- Associated Press - Monday, January 12, 2015

HOUSTON (AP) - Tom and Joyce Stay have known the Haskells for years, going back to when all their children were growing up. Both belonged to the same close-knit Mormon ward in southern California where Tom Stay was bishop, and the couples spent many hours worshipping and playing together.

As the Stays have coped with an unspeakable tragedy, they recently connected with their longtime friends to collectively grieve. But it’s complicated.

The Haskells’ son is charged with the execution-style killings of the Stays’ youngest son, Stephen, as well as their daughter-in-law and four grandchildren, ages 4 to 13. Only Stephen Stay’s oldest daughter, Cassidy, then 15, survived the assault six months ago at their home on a quiet street north of Houston in Spring. Police believe the suspect, Ronald Haskell Jr., was searching for his ex-wife, a domestic violence victim whom Stephen Stay and his wife had helped relocate.

The complex relationship between Tom and Joyce Stay and Karla and Ronald Haskell Sr. illustrates the mystery of the grieving process, which often has no clear rules to follow.

During a recent phone interview, the Stays, who are in their mid-70s and living in a retirement development in Sun City, California, acknowledged their emotions remain raw. They spoke of how they had been able to move forward only because of their strong religious belief that they one day would see their lost family members again.

“We are old. So it won’t be that long for us,” Joyce Stay told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1DB0qSN ). “It’s like our son and his family are on a vacation.”

That same faith also has allowed them to do something even more difficult and outside the usual circle of grief. The Stays were determined to keep their hearts open to the possibility that they somehow could preserve the long-term, loving friendship they once had with the accused killer’s parents.

Joyce Stay had felt since the mass slaying that her friends must be suffering, too. So she and her husband, a retired citrus manager, recently reached out to their friends, who live in nearby San Marcos.

“And, indeed, we found they were sick and brokenhearted about everything. I told them, ‘Your son did this, not you,’?” Joyce Stay said. “Our friends are as baffled by this whole thing as we all are.”

She went on to describe how the Haskells had been treated cruelly by their son, who remains held without bail in the Harris County jail on six capital murder charges. More than a week before the killings, Haskell had choked his mother until she passed out, according to police reports. He then left her duct-taped to a chair for hours while threatening to kill her and her whole family for having spoken to his ex-wife, Melannie Lyon.

“He was also mean to his father, who is in poor health - by purposefully tipping over his wheelchair while he was sitting in it. He did that more than once,” Joyce Stay said. “Now his father cries all the time. He loved my son. Stephen.”

Contacted at her California home, Karla Haskell said she cannot comment about her visit with the Stays beyond saying that they remain “good friends” and that she grieves for their loss.

Now the Stays are waiting on a mental health report that could determine whether Haskell will plead insanity and whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

Haskell’s court-appointed attorney, Doug Durham, has said he expects Haskell’s mental health to play a role in his defense.

Joyce Stay can’t understand what could have transformed “the good kid” they had known so well before his family’s move to Alaska during his teen years. Ronald Haskell Jr. graduated in 1999 from Chugiak High School in Anchorage, where he was voted “homecoming king” and “class clown.”

“Why did they pick me to be class clown? I think it’s because I’m so darn good looking,” Haskell wrote in his yearbook then. His photo showed him wearing a plain T-shirt and wire-rim glasses, with his hair parted neatly down the middle.

After seeing recent photos of a much huskier Haskell sporting a full beard, Joyce Stay said, “I can hardly recognize him now.”

On the day of the killings, July 9, Haskell was wearing an old Fed-Ex shirt and carrying a package that he pretended to be delivering when he appeared unannounced at the Spring home of Stephen and Katie Stay.

He had traveled cross-country to find Melannie Lyon, who had divorced him months earlier. She had recently gotten a protective order, alleging rampant abuse during their 12-year marriage.

Lyon is the sister of Katie Stay, who wanted Lyon to have a new life. So Katie traveled with her husband to Utah to help her sister and her four children relocate to the Houston area.

Only Cassidy and her four siblings were home when Haskell initially forced his way into the house, demanding to know his ex-wife’s whereabouts. Lyon and her children were staying at her parents’ home several blocks away.

Authorities said Haskell then waited for their parents to return before tying everyone up, forcing them to lie face-down, and then systematically shooting each one in the back of the head.

Cassidy was the sole survivor, having played dead after her hand deflected the bullet that grazed her scalp.

Haskell next commandeered the Stay family’s car and was speeding to his ex-wife’s parents’ house when his vehicle was surrounded by police cars, authorities said. Haskell then threatened suicide, holding a gun to his head, until finally surrendering after a tense, three-hour standoff.

Joyce Stay praises Cassidy for maintaining her composure, despite being bloodied and terrified, and dialing 911 to alert authorities.

“She told us that she felt like angels were surrounding her. Like somebody held a hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. I hate to imagine what she heard and saw before she walked out of there,” her grandmother said.

Cassidy is now living with relatives and attending school in suburban Houston. A family spokeswoman has requested that the media respect her privacy. But her grandmother provided some updates on how she’s doing.

To cope with the post-traumatic stress, Cassidy was given a special puppy for Christmas. It’s a large, sleek brown dog called a Rhodesian ridgeback.

The breed, which was originally developed in southern Africa, is often trained as a therapy dog because it’s able to sense its owner’s mood. It does this by detecting rising levels of cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” and then helping to curtail PTSD symptoms by nuzzling and comforting the owner, trainers say.

“She will be able to take this dog into restaurants, stores, planes, anywhere she goes,” explained Joyce Stay, noting how these dogs have helped returning soldiers suffering from PTSD.

The Stays describe Cassidy as otherwise leading a normal teenage life: “She’s hanging with her friends, going to church dances and football games, and playing her flute.”

During the holidays, Tom and Joyce Stay came to Houston to see Cassidy receive yet another special surprise when she and the family members she lost were honored at the Fallen Warriors Memorial off FM 249 near Spring.

Cheryl Whitfield, who founded the memorial to honor Texas soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, thought it was fitting to also pay tribute to the Stays, who died trying to protect their other family members.

So benefactors donated a large granite marker with the etched names of Cassidy, her parents and her four siblings: Bryan, 13; Emily, 9; Rebecca, 7; and Zach, 4. It was placed next to a donated marker bearing the names of former U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

“We had a very private, solemn dedication,” recalled Whitfield. “We hadn’t told Cassidy what was happening. When she walked over and saw the marker, she stared at all the names in silence for a moment. Then she smiled. She’s the sweetest girl.”

Joyce Stay said the ceremony lifted her own spirits, as did another one the following day when her 13-year-old grandson, Bryan, was honored posthumously with the Boys Scouts of America’s “Spirit of the Eagle” award. His father, Stephen, had earned the rank of Eagle Scout when he was a youth, and Bryan was close to attaining that same recognition before his death.

The Stays now wait for the murder trial of Haskell, 34, in hopes that it will bring some clarity as to how all this could have happened.

The last time Haskell appeared in court to hear the charges read against him, he collapsed and had to be removed in a wheelchair.

Durham, Haskell’s attorney, said he continues to gather evidence on his client’s mental state that could be used either for an insanity defense or as a mitigating factor in his trial.

Prosecutor Tammy Thomas said any mental health reports will be reviewed before a decision is made on whether to seek the death penalty.

“It could be 18 months before we have an actual trial date,” she said.

In the meantime, the Stays push forward. Over the holidays, they forced themselves to put up a small Christmas tree.

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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