The family of murder victim Dystiny Myers is suing San Luis Obispo County, saying the District Attorney’s Office didn’t inform them that they had kept the 15-year-old Santa Maria girl’s skull during the prosecution of her killers.
“We’re not going into this for the money,” said Kathy Clark, Myers’ grandmother. “We just want justice for Dystiny.”
The county, which still has the skull, plans to challenge the lawsuit.
“Our opinion, after looking into this, is that the District Attorney’s Office did not do anything inappropriately,” said Nina Negranti, chief deputy county counsel.
After running away from a group home in 2010, Myers of Santa Maria wound up at the Nipomo residence of Rhonda Wisto, a methamphetamine dealer with gang associations. In September 2010, Wisto ordered the girl's murder, saying Myers had disrespected Wisto.
While three defendants — Ty Hill, Cody Miller and Jason Greenwell — later pleaded guilty to murder, Wisto and her son, Jacob York, maintained their innocence and took their case to a jury.
At one point during the trial, the prosecution projected an image of Myers’ skull on a screen as a pathologist testified about the skull fractures the victim had suffered. Seeing the photo, Myers’ mother, Aileen Lucas, left the courtroom, visibly upset.
While the District Attorney’s Office had warned the family about graphic testimony beforehand, Clark said the family didn’t know the girl’s head had not been buried with the rest of her body.
“We were very much caught off guard,” she said. “Nobody told us anything until the day that we were sitting in the trial.”
Because it is a pending civil matter, Jerret Gran, chief deputy district attorney, referred comments regarding the case to the county counsel.
In August, about three months after the final defendant was sentenced in the case, Myers’ family — with the aid of a Los Angeles-based attorney — filed the claim, saying they did not authorize the county to keep the remains.
The claim alleged that Lucas had to be hospitalized for a nervous breakdown after seeing the photo of her daughter’s skull. Both Lucas and Clark, the claim stated, “continue to suffer from anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness due to the negligence of defendant.”
“We have a very hard time even going to the cemetery,” Clark said.
The claim does not seek a specific money amount, noting it was “presently unascertainable,” though the claim did say compensatory and punitive damages would be sought.
Clark said the family mostly wants the public to be aware of what happened so it doesn’t occur again.
“We just want the accountability to be there,” Clark said.
At the end of September, the county formally rejected the allegations.
“The claim is completely devoid of any merit,” Negranti said. “There was no negligence by the county. The county did nothing wrong.”
Once the county rejects a claim, the plaintiff has six months to file a lawsuit. Clark, who is handling the suit without an attorney, said the family plans to formally file its paperwork before the March 27 deadline.
After a lawsuit is filed, the county will file a response in opposition, Negranti said.
Three and a half years after the murder, the county still has the skull in its possession, but it has notified the family that the remains can be released back to them. Clark does not know yet how they will receive the skull. Reuniting the remains would require a costly exhumation. The body is buried at Santa Maria Cemetery, below a tombstone with the inscription, “Not Goodbye. But Goodnight.”
“I know eventually we will be able to get the rest of Dystiny and take care of that,” Clark said. “I just wish they would have taken care of it sooner, before the (criminal) trial even started.”
Patrick S. Pemberton is a reporter with the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.