Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cary Stayner and the Yosemite Murders

Update from October 1999 to February 2001

On October 20, 1999, Cary Stayner was officially charged with the murders of Carole Sund, 42, her daughter Juli Sund, 15, and their Argentine friend Silvina Pelosso, 16, after investigators claimed Stayner confessed to the crimes. He also allegedly confessed to beheading Joie Ruth Armstrong, a 26-year-old Yosemite naturalist, on July 21. The Sunds and Pelosso were last seen alive at the Cedar Lodge motel where Stayner worked. In addition to the murder charges, he was also charged with burglary, robbery, forcible oral copulation and attempted rape. Stayner was arrested at a nudist camp two days after Armstrong's slaying and was later charged with her murder. Investigators said they waited to charge Stayner for the Sund and Pelosso slayings until they had ruled out the possibility that he had accomplices.

Later the same month, the families of Stayner's victims filed a wrongful death lawsuit against The Cedar Lodge where Stayner was employed as a handyman when he allegedly killed three women who were sightseeing in Yosemite National Park.
The families of the victims, Carole Sund, 42, her 15-year-old daughter, Julie, and family friend Silvina Pelosso, 16, contend that employees of The Cedar Lodge were wrong to assign the women to an isolated room and failed to do a proper background check on Stayner. The lawsuits were filed in Fresno County Superior Court. Both families seek unspecified sums for punitive and other damages, and reimbursement for funeral expenses and legal fees. The Sund complaint, although similar to the Pelosso family complaint, is more specific in blaming the lodge for keeping Stayner on staff, saying its managers should have known that he acted in an "unusual, bizarre or violent manner" on previous jobs.

Cedar Lodge is just one of six area motels owned by a company operated by Gerry Fisher and his family. Stayner is named as a codefendant in the complaints which adds yet another legal layer to a case already compounded by parallel federal and state prosecutions and delicate defense issues.

On February 11 2000, federal prosecutors announced that they plan to seek the death penalty against Cary Stayner. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno approved the decision, which will put Cary Stayner on death row if he is convicted of killing Joie Ruth Armstrong. His trial is set to begin in October. It is being heard in federal court because Armstrong was killed inside a national park. In seeking the death penalty, federal prosecutors cited aggravating factors, including the fact that the murder was committed "in an especially cruel, heinous and depraved manner" and with "substantial planning."

On July 12 2000, a federal judge ruled that the government could seek the death penalty against Stayner. In a decision filed on July 3, U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii rejected Cary Stayner's challenges to the 1994 federal death penalty law.

Stayner had previously argued that the law is unconstitutional or being misapplied, and that its language is vague and the punishment is cruel and unusual.

Several days after the judge's decision, Stayner's attorneys asked to have his trial moved to Seattle, as they believed that pretrial publicity had made it impossible to seat an impartial jury in California. Attorneys for the prosecution agreed that Seattle was an acceptable alternative venue.

Stayner's lawyers chose Seattle because of its proximity to a federal holding facility, the promise of less media coverage and the district's indication that the trial could be accommodated. U.S. District Court Judge Anthony W. Ishii hinted that he would approve the change of venue if Stayner signed a written agreement. The trial is being held in federal court because Armstrong was killed inside a national park.

On July 28, Ishii granted a change of venue and postponed Stayner's trial for six months to give the defense more time to prepare. Originally scheduled for October 17 2000, the trial will now be held on April 10 2001.

Ishii approved the postponement, as Stayner's attorneys need additional time to analyze the 28,000 pages of evidence received so far. He also ruled that defense lawyers must notify the court by October 27 if they plan to pursue an insanity defense or present testimony on Stayner's mental health.

On October 18 2000, lawyers for Stayner said that sealed documents in the federal murder case against him should remain off-limits to the public and the media. Defense lawyers Robert W. Rainwater and Marcia A. Morrissey objected to a motion by news organizations asking a judge to make public a series of sealed documents in the case against Stayner for the murder of Joie Armstrong. The most prominent is a document filed by government prosecutors that stated their reasons for initially seeking the death penalty for Stayner in the beheading of Armstrong. Rainwater and Morrissey argue that since Stayner, who is still facing state murder charges in the deaths of three other Yosemite tourists, pleaded guilty to the murder of Armstrong, there should no longer be any public interest in the government's reasons for seeking the death penalty.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Duce Rice, one of the prosecutors in the federal case, said in a response to the motion that the government has no position regarding the news media's request to open the records. In addition to the reasons the government sought the death penalty, the news organizations also asked to view a series of other documents Judge Ishii sealed in the case, including payment vouchers, grand jury information and applications for medical testing and transportation of Stayner. The organizations that sought to unseal the documents are the McClatchy Co., which publishes The Fresno Bee and the Sacramento Bee and Modesto Bee, the Chronicle Publishing Co., the Associated Press and the Hearst Corp.

On September 15, 2000, one year, one month and 23 days after he took the life of the Joie Armstrong, Cary Stayner confessed to murdering her, thereby sparing his own life, for the time being. Wearing shackles and Fresno County prison garb, Stayner shuffled into the courtroom and made fleeting eye contact with Armstrong's mother, family and friends, before turning toward the judge to be sworn in. For the next 22 minutes Stayner answered the judge's questions firmly, quietly and without hesitation.

After making sure that Stayner understood the implications of his admission of guilt, the judge then read out the counts against him. On the charges of premeditated murder and kidnapping Stayner pleaded guilty. On the charge of sexual assault — "Guilty," Stayner answered. The judge accepted his guilty plea on all counts.

On December 12, 2000, the federal court papers were ordered to be unsealed after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion by Stayner's lawyers to keep the documents sealed from the public. Inside the files, in gory detail, Stayner describes how he beheaded Armstrong despite her futile efforts to escape death, including diving head first from the window of his moving sport-utility vehicle and fleeing into the woods.

The documents also revealed his graphic confession to her murder shortly after FBI agents arrested him. The FBI interviewed Stayner on July 24, 1999, after agents apprehended him at a nudist resort 35 miles from Sacramento three days after Joie Armstrong's murder. According to the transcript of the interview, Stayner confronted Armstrong at gunpoint on the front porch of her cabin in Foresta inside the national park. He told her it was a robbery, forced her into the cabin and covered her mouth and bound her hands behind her back with duct tape. Then he put her in his sport-utility vehicle.

"I lost control of myself and lost control of her," Stayner told the agents in the taped interview, parts of which were transcribed for the court. "When this started out I had no intentions of cutting her head off. I had no intentions of killing her, even the first time I saw her. Then I started thinking about it. It was in the house, there was nobody in the house with her and she kept walking out by herself and she watered the plants and it was obvious she was taking off and getting ready to go. That's when I started talking to her."

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Duce Rice then described Stayner's actions in the court papers:

"After he had driven a short distance, she dove head first out of the window of the moving truck, and, still bound with duct tape, ran through the woods toward the nearby community of Foresta to get help."

The papers describe in detail how the desperate woman tried to outrun the muscular, six foot tall Stayner after being chased and tackled by him, then dragged deeper into the woods where he attacked her with a knife as she tried to avoid him by keeping her chin down. The interview revealed a slashing execution scenario that continued for minutes before and after Armstrong's death. "She kept fighting and fighting and fighting," Stayner told the agents. That's when he took the knife, which he described as "not a very good one," out of his back pocket and cut her head off. He then described how he threw her body into a small creek and covered it with branches and leaves.

He told his interviewers that he thought of keeping the head. "I was never much of a trophy hunter," Stayner told the agents. After an agent asked him whether he knew the difference between a souvenir and trophy, he added, "It would have been a trophy most likely."

Asked about the killing, he said, "I didn't feel good about it. I say it's like matter of factly I was doing this, you know? It's like I'm a split personality. I don't black out and do things, you know.... I know what's wrong, what's right."

When asked by an agent if he knew that it was wrong when he was doing it, Stayner answered "Most definitely." Asked by an agent whether there was anything Armstrong could have done to save herself, the transcript ended without a complete answer.

"Well, she when — once she started running, and if she would have — would have been..." it ends without him finishing the thought. Also during the interview Stayner was asked why he decapitated Armstrong. He answered, "I just did the most revolting thing I could possibly do. It was something I just felt I had to do."

"Would you describe it as cold-blooded?" an agent asked.

"I think so," Stayner said.

Though the documents reveal no details about the deaths of Yosemite tourists Carole and Juli Sund and Silvina Pelosso, Stayner also has reportedly confessed to their killings as well. While there is no direct reference to the killing of the three tourists, there is a brief allusion in the FBI interview that could connect to those killings.

At one point an agent asks Stayner, "But you've never felt a body die in your arms before this?"

"Yeah," Stayner responds.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot, okay," the agent says. "Okay, let's forget that part. All right. So now she's dead, you know she's dead, and you drag her along. ..."

In February 2001, reporters covering Stayner's upcoming state trial were required to undergo fingerprint checks by authorities concerned about security. The measure came as a surprise to editors, news directors and First Amendment experts.

Officials handling the background checks said they were worried about security at the Mariposa County courthouse. Superior Court Executive Officer Michael Berest said he thought he was following the procedure used to issue press credentials in a federal case. A federal court official in Sacramento said that to get a pass for the case, reporters had only to submit two photographs and show their credentials. Anyone with photo identification from the federal case did not have to undergo background checks, which cleared 13 reporters, but 50 who applied for credentials would also require fingerprinting.

The checks that were performed on 16 applicants did not unearth any criminal activity, authorities said. Should that happen, law enforcement officials will discuss whether the reporter can cover the trial. Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, said the fingerprinting appears to violate constitutionally guaranteed press freedoms. He said Supreme Court rulings have held that the press and public have a right to attend criminal court proceedings.

On February 10 2001, the Mariposa Superior Court reversed the policy decision requiring criminal background checks for reporters covering the trial. According to Michael Berest, the court's executive officer, the requirement was withdrawn after news organizations and a public interest group complained that the decision violated press freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. The media also objected to the fact that the policy required background checks for members of the news media but not the general public planning to attend the trial.

The policy was dropped after the Associated Press refused to comply and the court received complaints from newspaper editors, media lawyers and the California First Amendment Coalition, a group concerned with open government, free speech and free press issues.

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