MERCED, CA — On August 13, 1961, Cary Anthony Stayner was born into a family that would be shattered by an unspeakable crime — years before Cary went on to commit his own atrocities.
On December 4, 1972, convicted pedophile Kenneth Parnell kidnapped seven-year-old Steven Stayner, Cary’s younger brother, and held him captive for more than seven years.
In 1980, 14-year-old Steven escaped, taking Timmy White, Parnell’s recent five-year-old abductee, with him. It’s a saga detailed in true-crime books and the highly rated 1989 TV mini-series, I Know My First Name Is Steven.
Throughout his teens, Steven Stayner understandably had trouble easing back into life upon returning to his family. He died in 1989 in a motorcycle accident. Cary Stayner never properly adjusted either.
In 1990, Cary’s Uncle Jesse, with whom he’d been living, was murdered. Later, Stayner would state that Uncle Jesse had sexually abused him previously. The following year, Stayner attempted suicide.
Early in 1997, Stayner took a job as a resident handyman at the Cedar Lodge motel in of El Portal, a northern California town directly outside the Arch Rock entrance to Yosemite National Park. He also took up recreational nudism.
Two years passed without incident. Then on February 15, 1999, three Cedar Lodge guests disappeared: Carole Sund, 42; her daughter Juli, 15; and Juli’s pal Silvina Pelosso, 16.
Several weeks later, the charred bodies of Carole Sund and Silvina Pelosso turned up in the torched shell of their rental car, several hours away from the Lodge.
On March 25, an anonymous note with a hand-drawn map led police to the body of Juli Sund at Lake Don Pedro. She’d been repeatedly raped, and her throat had been slashed. Written atop the map was the message: “We had fun with this one.”
Cops questioned Stayner, but let him go. He appeared to be normal and well liked, and he expressed horror over the crimes. The handyman also had no criminal record or history of violence.
Instead, then, authorities focused on other Cedar Lodge employees and residents of Modesto, a nearby town where Carole Sund’s had been tossed in a street.
On July 24, Joie Ruth Armstrong, a 26-year-old nature guide, was discovered decapitated near her Yosemite cabin. Witnesses told police that the previous day, they saw a 1979 International Harvester Scout parked next to the crime scene. Stayner’s vehicle had been identified.
FBI Agents Jeff Rinek and John Boles picked up Stayner at the Laguna del Sol nudist resort, about 90 minutes away from their office.In the course of the ride back, Rinek pointed out how Stayner reminded him of the titular hero of the classic drive-in movie, Billy Jack (1971). Stayner initially said he never saw the film.
As the two men continued conversing, Rinek built such a rapport with Stayner that the killer suddenly and unequivocally confessed to all four murders, explaining details only the guilty party would know. Cheekily, Stayner also spouted a number of dialogue lines from Billy Jack.
According to Stayner, he was summoned to fix a leak in the room where Carole Sund, Juli Sund, and Silvina Pelosso were staying. Once inside, he pulled a gun and cut their clothes off. He strangled Carole and ditched the body in her car trunk.
Stayner then tortured and raped Juli and Silvina, strangling the latter girl in the process and also stashing her remains in the trunk.
From there, Stayner took Juli to Lake Don Pedro, continuing to sexually assault her until he cut her throat. He drove Carole’s car further away, then paid his fare back to El Portal with $150 cash he took from Carole Sund’s wallet.
Two days later, Stayner doused the car in gasoline and lit it ablaze. He also tossed the wallet in Modesto to confuse the cops. It worked — at first.
Once on trial, Stayner pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury didn’t buy it. They found him guilty on all four murder counts and recommended capital punishment. The judge agreed and sentenced Stayner to be executed. Today, he remains on death row.
Delbert and Stayner, Cary’s parents, spoke on their son’s behalf outside the courtroom. Delbert said Cary suffered from extreme mental illness and “if he’d gotten help, four people would be alive today.” Delbert and Kay also apologized to the victims’ families and shook their hands.
Francis Carrington, the father of Carole Sund, accepted the apology, stating, “I feel very sorry for Stayner’s mother and father. They’ve had a tough time of it. I wish them the best.”
Still, Carrington noted, “I’ve never seen anything so close to black and white and evil and good as Cary Stayner and our children.”
Main photo: Cary Stayner [FBI]