In the end--after months of frustration and false leads--the Yosemite murder case broke open on a tiny piece of luck. On the evening of July 21, when naturalist Joie Armstrong was attacked by a knife-wielding psychopath at her home, a U.S. Park Service firefighter noticed a blue-and-white 1979 International Scout parked near her house. When Armstrong's decapitated body was discovered the next day, the firefighter's report triggered a BOLO--cop slang for "be on the lookout"--and led police to Cary Stayner, 37, a shy motel handyman. Stayner was sunbathing in the nude and smoking a joint near the Merced River when a ranger and a sheriff's deputy approached. No, he told them calmly, he hadn't been around Armstrong's house the night before. Not sure what they had, the cops cited him for the reefer and let him go.
Overnight, investigators discovered that Stayner's tires matched tracks near Armstrong's house, making him an instant suspect. He made an attempt to run but didn't get far. Tipped off by a fellow guest, the FBI caught up with Stayner at a nudist resort near Sacramento, 150 miles from Yosemite. Although other nudists blocked the roads with cars to keep him from getting away, Stayner surrendered quietly and, according to sources close to the investigation, eventually confessed to killing Armstrong. Then he dropped a bombshell: he had also killed three women tourists whose murders had stymied investigators for months.
Suddenly the FBI realized it had bagged a monster--and that Stayner had been at the epicenter of the investigation all along. The victims in the triple murder, Carole Sund, 42, Juli Sund, 15, and Silvina Pelosso, 16, had been guests at the Cedar Lodge motel in El Portal, just outside Yosemite. Stayner worked at Cedar Lodge, and FBI agents had questioned him. They ruled him out partly because another employee seemed a more likely suspect and partly because Stayner, whose only arrest was for growing pot, seemed like a nice guy. "In the hills of California," one investigator said, "if all you've got is one pot bust, you might as well be a Boy Scout."
He was hardly that. Stayner was intelligent and devious and capable of violence. He was 6 feet 1 inch, 200 pounds and physically fit--a backpacker at home in the mountains of California. Yet he had lived in the shadow of his younger brother: when Stayner was 11, his 7-year-old brother, Steven, was kidnapped by a pedophile and held prisoner for seven years. (The case became a TV docudrama called "I Know My First Name Is Steven.") In a jailhouse interview last week Stayner said he had fantasized about killing women since he was 7. But he insisted he had obeyed the "voices" and "urges" for the first time when he attacked the Sunds and Pelosso. He said Joie Armstrong "put up a real fight," adding, "as soon as I killed her I knew I was going to get caught." Now, Stayner said, he wanted his killing spree to become a "movie of the week," promising to split the profits among the families of his victims. So far, he is charged only with Armstrong's murder.
It was Feb. 15 when Stayner knocked on the door of room 509 at the Cedar Lodge. FBI sources say he told Carole Sund he was there to fix a leak. When he got inside, he pulled a .22-caliber pistol but said he only wanted to rob them. He bound and gagged all three and locked Juli and Silvina in the bathroom. He strangled Carole Sund with a piece of rope, then stuffed her body in the trunk of the vacationers' rented Pontiac. He dragged Juli into the bedroom, then went back into the bathroom and strangled Pelosso. Then he turned to Juli, forcing her to perform oral sex for hours.
About 4 a.m. he put Pelosso's body in the trunk with Carole Sund's and drove off with Juli, who must have known the others were already dead. Around dawn, he said, he slit her throat, nearly severing her head, and dumped her body near a lake about 60 miles from Yosemite. He drove into the Stanislaus National Forest and ditched the car in the woods, returning days later to set it on fire. Then he walked to a highway market and called for a taxi from nearby Sonora. Jenny Paul, the cab driver, says she picked Stayner up about 10 a.m. and drove him back to Yosemite Lodge, a $125 trip. Stayner, who occasionally nodded off from exhaustion, told her he had been hiking with friends but they had left him.
Paul says she wishes she had called the FBI when the story broke several days later, but had no reason to suspect her passenger. At first, the trail seemed to lead elsewhere. On Feb. 19 authorities found Carole Sund's wallet insert in Modesto, about 90 miles from the crime scene. A month later a passerby found the tourists' car. By then, the FBI was all but convinced it was looking for several killers. The main evidence was a taunting, anonymous letter mailed from Stockton on March 15. The letter described where Juli Sund's body would be found. "We had our way with her," the writer boasted, referring to Juli.
Investigators began to focus on a pair of methamphetamine users from Modesto, Michael (Mick) Larwick, 42, and his half-brother Eugene (Rufus) Dykes, 32. Both men had extensive criminal records. On March 25 Juli's body was found exactly where the letter specified. Sometime after that, Eugene Dykes gave what the FBI regarded as a confession.
The FBI now realizes it was duped. Investigators say it was Stayner who left Carole Sund's wallet insert in Modesto and Stayner who wrote the letter. Investigators are asking whether he has killed before--and the answer may be yes. He will be questioned on at least five murders, including the slaying of his uncle, who was shot to death in 1990. At the time Stayner seemed to have a solid alibi--but that was before the cops realized just how clever, and just how violent, he is.