Cary Stayner and the Yosemite Murders
Evil in Paradise
Yosemite National Park is a vast area of mountain paths, alpine wilderness and redwood forests, one of the most beautiful scenic attractions in America. Set aside in 1890 to preserve a portion of the natural beauty of the Sierra Nevadas in California, its breathtaking topography rises as high as 13,000 feet above sea level. Two-hundred miles of winding road and 840 miles of foot trail have lured tourists, campers and skiers for decades.
But, recently, under the mosaic of green conifer pines, domes of granite rock, silvery waterfall and misty mountain sky, a killer lurked. His first victims were a 43-year-old woman and two teenagers. They were missing for more than a month, and when the FBI located their bodies a cry of "serial killer!" shook the peaceful tranquility of God's country.
The saga began on Feb 12, 1999, when Carole Sund, daughter Juli 15, and 16-year-old Silvina Pelosso left the Sund home in Eureka, California, and started on a vacation to where the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains melt into Yosemite. After first flying to San Francisco, where Mrs. Sund rented a red 1999 Pontiac Gran Prix, they paused in Stockton, where Juli took part in a cheerleading contest at the University of the Pacific. They then headed out for Cedar Lodge in El Portal, which is located on Yosemite's western slope. There, a room for three was reserved. They arrived at the inn early on the 14th.
Mrs. Sund and her husband, Jens, 43, both prominent realtors in the Stockton area, had been entertaining the Pelosso girl for several weeks. A foreign exchange student from Argentina and a friend of Juli's, she was spending three months with the family that had already shown her the Bay Area and Disneyland. Jens couldn't accompany them on this trip because he needed to prepare for an upcoming business trip.
On Feb. 15, the ladies hiked and took in the wonders of the park. According to the FBI, witnesses later reported seeing the trio inspecting the giant sequoia trees in nearby Tuolumme Grove. That evening, by reports, the mother and the teens rented a couple of videos from the lodge's service desk to watch in their room.
None of them were seen alive again.
The inn staff claimed that when they cleaned the room the next morning, Feb. 16, they had detected no evidence of foul play. Check-out had been done in advance and the keys were left on the room desk, as was customary. Jens Sund had scheduled to meet them at the San Francisco airport that evening on his way to Arizona, to where the others were to accompany him. While he attended his meeting, the females were to tour the Grand Canyon.
"(Jens) did not find his wife at the airport and assumed she had flown ahead," writes columnist Robert F. Howe in Time magazine. "She was not in Phoenix, either, but he played a round of golf there the next day and when she had still not attempted to contact him, he called the police." Evidently, it seemed that the ladies had never returned the rented Pontiac nor notified an anxious rental agency that they were extending their agreement.
Local police and Yosemite security began to search the area where the missing three were last seen. Initial suspicion was that they may have wandered off the main hiking paths and got lost in the maze of confusing woodland. But, soon that assumption dwindled.
"For four weeks, police, family and volunteers combed the rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in and near Yosemite National Park by helicopter, foot and skis," reported Patricia King and Nadine Joseph in Newsweek. "They were looking for a missing red 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix — and the women who rented it." But, when days passed and, strangely, Carole's wallet, showed up on a Modesto (Calif.) street — its money and contents intact — the FBI smelled something bigger.
"At this point, we have not yet uncovered evidence to allow us to determine conclusively whether this was a tragic accident or a criminal act," said FBI agent Nick Rossi on Feb. 26. But, two weeks later, FBI predictions darkened. After a massive search-and-rescue team working around the clock in a 30-mile radius failed to find anyone, agent James Maddock, now placed in charge of the investigation, told the press, "We feel almost certain that the women were victims of a violent crime."
Because of the discovery of Sund's wallet in suburban Modesto, police and FBI canvassed (to quote Maddock) "the logical routes in and out of that spot, interviewing homeowners and business owners and others who may have seen them." The Bureau relocated its headquarters from Yosemite to Modesto at this point and, on Feb. 28, twelve days after the women's disappearance, hinted that it was no longer treating the Sund incident as a missing persons case, but as murder. More than a thousand leads, they confessed, produced nothing. Still, the Bureau intensified its search, recruiting the use of more high-tech equipment and air support.
As the last days of February stumbled into March, the public still hoped. In Modesto, a march and vigil were held for the missing persons. Unofficially, Jens Sund offered a $250,000 reward for information that would lead to the to the return of the missing women. After a couple of weeks, he upped the sum to $300,000, but to no avail. Mrs. Sund's parents, Francis and Carole Carrington, appeared on television's Good Morning, America, to entreat the prayers of Americans and their help in locating their daughter and the children.
In nowhere else were expectations higher than among the other Sund children who believed their mother and sister Juli would be returned. By the middle of March, however, even their anticipations sagged. "Her mother, sister and family friend had been missing for a month by the time Gina Sund read her poem in front of a thousand or so people who gathered in Modesto," writes Time. "'Deep in my heart I know something my mind does not want to learn,' said Gina,13. 'I try to stay strong because I know that's what you'd want your baby to be, but, Mommy, I don't want you to leave me.'"
Then came hard reality. The Sund family's worst fears were confirmed when a hiker wandered onto the site of a burned-out red 1999 Pontiac hidden off the Highway 108 in the Stanislaus Forest region late in the day on March 18. The California Highway Patrol verified the car's license plate as Mrs. Sund's rented vehicle and immediately notified the FBI. Agents arrived at the scene early the 19th. Opening the trunk, investigators found two charred bodies. The corpses were unrecognizable, but within days, were identified as Carole Sund and Silvina Pelosso. Authorities now suspected that young Juli may have met with a similar fate elsewhere.
Canvasing the vicinity, FBI agents spread out along Highway 108, questioning locals and stopping cars for any information that might tell them how and when the car got there, but, more importantly, to find Juli.
But it was near Lake Pedro in Tuolumme County, miles away, that the badly decomposed body of Juli Sund was at last found on March 25. The girl's throat had been cut.