Between February and July of 1999, Cary Stayner killed four women in the vicinity of Yosemite National Park. He was ultimately captured, convicted and is currently awaiting execution on death row at San Quentin in California. His crimes were the final chapter to a bizarre life story riddled with violence and abuse.
On February 15, 1999, Stayner entered a room at the Cedar Lodge motel in Yosemite where he had been working as a handyman since 1997. The occupants inside the room were Carole Sund, her 15-year-old daughter Juli, and Juli's friend, 16-year-old Silvina Pelosso. Stayner claimed he had to fix the bathroom fan. Once inside, he pulled a gun on the women and bound their hands with duct tape.
Stayner strangled Carole Sund to death with a length of rope, a task that took him five minutes to complete. In a taped confession he would later say, "I didn't realize how hard it is to strangle a person. It's not easy." Once he had deposited Carole Sund's body in the trunk of her rental car, he returned to the room where he sexually assaulted the younger captives. Stayner then strangled Silvina Pelosso to death in the bathtub.
The killer then trained his focus on Juli Sund. He took her next door to use the bathroom in the adjacent room, as he didn't want her to see Silvina Pelosso's body. He then left Juli tied up to clean up the crime scene next door, and move Silvina Pelosso's body into the trunk his car with Carole Sund's body.
Stayner wrapped Juli in a pink motel blanket and carried her out to the rental car that contained the bodies of Juli's mother and friend. Claiming that he didn't know where he was going, he drove to Lake Don Pedro where he parked the car and carried Juli to a clearing overlooking the water. He would later say that he had grown to like the girl—who had told him that her name was Sarah—and that he "wished [he] could keep her."
After sexually assaulting her again, Stayner brushed out her hair, reportedly told her he loved her, and then killed her. He drove the car deep into the forest and abandoned it, hiring a cab for the trip back and paying with money that he'd stolen from Carole Sund's purse. Two days later, he returned to the abandoned car with a can of gasoline and set it on fire after scratching the words "We have Sarah" into the hood.
It took a month before the bodies were discovered. On March 18, the remains of Carole Sund and Silvina Pelosso were found in the burnt-out car. A week later, the body of Juli Sund was found with the help of a map sent anonymously to the FBI by Stayner. Investigators questioned numerous employees of the Cedar Lodge motel—including Cary Stayner. Yet authorities released Stayner after questioning, and did not consider him a suspect. Stayner later said that he believed he had gotten away with the murders.
Three months later he struck again, murdering and decapitating Joie Armstrong, a naturalist working at Yosemite National Park. Eyewitnesses identified Stayner's car, which led FBI agents to arrest Cary Stayner at a nudist resort on July 24. Though he was arrested on suspicion of the Armstrong killing, Stayner soon confessed to his prior crimes, after asking for a "good sized stack" of child pornography in exchange for his confession—a request that was denied.
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While the arrest marked the end of Cary Stayner's dark journey, it also shined a light on his troubled beginnings. Stayner claims to have been molested by an uncle when he was 11 years old; that same uncle was murdered in 1990 while Cary Stayner was living with him, in a case that has never been solved. In 1972, only a year after Cary Stayner was molested, his younger brother Steven Stayner was abducted at the age of seven while walking home from school.
Steven was held as a sex slave by his kidnapper Kevin Parnell for eight years before escaping in 1980 with a younger boy that Parnell had also kidnapped. The story was turned into the made-for-TV movie I Know My First Name is Steven nine years later. Steven Stayner was killed in a motorcycle accident that same year.
Before he hired on at Cedar Lodge, Cary Stayner had attempted suicide, and when facing trial for his crimes he pled not guilty by reason of insanity. A doctor testified that Stayner suffered from mild autism, paraphilia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Stayner was nevertheless found to be both sane and guilty, and was sentenced to death. As of May 2017, he remains on death row in San Quentin.