Many of today's headlines are terrifyingly similar — a young girl abducted from her front yard, from a street corner, from her bedroom. Cases like those of Samantha Runnion, Elizabeth Smart, and Danielle van Dam leave communities in a state of shock and fear.
In February 1999, fear was hovering over the communities around Yosemite National Park following the brutal murders of three women who visited the park.
Before those slayings, Cary Stayner seemed to be just another loner seeking refuge in Yosemite. He was a clean-cut handyman who worked at a motel near the park. Now, he is on trial for the February 1999 slayings of Carole Sund, her teenage daughter Juli and their young friend, Silvina Pelosso. Pelosso, the daughter of one of Carole Sund's close friends, was visiting from Argentina, spending her winter break with the Sund family.
Stayner has pleaded not guilty and is claiming insanity.
The Sunds wanted to make Pelosso's visit a memorable trip. They took her to Disneyland, San Francisco, and, finally, to Yosemite. Familiar with the park, Carole Sund usually stayed inside Yosemite. This time, however, she booked a room at the Cedar Lodge Motel, located just outside the park. The decision was a fateful one — one that brought the women into Stayner's path.
FBI agents had interviewed the 38-year-old Stayner twice following the three murders, but he never aroused much suspicion. Investigators only homed in on him five months later, after a fourth victim, environmentalist Joie Armstrong, was found decapitated by a stream in the area.
Stayner was arrested in July 1999, two days after Armstrong's body was discovered. He reportedly confessed to all four murders, providing clues only the killer could know, and detailing how he taunted police and evaded capture for five long months.
A Knock at the Motel Room Door
According to the FBI and other sources, Sund and the two teenage girls had settled into their room at the Cedar Lodge on the night of Feb. 15, 1999, when they heard a knock at their door. It was Stayner, claiming he had to fix something in the bathroom. He later emerged with a gun, claiming that this was just a robbery and nobody would be harmed if they cooperated, sources say, and proceeded to bind them with duct tape.
Ted Rowlands, a reporter who interviewed Stayner in prison, said Stayner described the chilling details of how he carried out the killings. Rowlands said Stayner told him he committed the slayings "quietly." Rowlands said Stayner also told him that "all three women cooperated with him, obeying every single order he gave them, throughout the entire ordeal."
Sources say Stayner strangled Carole Sund and Pelosso and put their bodies in the trunk of their rental car. Investigators say that Stayner took Juli Sund, alive, in the car with him and drove about an hour north of the lodge. At Vista Point, a scenic reservoir, Stayner took her from the car and slashed her throat.
Rowlands said he asked Stayner what he was feeling after he killed the three women. Rowlands said Stayner told him he was scared.
When the FBI joined the investigation into the murders, Stayner assisted agents. He was interviewed but was not the focus of the investigation.
Carole Sund's father, Francis Carrington, said he recalls an eerie encounter with the handyman. He "was kind of peeking at me and watching me," Carrington said. "It just gave me an uneasy feeling," he added.
After a month of searching, the burned bodies of Carole Sund and Pelosso were discovered in the charred shell of a rental car. Shortly after, officials investigating the case received an anonymous handwritten letter on a sheet of notebook paper. The letter contained a single taunting phrase along with a map leading police to the body of Juli Sund.
Sources say Stayner got the idea of writing the anonymous letter by watching a documentary about the Unabomber. But Stayner apparently tried to throw investigators off course, getting someone else to provide the saliva used to attach the stamp and seal the envelope.
Investigators now believe Stayner deliberately led them off course by planting Carole Sund's wallet along an intersection in Modesto, a town known to be home to a band of convicted sex offenders and methamphetamine dealers.
Police rounded up suspects, including convicted sex offenders, career criminals, and one man who reportedly gave a false confession to the killings. It seemed, for a while, the crimes were on their way to being solved.
Through the spring there continued to be reports in the media that the prime suspects were part of that criminal enclave in Modesto, and authorities assured the public that the suspects were in custody.
But in July, Stayner allegedly struck again, after a chance encounter with Joie Armstrong, a 26-year-old naturalist working at Yosemite park. Rowlands said Stayner told him he was walking alone when Armstrong appeared in front of him. According to Rowlands, Stayner said he "realized she was there alone, and "he couldn't help himself."
Sources say the woman resisted when Stayner confronted her with a knife and forced her into his truck. Armstrong, bound and gagged, managed to throw herself out of the window of his truck and escape. Stayner allegedly chased after her, overcame her and slashed her throat so violently, he beheaded her.
In the struggle, blood and other clues were left behind. When Stayner skipped work the next day, police became suspicious. They arrested him a few days later at a nudist resort near Sacramento. Within hours, he allegedly confessed to all four killings, providing details only the killer could know.
After Armstrong's murder, and Stayner's subsequent confession, investigators came under sharp criticism for their handling of the case.
Carole Sund's husband, Jens, said, "When Cary Stayner confessed, I was pretty surprised. Because we thought that the three or four people in custody were the people that had done it."
Tim Bazar, a public defender who represented one of the men arrested in Modesto, said he hopes the FBI learned something from the Stayner case. "I would hope that one of the things they would tell their agents is, 'Look criminals aren't necessarily a group of people who look a particular way.' People who commit murders, don't necessarily look like murderers."
Stayner was a handsome, outdoorsy-looking man who gave no outward indication of his inner turmoil.
Cedar Lodge manager Gerald Fischer recalls Stayner as a reliable employee, someone who was always "quick to step up to the task at hand." Fischer said, "I mean, if you had a problem, he'd be right there."
In his spare time, Stayner enjoyed hanging out at the local swimming hole. One young woman, whose name is Sunshine Good Morning, often went skinnydipping with Stayner in the Merced River. Sunshine said Stayner seemed perfectly harmless. "I knew him for years. I hung out at the river with him. Sometimes alone. A lot of times alone," she said. Sunshine said she never felt uncomfortable around Stayner. "He never hit on me. And I know he never hit on any of my friends."
Early Signs of Inner Turmoil
Mike Marchese, who grew up with Stayner in Merced, Calif., about 50 miles from Yosemite, recalls Stayner as a shy quiet young man in high school. Marchese said he never noticed anything particularly unusual about his friend until one day in 1995. He said he and Stayner were working together at a glass factory in Merced when, Marchese said, Stayner seemed to snap. Marchese said Stayner told him he felt like "just jumping in the truck, driving through the shop and through the office wall and killing the boss and killing everybody in the office and then torching the place." Marchese said he told Stayner to go see a doctor.
Stayner followed his friend's advice and went to the hospital. When the hospital referred him to group counseling, however, Marchese said Stayner refused to attend.
But, as normal as Stayner seemed on the outside, in a phone call to 20/20, he said that he has been struggling with a mental illness his entire life.
"Probably all this happened," he says, because, "I suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder," he told 20/20.
Stayner refused to talk directly about the charges against him. But he spoke about his unhappy childhood, his own brother's kidnapping several years earlier, and his failed attempt to find the right medication for his apparent disorder.
Rowlands asked Stayner if he would have kept killing if he wasn't caught. Stayner said, "Definitely. I would have killed until I was either caught or killed myself," according to Rowlands.
There can be no simple answer why Stayner became an alleged serial killer, but there are clues. Rowlands said Stayner felt he was living a "tortured existence" and was "doing the best he could to fight these feelings."
Victims' Loved Ones Await Justice
Stayner could face death by lethal injection if he is found guilty and sane for the murders of Carole and Juli Sund and Silvina Pelosso. He is already serving a life sentence without parole for Armstrong's slaying.
In opening arguments in the state trial, Stayner's attorney admitted to jurors that Stayner killed the three women, but said his client's brain was so impaired that he did not know right from wrong.
Family members are attending the trial in San Jose, some 200 miles from Yosemite. Francis Carrington is angered by Stayner's defense strategy. He said he wonders how Stayner can say, "I want complete justice, I want insanity plea, I want to live. I want this, I want that. Well, what Carole and I wanted was for our children to grow up, live out their lives."
Last week, family members listened as prosecutors played Stayner's taped confession, which included graphic details of how the women died.
Jens Sund says he is trying to get past the anger, but it's difficult. He still has three children to raise — without Carole, his wife of 21 years, and his daughter, Juli, who would have turned 19 this year. Sund said, "I don't think any punishment would be too severe for Cary Stayner."
Stayner's trial is expected to last three months. Whatever the outcome, Stayner says he knows he will probably never see Yosemite again. "That's just the way it goes," he said. "I have good memories … I can just lay back … Close my eyes and I can be there again."
The Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation In the wake of their daughter and granddaughter's deaths, Francis and Carole Carrington created the Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation. The foundation helps families without economic means offer rewards for information in order to help law enforcement officials locate missing loved ones. For more information, visit the Web site at http://www.Carolesundfoundation.com.