Last week’s case took us to Lake Orion, Michigan where, in 1984, Carol Ege brutally murdered Cindy Thompson. She was jealous over Cindy’s involvement with Carol’s boyfriend, Mark Davis. This week, our case takes us to Yosemite National Park. Often a destination for people trying to relax and commune with nature, it was anything but in early 1999. There, in February or March, Cary Stayner murdered a woman and two teenage girls. He killed another young woman before police caught him.
Cary Stayner had a troubling background. When he was eleven years old, pedophile Kenneth Parnell abducted Cary’s younger brother, Steven. Parnell held young Steven captive and abused him for seven years until he managed to escape. During that time Steven was missing, Cary lived with an uncle, Jesse, who he claimed molested him. In 1989, Steven died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 24. The following year, someone murdered Jesse.
All this might make one think that Cary’s early life was a factor in his becoming a serial killer. Yet Cary told investigators after his arrest that he’d fantasized about murdering women since he was seven years old. This was long before Steven’s kidnapping or the alleged (but never proven) molestation.
Cary Stayner Murders a Woman and Two Teenagers
In February 1999, Carole Sund, 42, her 15-year-old daughter Juli, and Silvina Pelosso, 16, took a brief vacation to Yosemite National Park. Pelosso was Juli’s friend and an exchange student from Argentina. They checked into the Cedar Lodge motel in El Portal, California. After Valentine’s Day, they disappeared.
On March 18, 1999, someone found the burned-out shell of Carole’s rented Pontiac Gran Prix in the remote town of Long Barn, California. The next day, March 19, investigators discovered two bodies in the trunk. Both were burned beyond recognition. Through dental records, authorities identified one victim as Carole Sund and the other as Silvina Pelosso. It wasn’t until police received a map with a note saying, “We had fun with this one” that they discovered 15-year-old Juli’s body.
Cedar Lodge employed Cary Stayner as a handyman since 1997. Police interviewed him along with the other motel employees. They did not consider him a suspect because he had no criminal history and nothing about his demeanor aroused suspicion. Carole Sund’s wallet turned up in Modesto, California, over 100 miles from El Portal and less than 70 miles from Long Barn. Yet this discovery did not lead to a break in the case.
Stayner Murders Another Woman
There was no progress in the Sund/Pelosso murders for four months. Then, in July 1999, the decapitated body of Joie Armstrong was found near Yosemite. Joie was a naturalist working for the Yosemite Institute. Witnesses reported seeing a blue International Scout parked outside her cabin. This tip eventually led police to Cary Stayner.
FBI agents Jeff Rinek and John Boles found Stayner at the Laguna del Sol nudist resort in Wilson, California. They arrested him and took him to Sacramento for questioning. His interview proved to be a shocker. Not only did he confess to killing Joie Armstrong, but he also confessed to murdering Carole Sund and the two teenage girls. He further admitted to sending the note with the map that led to the discovery of Juli Sund’s body.
A Plea, A Trial, and a Conviction
Because the murder of Joie Armstrong occurred on federal land, Stayner faced trial in federal court. Instead, to avoid the death penalty, he pleaded guilty. During his sentencing hearing, Stayner suddenly broke down, burst into tears, and apologized for the murder. Joie’s mother, Lesli Armstrong, was in the courtroom and believed the apology was genuine. For this murder, Stayner received a sentence of life without parole.
A California state court tried Stayner for the murders of Carole and Juli Sund and Silvina Pelosso. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. However, on August 27, 2002, a jury convicted him of three counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances and one count of kidnapping. He was sentenced to death.
Now 60 years old, Cary Anthony Stayner remains on death row at San Quentin State Prison twenty miles north of San Francisco. Since California has not executed anyone since 2006, it is unlikely that he will face the needle anytime soon.
FBI agent Jeff Rinek, now retired, writes about the case in In the Name of The Children. The book covers Rinek’s 30-year career pursuing killers like Cary Stayner.
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