It’s against department policy for the Travis County district attorney’s office to negotiate with fugitives, but an exception was made to apprehend a former University of Texas student who fled to Mexico 34 years ago after killing a young mother in an office building.
District Attorney Margaret Moore said her office engaged in a “very unconventional negotiation” with the suspect, Robert Van Wisse, who pleaded guilty to murder Tuesday in Travis County state District Court in exchange for a 30-year prison sentence. Authorities say the Mexican citizen had been dodging arrest since he killed 22-year-old Laurie Stout in 1983.
Van Wisse, 52, agreed to surrender to U.S. officials on Jan. 26 near the border in Laredo, which was the result, according to his defense attorney, Perry Minton, of him feeling pressure after the FBI added him to its 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list in December.
Fearing a lengthy and complicated extradition process, Moore said she revisited the department’s policy against negotiating with fugitives and presented a 30-year deal, through Minton, that she said reflects punishments handed down in other murder cases from the early 1980s in Travis County. The sentence was contingent on Van Wisse returning to the U.S. to surrender.
“I will probably not have a more satisfying moment in prosecution than this,” Moore told reporters.
Minton credited Moore’s willingness to negotiate for bringing a resolution that’s pleasing to both sides. Had Moore pressed for a longer sentence, Minton said, his client might not have been so willing to surrender.
“He was born and raised in Mexico,” Minton said. “He knew how to get around.”
Moore said authorities linked evidence from the murder scene to Van Wisse through recent DNA testing. Austin police found Stout’s body the morning of Sept. 20, 1983, during her cleaning shift at an office building. Medical examiners ruled she had been sexually assaulted and strangled.
Van Wisse waived his right to appeal and must serve half of the sentence before being eligible for parole. He spoke openly to the court and acknowledged that any apology he could offer would be “inadequate” for what he had done. And he said he can’t explain what triggered his desire to kill Stout, because “I was never violent before and I’ve never been violent since.”
As for people who want Van Wisse to rot in hell, he said he agrees.
“I often find myself agreeing with those who hold that opinion,” he said.
But most of all, Van Wisse said, “I deprived a little girl from her mother.”
Stout’s daughter, Daile, was 18 months old at the time of her mother’s death. She told the courtroom — filled with family members and law enforcement — that she has no recollection of her mother. But she recited just how long she’s been gone — “33 years, four months, five days.”
Is 30 years a fair sentence? “Absolutely not,” she said.
Minton, whose law firm has represented Van Wisse since he was named a suspect shortly after the murder, said he reached out to his client “through a long process” after the FBI put him on the most wanted list. Apprehension was imminent, authorities told Minton. FBI agent Justin Noble told reporters “we were getting close” to an arrest and that Van Wisse’s picture for the most wanted list was placed on a billboard near his home.
Minton wouldn’t say where Van Wisse had been living out of concern for his family’s safety.