Cary Stayner and the Yosemite Murders
Throughout the next several weeks, a task force (comprised of FBI agents and law enforcers from four surrounding counties), dedicated to no other purpose than to round up suspects, arrested several known sex offenders, drug users and ex-convicts with a record of violence from within a 75-square-mile area between Modesto and Sonoma. The police figured that the killer of the three women was someone familiar with the county, for whoever was guilty had successfully maneuvered an otherwise obvious shiny red Pontiac unseen through the natural terrain of ravines, lakes, dense woods and country roads. More so, opined the FBI, only a native would have been aware of the out-of-the-way site where the car, with its grisly contents, was eventually abandoned.
Said the March 29 edition of Newsweek: "The FBI... believes that the killer knows the area of abandoned gold mines well enough to hide the car off a spur road where locals dump old refrigerators, cars and washing machines. And well enough to know that the smell of a burning car would likely not attract attention because the air often reeks from people burning their garbage. Unsettled locals are starting to whisper about possible murderers in their midst."
By mid-April, those who had been apprehended-on-suspicion were ordered to testify in front of a grand jury in Fresno, California. "A few weeks later," says the Fresno Bee, "(James) Maddock (in charge of the FBI manhunt) ...confirmed what The Bee and other news media outlets already were reporting: that the key players in the sightseer slayings had been arrested and were in jail on unrelated charges."
Although not named in print at the time, these names have since been published by the Fresno Bee:
- Michael "Mick" Larwick, 42, of Modesto, part of a vagabond group of methamphetamine drug users and friends centered in the Modesto area. Larwick, who grew up in Tuolumme County near where the bodies of Carole Sund and Silvina Pelosso were found, was jailed March 16 after he allegedly shot a Modesto police officer, an event that was ensued by a 14-hour standoff. He has an long criminal record and has been questioned extensively by the FBI. He denies any role in the Yosemite slayings.
- Eugene"Rufus" Dykes, 32, also of Modesto and Larwick's half-brother. Arrested in March, he is now serving a year at Deuel Institute for an unrelated parole violation and has a long criminal record including sex and weapons convictions. In an interview from Deuel in June, he denies any involvement in the murders.
- Billy Joe Strange, 39, an El Portal parolee who worked at the Cedar Lodge lounge and restaurant, where the murdered women were last seen. He was arrested March 5 when he allegedly reported to his parole officer with liquor on his breath. The FBI pushed for Strange's arrest, but he denied any part in the triple murders. Reportedly, many friends have rushed forward to his aid, calling the FBI's suspicion a travesty.
- Darrell Gray Stephens, 55, Strange's roommate. Convicted in 1978 for rape and robbery, he was jailed March 14 for failing to register as a sex offender. Stephens told the Bee that he is innocent.
While the four men listed above were considered the main murder suspects in the initial inquiries, others have since been questioned by the FBI. These people, who were never regarded as the possible killers, were nonetheless dragged into the case as perhaps abettors or witnesses:
- Rachel Lou Campbell, 36, of Modesto, who was charged in April with stealing checks and credit cards, and converting them into cash and merchandise worth $365,000. Campbell, who pleaded innocent to that charge, reportedly is a key witness. When first arrested on mail fraud charges, she had in her possession Carole Sund's checking account and automated teller machine numbers.
- Larry Duane Utley, 41, an associate of Dykes and Larwick, first picked up during a March parole sweep. He was arrested in May on an unrelated crime charge, but was soon released.
- Teresa Kay Gray, 36, of Modesto. The FBI task force investigating Yosemite issued a federal warrant for her arrest after she failed to appear in Stanislaus County drug court in June.
- Kenneth "Soldier" Stewart, 24, a former cellmate of Dykes who was charged with attempted murder. He has been questioned about any involvement.
- Angelia Dale, who testified before the federal grand jury. She was subpoenaed because she is a friend of Dykes and Larwick.
- Maria Ledbetter, 24, of Modesto, an admitted methamphetamine addict and former girlfriend of Dykes, about whom she was questioned extensively.
- Jeffrey Wayne Keeney, 32, of Modesto. Arrested on an unrelated drug charge, he has been questioned about the Yosemite case.
By the end of June, the FBI had reviewed the testimonies of and the evidence linked to the suspects in custody. At that time, the Bureau stated that, while no one had yet been charged, it felt that those responsible for killing the three women at Yosemite were already behind bars.
The nation breathed a sigh of relief.
Others, too, had been questioned in the slayings — more routine than anything —and released. One of these was a man named Cary Stayner, clean cut, no record of violence, and was in the employment of Cedar Lodge as its handyman.
Three weeks after the FBI made its statement above, the case was reopened. And the nation grimaced. A fourth victim was brutally slain just a few miles from Cedar Lodge.