A motel handyman avoided the federal death penalty today by pleading guilty in the decapitation of a naturalist at Yosemite National Park. But he could still face the death penalty if convicted on state charges of killing three sightseers.
Attorneys for Cary Stayner, 39, submitted a written guilty plea to charges of murder, kidnapping and attempted sexual assault in the July 21, 1999, death of Joie Armstrong. Armstrong led nature tours in Yosemite National Park. Her slaying was a federal case because her body was found in the national park.
Federal prosecutors’ decision to agree to a plea deal was based partly on the wishes of Armstrong’s family. The victim’s mother, Lesli Armstrong, had said publicly that she could not bear to hear grisly details of her daughter’s death in a trial.
U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii in Fresno, Calif., approved the plea bargain. Instead of the death penalty, Stayner faces life in prison without the possibility of parole. His formal sentencing will take place November 30.
Taking His Story to the Grave The plea agreement, which Stayner, his lawyer and prosecutors signed Sept. 6, also requires that he take his story to his grave and not profit from Armstrong’s death in any way. Stayner had told local newspapers and news stations he wanted to see his story told in a made-for-TV movie. But his plea agreement thwarts that desire.
“After the entry of judgment in this case until his death he will not speak to anyone, write to anyone, or communicate to anyone about the death of Joie Ruth Armstrong,” the agreement states. The only exception is any testimony or communication with his lawyer regarding his state or federal murder cases.
In order to guarantee that he never profits from his story, he agreed to a $10 million restitution order to go to a fund in Armstrong’s name.
State Continues Death Pursuit
The plea bargain in Armstrong’s case does not affect state prosecutors’ plan to seek the death penalty against Stayner in the slayings of Carole Sund, 42, her daughter Juli, 15, and family friend Silvina Pelosso, 16, of Cordoba, Argentina.
The three women were killed five months before Armstrong during a sightseeing trip to Yosemite National Park. They had been staying at the Cedar Lodge in El Portal, where Stayner lived and worked as a handyman.
Once Stayner is formally sentenced in Armstrong’s slaying, Mariposa County prosecutors will be able to go forward in the Sund-Pelosso murder cases.
Carole Carrington, Mrs. Sund’s mother, said Tuesday she was surprised prosecutors agreed to the guilty plea in Armstrong’s case, since they had been pushing for the death penalty. Unlike the Armstrongs, she wants prosecutors to bring Stayner to trial and fears death-penalty opponents may try to portray him as another death-row victim.
“I’d like to get it going,” she said. “I just hope they have it all figured out now. I have some fears about what he may be doing, or what others are doing for him while he’s in prison. We don’t want him to become a hero.”