Williston man found guilty in shooting death of rancher
MINOT, N.D. - Jurors took less than three hours Wednesday to find a man guilty in the shooting death of Williston rancher Jack Sjol. Ryan Lee Stensaker, 35, of Williston had sat stone-faced throughout much of the five-day trial, but on Wednesday ...
MINOT, N.D. - Jurors took less than three hours Wednesday to find a man guilty in the shooting death of Williston rancher Jack Sjol.
Ryan Lee Stensaker, 35, of Williston had sat stone-faced throughout much of the five-day trial, but on Wednesday evening his face was drawn upon hearing the verdict in the Ward County Courthouse in Minot where the trial had been moved.
Prosecutors say it was Stensaker who shot Sjol with a .30 caliber rifle in the head and the left upper arm at Sjol’s ranch.
The 58-year-old Sjol went missing April 25, 2013, and was found three weeks later in a private dump site east of Williston.
There were audible gasps in the courtroom when the verdict was announced. Several Sjol family members covered their mouths, tears streaming down their cheeks.
As prosecutors left the courtroom, they received warm applause from Sjol family and friends waiting outside.
Williams County Assistant State’s Attorney Kirsten Sjue was embraced by Sjol’s twin brother, Jason, who said he wanted to acknowledge her hard work on the Stensaker case.
Sjol’s daughter, Kara, who traveled to Minot from Rochester, Minn., to attend the trial, said the verdict was “bittersweet.”
“I’m glad for the guilty verdict - just seems like we should have more answers. Maybe we’ll never get them,” she said.
Northwest District Judge David W. Nelson, who presided over the trial, said Stensaker could receive a maximum sentence of life without parole.
Stensaker was also found guilty of two counts of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, a Class C felony.
In its closing argument Wednesday afternoon, the state urged the jury to return a verdict of guilty against Stensaker, saying the evidence proved he had committed the murder beyond a reasonable doubt.
“You’ve got a .30 caliber rifle, a weapon that does significant damage. You’ve got more than one fatal shot, making sure the job got done. … The evidence doesn’t point to anyone else other than the defendant - Ryan Stensaker,” Williams County Assistant State’s Attorney Nathan Madden, who argued the case for the state, said.
Sgt. Amanda McNamee of the Williams County Sheriff’s Department in Williston testified last week that Sjol was killed sometime after he had last accessed his computer on April 24, 2013.
But defense attorney Steven Mottinger fired back in his closing argument, saying after hearing testimony from more than 30 witnesses and viewing nearly 150 exhibits he deemed circumstantial evidence, the state’s “burden of proof remains the same.”
“The state alleges Ryan Stensaker was the person who pulled the trigger and fired the shots that caused Jack Sjol’s death. They can’t put him at the scene of Jack Sjol’s homicide,” Mottinger said.
Stensaker was one of six people originally charged in connection with the murder of Sjol.
Issac Steen, who owned the land where the body was dumped, was the first to go to trial and was convicted of hindering law enforcement. He received the maximum sentence of five years in prison April 28 in Williams County District Court for not telling authorities that the body of the missing rancher was on his property.
Testimony during Steen’s trial revealed that Stensaker came to Steen and asked if he could dump some garbage on his property. Steen later discovered the body and learned that the man had been killed.
Conspiracy to commit murder charges were dismissed against two other defendants - Ronald Keith Edwards Gibbons and Jeremy Weyrauch.
Issac Steen’s sister, Teresa, is scheduled to go on trial for a charge of hindering law enforcement Feb. 23 due to change of plea, and Amber Rae Jensen, who has a criminal history of drug and theft charges, is scheduled for a trial on the same charge Jan. 26.