One of three men who were teenagers when they ambushed and brutally murdered 15-year-old Elyse Pahler in a Nipomo Mesa eucalyptus grove 26 years ago could be released from prison after being granted parole.
Some members of Pahler’s family, including her father, don’t oppose the decision. But the release of Royce Casey — the most remorseful of the trio who eventually came forward and revealed Pahler’s gruesome fate — is not certain.
The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office is asking the governor to block his release, and given the high-profile nature of the case, it’s going to be a weighty decision.
Casey was 17 when he, 15-year-old Joseph Fiorella and 16-year-old Jacob Delashmutt stabbed, strangled and stomped the Arroyo Grande High School freshman to death in what the defendants described to investigators as a satanic quest to play better death metal music.
He pleaded no contest to first-degree murder following his confession and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, of which he was required to serve 21 years. Special allegations of torture and rape were dismissed against each defendant.
At Casey’s parole hearing in March, his own attorney acknowledged “the unique depravity” and “inescapable, barbaric nature” of Pahler’s high-profile murder.
“This will go down in the annals of California’s history, if it hasn’t already, as unmistakably one of the worst crimes that has ever been perpetrated — and there’s stiff competition for it,” attorney Charles Carbone told commissioners March 17.
But the panel noted that Casey, who’s now clean-cut and relatively young at 43, also has a nearly 20-year record of model behavior in prison and has participated in a series of rehabilitative programs, serves as a mentor, earned his GED, and is working on a specialized bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology.
He plans to become a substance abuse counselor in the Los Angeles area if released, he said.
Despite those accomplishments, the District Attorney’s Office is opposing the panel’s ruling, saying the commissioners did not give proper weight to the horror of the crime.
Members of Pahler’s family, however, have taken a more forgiving stance on the prospect of Casey’s release.
David Pahler, Elyse’s father, told The Tribune that Casey is suitable for parole, and he does not believe he is a risk to public safety. He said he and his son placed their faith in the parole board’s two commissioners.
If the board’s legal team does not find any issues with the panel’s decision, the March ruling will become final in 120 days.
It will then go to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who can reverse the decision, refer it for further review or take no action, in which Casey will be scheduled for release after 30 days.
“Society will always be horrified by what Mr. Casey did and understandably so,” Carbone said Thursday. “God willing, the governor is going to make the right decision.”
Elyse Pahler ‘Was a Truly Wonderful Person,’ Her Killer Said
At his parole hearing, Casey told the commissioners that in his past he “tried to please people to protect myself,” but through various programs during the past two decades, he’s learned self-acceptance, according to a transcript.
“When I came in here, that pattern continued because I learned like right away that if people knew why I was here, I would be hurt,” Casey said. “So I made a decision early on that they couldn’t know why I was here.”
Still, he said, his desire “to portray an image of being violent” got him into trouble, he told the panel, including a mutual combat incident that led to his only disciplinary action in 2001, when he was 22 years old.
He recalled being in a high-security level of his prison when an episode of “Nightline” featured the Pahler case, and skinheads in his yard wanted to stab him. Casey said he staged a fight with two other inmates.
“I wanted them to think I had heart and that I wasn’t a coward,” he said, acknowledging that he “had other options, but I chose to follow the one I did.”
Asked what attracted him to the “demonic, ritualistic type of thinking” that led him to murder Pahler, he said that he was full of rage, and his attitude “endorsed violence.”
“I thought that violence was the appropriate way to express anger and an appropriate way to prove I wasn’t weak, to prove I was in control,” he said.
He said he hasn’t consumed drugs or alcohol since shortly before his arrest, and he no longer listens to metal music.
Asked about his understanding of the impact of his crime, Casey said the first thing that comes to mind “is how immense the suffering is that I caused, that Elyse doesn’t have her life anymore because of me.”
“She had to feel so much pain and terror while I was murdering her,” he said.
In his closing statement, Casey told the panel that Pahler “was fighting for her life and I still carried on with my intent to murder her.”
“Nothing I can ever say or nothing that I can ever do will ever bring back the life that she could have had, the life she had for her or her parents,” he said. “I’m ashamed by the person that I was then, and I’m disgusted by the person that I was then. … I’m ashamed that I took her entire future away.
“She was a truly wonderful person who was loving, vibrant, enthusiastic, encouraging and gentle. It breaks my heart to think how much she lost because of me. She never got to graduate from high school or go to her prom. She never got to go to college or fall in love and get married. She never got to be a mom.
“Those things broke through the denial that I had, and those things helped me to be able to see that there was something deeper I needed to look at to understand that it was my defects that led me to this — not my co-defendants, not music, not drugs.”
District Attorney’s Office Opposes Release
In his letter to Newsom on June 1, San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow called Pahler’s murder sadistic and said there was a sexual motive because of the defendants discussing killing a virgin. Dow wrote that there was insufficient proof that Pahler was raped, because of the decomposition of her remains.
Dow wrote that Casey has been “relatively well behaved” in prison, and though he was a youthful offender at the time, the murder was not impulsive.
Dow noted that Casey admitted to stomping Pahler as she lay on the ground, bleeding to death, calling out for her mother and Jesus.
“He has never adequately explained why he participated in such a sadistic and heinous crime,” Dow wrote, adding that commissioners gave insufficient weight to the savage crime. “These commissioners did not correctly follow the law.”
Deputy District Attorney Linda Dunn, who represented the agency at the March 17 hearing, reminded the commissioners that Pahler’s murder was “one of the most atrocious and heinous, disgusting, extremely callous crimes that anybody can commit.”
“This girl was completely innocent,” Dunn said. “They wanted to sacrifice a virgin at the altar of Satan. And, I know it sounds unbelievable, but that’s exactly what they did.”
Dunn noted that as the oldest of the three co-defendants, Casey “was the one who could have stopped the whole thing.”
Conceding that Casey’s behavior “has been good in (his) efforts toward rehabilitation,” Dunn said she wanted the panel to consider that Casey also came from a good home.
“So you have to ask yourself, what’s the character defect? What is it that caused him not only to commit the crime, but to wait eight months before his guilt got the better of him?” she asked. “And he came forward, not for her so much as for him because he was being eaten up.”
She asked commissioners to consider Pahler’s family, which, she said, remains “destroyed by this.”
“One of the children described recently that when Elyse was murdered, it was (like) a bomb went off in their family. Their family was blown up. They’ve never recovered,” Dunn said.
Dunn also asked whether Casey — who’s never been in a romantic relationship with an adult woman — would be able to appropriately handle rejection if and when a prospective partner ultimately learns of his past.
She added: “This panel may be inclined to see Mr. Casey’s obvious (good) behavior … and think, wow, he’s good to go. But I want you to know one thing: There is something about him that is still pretty cold. … I just like to ask, do you think that that’s completely gone?”
Victim’s Father Says He Supports Parole Board’s Decision
David Pahler, Elyse’s father, told the commissioners he’s been to all six parole hearings for Casey, Delashmutt and Fiorella.
He said that he personally has no concerns that Casey will harm another person but noted that one of Elyse’s siblings told him as the hearing approached they were distressed that Casey might someday live nearby, according to the transcript.
He added that he and another sibling both placed their trust in the commissioners, and “would be fine” with whatever decision they made “based on their skill sets and their feelings of judgments about Mr. Casey today — period.”
But David Pahler said it’s very important Casey “be an asset if he were to ever get out.”
The elder Pahler, who runs a general contracting business in San Luis Obispo County, said Wednesday he did not want to be quoted in this article given the stress the occasion has placed on his family.
But he said in phone interviews during the past several weeks that while he is grateful to the longstanding work of Dunn, whom he calls a friend, he disagrees with Dow’s assessment of the results of the hearing, saying it’s the job of a district attorney to be tough in murder cases.
Asked by The Tribune whether Casey is suitable for release, David Pahler said yes.
Casey Testified Against Co-Defendent Fiorella, Seeks Amends, Attorney Says
Carbone, Casey’s attorney, told the parole board there’s “absolutely no mistaking “ the “unique depravity and atrocity of the crime,” but noted that Casey recently testified on behalf of the DA’s Office against his former co-defendant Fiorella.
In a habeas corpus petition challenging his continued incarceration, Fiorella says his trial attorney did not challenge his mental fitness to stand trial for the murder. Carbone told commissioners that without any promise of leniency at his parole hearing, Casey testified honestly that Fiorella did understand the nature of the crime.
Carbone said it showed Casey took advantage of an opportunity to “cement his value system.”
“As well as an opportunity to continue to tell the truth on the crime, even when he, to his own recognition, he hadn’t always done that,” Carbone said. “So, it is a relevant point and it also speaks to some degree of a measure of amends in terms of trying to effectuate in administration of justice.”
Carbone argued that, given his client’s model inmate behavior since 2001 and his promising post-release plans, the main issue left for the panel to consider was whether the gravity of the crime outweighed the changes Casey has made in his life.
The attorney said Casey has for a long time neither minimized nor externalized his blame for the crime. That leaves the fundamental question, he said, which “is the why of the crime and why did he end up embodying evil.”
“He gave a plethora of responses on that today, starting really with the violence,” Carbone said. “I think there is a completeness to his acceptance of responsibility, and I surely did not see any material deficiency in it.”
Commissioner: Casey Then Vs. Now Are ‘Two Different People’
In delivering her ruling, Presiding Commissioner Dianne Dobbs explained that the panel must determine whether Casey continues to pose an unreasonable risk to public safety and that denial must be based on evidence of his current danger.
She said the law also requires they “give great weight to the mitigating effects of the diminished culpability of youth as compared to adults, the hallmark features of youth and any subsequent growth and increased maturity.”
Dobbs found that Casey’s low self-esteem and inability to manage his emotions resulted in a need for approval from “really negative peers.”
“All of this resulted in this truly senseless, senseless and cruel crime. I think you were right when you said it was truly inexplicable,” Dobbs told Casey. “The result is unspeakable loss and pain that will probably linger forever.”
But she commended the work he has done in custody, particularly since his last scheduled parole hearing, which he waived in order to continue working on his educational and post-release plan.
“… You really took direction from your last panel and you really went back and delved a little deeper into you, and you sought input from other people in your circle,” Dobbs said. “You continued working on yourself, and that is really important for success, not just in this process, but for success in life.”
“We find that the person who committed that crime and the person who sits before us today … are two different people,” Dobbs said.
Should Casey’s grant of parole pass legal review but be reversed by Newsom, another suitability hearing will automatically be scheduled for 18 months from his last hearing, or in September 2022.
Fiorella, 40, is incarcerated at High Desert State Prison in Susanville. He’s tentatively scheduled for a suitability hearing in July 2022 after waiving his right to hearings in 2019 and last March.
Delashmutt, 41, is housed at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad. He was denied parole for seven years at a December 2017 suitability hearing but filed a petition this month to advance his next hearing scheduled for December 2024.
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