FBI charges handyman in Yosemite slaying

Man accused of beheading naturalist is suspect in killings of 3 sightseers

July 26, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Federal authorities have arrested a motel handyman in the grisly murder of an environmental educator at Yosemite National Park and said yesterday that he is also a suspect in the highly publicized abduction and killings of three female sightseers earlier this year.

Cary Stayner, 37, faces arraignment today on a single murder charge in the killing of Joie Ruth Armstrong, 26, whose beheaded body was found near her home last week at the park's western edge.

Investigators said they believe Stayner also played a role in the slaying of Carole Sund, her daughter, Juliana, 15, and family friend Silvina Pelosso, 16, who vanished in February from the Cedar Lodge, an El Portal motel where Stayner worked as a maintenance man.

"We have developed specific information linking Stayner to the Yosemite sightseers murders," James Maddock, the FBI special agent heading the investigations, said at a news conference. He added that with Stayner's arrest, "we believe that no other person involved with any of these murders is still on the loose."

Stayner, who rented a room over the Cedar Lodge's restaurant, was questioned by the FBI after Sund and the two girls disappeared, but he was never considered a suspect, Maddock said. He refused to elaborate at the yesterday's news conference.

Maddock said he had spent many hours of introspection since Stayner's arrest, questioning whether the FBI could have done anything that might have prevented Armstrong's killing.

"I've asked myself whether we could have done anything differently that might have prevented the murder of Joie Armstrong," he said. "I've struggled with that issue for the last 24 hours and continue to do so."

Cedar Lodge, hunkered along the Merced River as it winds down from Yosemite, is only a few miles from Armstrong's home in the Foresta community, an enclave of about 30 cabins in an area not frequented by tourists. The nonprofit group, the Yosemite Institute, that employed Armstrong maintains its main office and some worker housing in El Portal.

Maddock said Saturday that it remains unclear whether Armstrong knew Stayner.

FBI investigators said more than a month ago that they believed they had the main suspects in the Sund case in custody on other charges, in part to assuage any tourist worries as the summer season kicked off in Yosemite.

Maddock said investigators are trying to determine if Stayner is connected to any of the men the FBI had previously targeted.

Those being held include a loose-knit group of former convicts from the Modesto area with a history of sex crimes and methamphetamine use.

Francis and Carole Carrington, parents of Carole Sund, said they felt "some closure" with the announcement of an arrest.

"It's better to know than let your imagination work on you," said Mr. Carrington. "We hope this is brought to a just end. That's all we can ask for."

Stayner had only one previous arrest. Authorities say he was arrested in 1997 on a charge of possession of marijuana for sale.

He grew up in farm towns in California's Central Valley. The family history was checkered by tragedy. His uncle was shot to death in Merced in 1990.

His younger brother, Steven, was kidnapped in 1972 on a Merced street and raised for seven years by a drifter who sexually abused him.

In El Portal, acquaintances said Stayner was a bit of a loner, but never a troublemaker.

Stayner began work at the Cedar Lodge in August 1997 and was laid off in January because of a seasonal slowdown in business. He was rehired March 20, a day after the bodies of Carole Sund and Pelosso were found in the trunk of their rental car.

Authorities took Stayner into custody at a Sacramento County nudist resort Saturday morning after a guest heard his name on a TV newscast and alerted the FBI.

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