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ND killer gets life sentence but parole option upsets family of victim

WILLISTON, N.D.--A judge Thursday left open the possibility of parole for convicted killer Ryan Lee Stensaker, upsetting family members of the victim, Williston rancher Jack Sjol.

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Ryan Lee Stensaker sit in court on the opening day of Stensaker's trial in Minot, N.D., on Dec. 10, 2014. Image from KXMC-TV, Minot, N.D.

WILLISTON, N.D.-A judge Thursday left open the possibility of parole for convicted killer Ryan Lee Stensaker, upsetting family members of the victim, Williston rancher Jack Sjol. 

Northwest Judicial District Judge David Nelson said he chose to give Stensaker a life sentence with the possibility of parole to leave the door open in case Stensaker would someday provide answers about the motive behind the shooting death and whether others were involved.
A jury in December found Stensaker guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, a Class AA felony. The 58-year-old Sjol disappeared April 25, 2013, and was found three weeks later in a private dump site east of Williston.
During the trial, prosecutors outlined the who, what, where and when of the case, Nelson said.
“But I don’t have a clue as to why. I have to assume there were other people involved, but I don’t know. I really would like to know why,” Nelson said.
Stensaker, 35, could face a parole board in about 25 years, Nelson said.
Assistant Williams County State’s Attorney Nathan Madden, who advocated for life in prison without parole, cited Stensaker’s lack of cooperation with law enforcement, including his refusal to participate in the court-ordered pre-sentence investigation.
“I wish the court luck in getting that answer, but I don’t think the court will ever get that answered,” Madden said.
Family and friends of Sjol, who was a longtime employee of the city of Williston, packed the courtroom while law enforcement stood at the side of the room during the hearing.
Family members were praying that Stensaker would receive life in prison without parole, said sister-in-law Diane Sjol.
“There’s no motive for what he did to Jack and the murder was cold-blooded,” she said after the hearing.
Scott Sjol said he also believes more people were involved with his brother’s murder, but he doesn’t think Stensaker will ever come forward with that information.
“As far as him coming clean over a Bible 20 years from now, that isn’t going to happen,” Scott Sjol said. “All it’s going to do is put the burden on us to be back in front of a parole board if it ever gets to that point. I think we’ve had enough.”
When given the opportunity to make a statement during the hearing, Stensaker told the judge “I’m good.”
Defense attorney Steve Mottinger said that although Stensaker had an extensive criminal history, most of it was misdemeanor charges or drug-related offenses and did not indicate a likelihood that he would commit more violent crimes. Mottinger advocated for the possibility of parole and said Stensaker would have to take giant steps toward rehabilitation before he’d ever be released.
“I’ve never represented anybody that I feel is beyond redemption or has passed the point of being able to change,” Mottinger said.
Madden argued that Stensaker, who has cycled in and out of the criminal justice system for years, already had numerous chances. Jurors also found Stensaker guilty of two counts of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, a Class C felony. Madden also cited the heinous nature of the crime, which involved gunshots to the face from a powerful hunting rifle at a close range.
“We gave Mr. Stensaker chance after chance after chance and somebody wound up dead because we gave Mr. Stensaker a chance to reform,” Madden said.
Nelson, who said he’s familiar with Stensaker and his family and presided over more than half of Stensaker’s previous court cases, said giving Stensaker the possibility of parole doesn’t mean he will be released. But if he were to sentence Stensaker to life without parole, that leaves no chance of finding out why the crime happened, Nelson said.
Family members said Sjol’s death has had a huge impact on them and having unanswered questions makes it more difficult.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have closure on this because we don’t know what happened and why something like this would happen to Jack,” Diane Sjol said.

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