Nearly four years after murder victim Dystiny Myers was buried, her mother and grandmother expect to receive the 15-year-old’s cremated skull Friday.
Meanwhile, a judge has dismissed the family’s lawsuit against the county, which claimed the family suffered emotional distress when they learned the county had kept the skull during the criminal prosecution of the girl’s killers.
“We have what belongs to us, and that’s Dystiny,” said Kathy Clark, Myers’ grandmother, who decided to drop the suit rather than risk having to pay lofty attorney’s fees.
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 connections. In September 2010, Wisto ordered Myers' murder, saying the girl had disrespected Wisto. 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.
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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.
In March — after all the killers had been convicted — Clark and Lucas filed suit, 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," who did not inform them they had kept the skull.
“We assumed when we went to that funeral that all of Dystiny was there,” Clark told The Tribune this week.
Nina Negranti, chief deputy county counsel, said the family had been informed of the skull beforehand. “The family was kept in the loop as much as possible by the District Attorney’s Office from the start,” she said.
Attorney Greg Coates, who represented the county in the suit, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
In his lengthy response filed with San Luis Obispo Superior Court, Coates wrote that the law and court precedent allow the county to keep body parts of victims in criminal cases.
“The county, through its coroner and the coroner’s agents, is entitled to remove body parts and retain them as necessary for investigation,” he wrote, citing case law. “Family members have no right to prohibit a government employee from performing an invasive autopsy … further, it is longstanding that a county coroner and his surgeons cannot be held liable for a family member’s emotional distress, shock and disgust on seeing the decedent’s body after an autopsy that marred the body and head.”
The coroner is also not required, Coates wrote, “to treat decedent’s remains in a certain manner during an investigation as to cause of death.”
In its response, the county also noted that it planned to seek attorney’s fees, which caused Clark and Lucas to drop the matter.
“We do not have those kinds of funds available,” Clark said.
Clark and Lucas had been advised by counsel but were representing themselves.
Superior Court Judge Martin Tangeman formally approved the request Tuesday, and the case was dismissed.
Clark said she’d like an apology from the county. But Negranti said none was owed. “The prosecution was very successful on behalf of the family and victim in securing the results they did,” she said.
All five defendants received life prison terms.
While the plaintiffs will not receive any punitive damages, as sought in the suit, Clark said the family is pleased to have the rest of the remains, which were sent to the Dudley-Hoffman Mortuary in Santa Maria.
“I went in on Monday,” Clark said, “And when I walked in, I knew she was there. I could feel her presence.”
At that time, the skull had yet to be cremated.
Mortuary owner Jeffrey Hoffman, who had previously donated a casket to the family, offered to cremate the skull at no charge. The ashes will be placed inside an angel statue with the number 15 — Myers’ age at the time of her death.
The county had previously offered to pay to have Myers’ body exhumed so all the remains could be buried together, Negranti said. But, Clark said, the family did not wish to pursue exhumation. So the ashes will be kept separately from the rest of Myers’ body, which is buried at Santa Maria Cemetery.
Clark said no ceremony was planned for the ashes.
“I think it’s more of a private thing for my daughter,” Clark said.