose a risk of Styer doing bodily harm to himself and to others.
The murder was especially “heinous and disturbing,” but with Styer’s mental health history and his present condition, the state agrees he should be considered not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect at the time of the murder, Nodolf said.
Gary Styer had moved out on his own for two years but because of a sensory disorder could not handle the sound of dogs barking, lawn mowers or toxins in his apartment, Nodolf said.
Nodolf said she went to the Styer house after the murder and went into Gary Styer’s bedroom where there was no television or computer or cell phone.
Styer had no job, no significant other and no children. He appeared to spend his time reading, and he was an artist who also did some woodworking, she said.
Nodolf said she had found business cards from pastors, counselors, social workers and doctors, indicating Gary Styer had reached out for help.
Styer’s last hospitalization had been a little more than two weeks before the murder, Nodolf said.
Gary Styer cannot deal with others, and he poses a significant risk of bodily harm to himself or others, she said, adding that Edward Styer had not done anything “to spark this.”
Styer’s parents disciplined him with spankings in the 1970s, which was a common parenting technique back then, but Gary was not able to move on. He went to art school in Duluth but suffered from paranoid delusions and could not complete the program. In his cell at the Dunn County jail, if someone else is there, he writes a note that he does not feel safe, Nodolf said.
Gary Styer needs to be in an institution and not a group home, she said.
Styer cannot cope in society. His defense attorneys want a group home, but that is not a risk the community can take. Both of Styer’s parents are deceased and his two sisters would not allow him in their homes or in their lives, Nodolf said.
Styer would have zero support if he were released, Nodolf said, adding that she was asking for a commitment for life.
Gary Styer felt distressed about being a burden to his father and made attempts to live independently. He needs a managed and structured environment. He wants his family to know he has prayed there will be some forgiveness at some point, Nelson said.
Gary Styer is still a “prisoner of his own mind,” Judge Smeltzer said.
The court believes a conditional release would pose a significant risk of bodily harm to himself and others, and the seriousness of the crime does not allow release into the community, he said.
Judge Smeltzer ordered Styer to be committed to the care of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services for life beginning September 4 and granted him 233 days of credit for time served, which “may be appropriate at some point.”
Judge Smeltzer concluded the hearing by saying it was one of the hardest hearings he has conducted in his 23 years on the bench.