First case closed in rancher’s death: Victim’s family still frustrated by lack of answers
WILLISTON – A man convicted of hindering law enforcement last year while officers investigated the disappearance of a Williston rancher will serve five years in prison.
Issac Steen received the maximum penalty Monday in Williams County District Court for not telling authorities that the body of missing rancher Jack Sjol was on his property.
While family members of Sjol said they’re pleased Steen received the maximum sentence, they still have a lot of unanswered questions about why Sjol was shot and killed a year ago.
“The farther we go without any answers, the less chance of that coming out,” said his brother Scott Sjol of Minot.
Jack Sjol was last heard from on April 24, 2013, and was missing until his body was found in a dump on Steen’s property near Williston three weeks later. A medical examiner’s report said Sjol was shot at his ranch northeast of Williston.
Six people were charged in connection with the case, and Steen was the first to go to trial. Ryan Lee Stensaker, charged with conspiracy to commit murder, is set to go on trial in July. Charges against two other defendants were dismissed. Two other defendants charged with hindering law enforcement have upcoming trials.
Testimony during Steen’s trial earlier this month 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 by Stensaker and his associates, Northwest Judicial District Judge Paul Jacobson said.
“That information communicated to the defendant indicated a most serious and heinous crime,” said Jacobson, giving the rationale for his sentence.
Steen did not come forward to law enforcement, who were engaged in a massive search effort by air and land to find Sjol, until “the jig was up,” Assistant Williams County State’s Attorney Nathan Madden said. That delay caused some evidence to be lost and wasted law enforcement resources, Madden said.
Defense attorney Mary LeClair said Steen didn’t immediately come forward because he feared Stensaker and was afraid of being blamed for the homicide. When Steen did talk to authorities, he brought them to the site where he had last seen the body and cooperated, she said. LeClair argued that Steen should not be sentenced for additional time beyond the 300 days he has served.
Steen made a brief statement in court and apologized to the family.
“I am truly sorry. I wish I had made better decisions,” Steen said.
Several people who submitted victim impact statements to the court wrote about the painful 20 days and 20 nights while they searched for Sjol.
“He could have with one phone call eliminated the fear, the not knowing, the despair,” wrote Kelly Blomberg, Sjol’s girlfriend of nearly eight years who described Sjol as the love of her life.
Steen will receive credit for 300 days he has served, which Jacobson said is required by law.
“I don’t think five years was adequate for the crime, but I’m happy with the judge for giving him the maximum he was able to,” Scott Sjol said after the hearing.
Stensaker, described by Madden as a lifelong friend of Steen, is scheduled for trial July 8.
Conspiracy to commit murder charges were dismissed against Ronald Keith Edwards Gibbons and Jeremy Weyrauch. Gibbons is facing new charges in Williams County, primarily related to possessing a firearm.
Issac’s sister, Teresa Steen, is scheduled to go on trial for a charge of hindering law enforcement July 15, and Amber Rae Jensen is scheduled for a trial on the same charge Sept. 2.
The family knows of “absolutely no ties” between Jack Sjol and the people charged in connection with his death, his brother said. The family believes that Stensaker was the shooter but are confident he didn’t act alone, Scott Sjol said.
“We feel there are a number of people who know a lot more than they’re saying,” Scott Sjol said.
In Steen’s statement to law enforcement, he said Stensaker told him the Sons of Silence motorcycle gang ordered a hit on Sjol. That has not been confirmed by law enforcement, and Scott Sjol said he doesn’t put any stock in that theory.
In a letter submitted in the court file, Blomberg urged Issac Steen to come forward with everything he knows and correct the lie that Sjol was connected to an outlaw motorcycle group.
“It is a travesty that Issac and his cohorts have cast doubt on Jack’s good character just by the fact that they are career criminals and drug users and committed crimes against Jack,” she wrote. “Because for people in this community to retain any semblance of feeling safe, they have to believe that Jack somehow got mixed up with these career criminals and being murdered resulted from that. But all of us who know Jack know that is untrue.”