Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cary Stayner and the Yosemite Murders


On Saturday, July 24, within 48 hours of the Armstrong killing, FBI agent and in-charge James Maddock announced at a press conference that a man was in custody on strong suspicion of murder and that a "significant announcement" would be made shortly.

Cary Stayner (AP)
Cary Stayner (AP)

The suspect, Cary Stayner, 37, had been one of the people questioned after the triple killings in February, but, at that time no evidence linked itself to Stayner and he had been released. Because he was the handyman at the Cedar Lodge in El Portal where Carole Sund and her two charges had stayed before they were murdered, his questioning at that time seems to have been more routine than anything.

But now, after another ghastly murder, he was again led in for questioning, immediately after the body of Miss Armstrong was found. This time, agents detained him and forced him to answer more questions. Investigators searched his truck and confiscated his backpack for examination. Upon release, the FBI warned him not to leave El Portal as they probably were not through with him.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "(A witness claimed that) Stayner was angry about authorities seizing his backpack after he was questioned earlier that day. He was also angry about how his truck had been searched."

Evidently, the agents also searched Stayner's apartment later in the day and discovered evidence that they determined linked him to Armstrong's murder. And they found even more. Special agent Maddock explained, "During the last 24 hours, we have developed specific information linking Stayner (also) to the Sund-Pelosso murders." What this evidence is was not made known, but he did indicate it was discovered in a search of Stayner's apartment over Cedar Lodge.

Stayner, in the meantime, had disappeared from the locale and was gone from the premises by the time agents came to arrest him. This was Friday evening, July 23rd.. They caught up with him, however, at the Laguna Del Sol nudist colony, where he was known to frequent. Its manager had seen a newscast on television, recognized Stayner's photo as one of his guests, and notified the FBI. Agents returned him to El Portal on Saturday where he was put through a lengthy interrogation.

By evening's end, the FBI felt it had gathered enough evidence and damaging testimony to arrest Cary Stayner for murder. Sunday morning, they rushed him to Fresno to officially lodge a complaint, then to Sacramento on Monday where he was arraigned before the courts.

That same day, Stayner allowed himself to be interviewed by a reporter from KNTV. During the session, an unexpected event occurred. In a voice that seemed relieved to be unburdening from its depth a long-kept secret, Stayner blurted, "I am guilty. I did murder Carole Sund, Juli Sund, Silvina Pelosso and Joie Armstrong ...None of the women were sexually abused in any way."

His confession and the details that followed shocked America.

"In (the) interview, Stayner said he had fantasized about killing women for the last 30 years," reports Yahoo!News, "and described in detail how he murdered Carole Sund, her daughter Juli, and visiting Argentine student Pelosso. He had strangled Pelosso and Carole Sund in their rented cabin in the Cedar Lodge motel, then took Juli Sund to a lake, where he killed her early the next morning..."

"He abandoned the group's rental car with the bodies of Mrs. Sund and Silvina inside, returning two days later to burn evidence and to retrieve Mrs. Sund's wallet, which he dumped in Modesto to confuse authorities," the Yahoo! report continues. "Stayner said he thought he had gotten away with the earlier crimes, but could not resist the urge to kill Armstrong after he struck up a chance conversation with her..."

Concluding the interview, he addressed the victims' families: "I am sorry their loved ones were where they were when they were. I wish I could have controlled myself and not done what I did."

FBI sources claimed that he had already confessed his guilt during the Saturday evening interrogation. In the Bureau's mind, this time it had the right man. He had given the FBI details "only the killer would know in such specificity that agents were able to recover evidence confirming his confession," Yahoo! asserts. "Knives were used in the slayings and the weapon suspected in Ms. Armstrong's death was recovered."

Billed as "Mr. Nice Guy"

"He would have been the furthest of suspects in the locals' minds."

If that comment made by Cedar Lodge restaurant manager Kathy Hefner sounds unforgivably naïve, read further. Most of Stayner's co-workers would probably say they fully understand why he had fooled the FBI as long as he did. He just wasn't the killer type, not a troublemaker, not a wise guy, never violent. His only encounter with the law was for marijuana use in 1997.

Cary's brother Steven,  here testifying in 1981 (AP)
Cary's brother Steven,
here testifying in 1981 (AP)

The relatively quiet but friendly motel handyman's only passions seemed to be nude sunbathing and hiking. On days off he would escape to Laguna Del Sol, a nudist colony in Sacramento County. Despite this sensual surrender, he never behaved lewdly nor perversely.

Stayner's father, Delbert, admits that he thinks son Cary may have suffered a trauma at age 11 when younger brother Steven, then seven, was abducted in 1972, disappearing for eight years. In that time, Steven had been forced to endure molestations by his kidnapper, whom he finally turned in to the police. The real-life drama was later turned into a television movie. But, says Delbert, puberty-aged Cary endured some emotional hardships because of that incident.

Cary Stayner 1979 yearbook photo from Merced High School (AP)
Cary Stayner 1979
yearbook photo
from Merced High
School (AP)

After graduation from Merced (California) High School, Stayner worked as a window installer at a glass company. The Cedar Lodge hired him as handyman in 1997 and gave him the use of a small apartment on the top floor. Management found him a hard-worker and honest. In his capacity, Stayner performed technical and housekeeping duties, everything from fixing electrical and mechanical breakdowns to delivering extra towels and bedding to guests. He usually ate lunch and dinner at the motel restaurant and often after work would relax with one beer and a bowl of soup.

Some who knew Cary have an incredibly difficult time accepting the facts. Sandy Cox, whose husband owned the window company where Stayner worked for in Atwater, says, "We've known Cary since he was a little boy...It just doesn't match up. Out of respect for his family and the victim's family, we don't want to say anymore." 

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