Cary Anthony Stayner is a convicted American serial killer who murdered four women in Mariposa County, California between February and July 1999. Known as the “Yosemite Killer,” he murdered his victims either by strangulation or cutting their throats. When he was 11 years old, his brother Steven was kidnapped by convicted sex offender Kenneth Parnell and remained missing for the next seven years. Cary grew up believing that he was being neglected by his parents due to their grief over the loss of their younger son. He also claimed that he had been sexually molested as a child by one of his uncles. In 1997, he began working as a handyman at a motel in El Portal. After the discovery of the remains of his first three victims, the initial suspicion did not fall on Stayner, despite the fact that he was one of the employees of Cedar Lodge where the victims had been staying before their deaths. However, when the murder of his fourth victim was linked with a car that was traced back to him, he was apprehended by the police and charged with four counts of first-degree murder. Eventually convicted on all counts, he was sentenced to death in December 2002.
Childhood & Early Life
Cary Stayner was born on August 13, 1961, in Merced, California to parents Kay and Delbert Stayner.
On December 4, 1972, his seven-year-old younger brother Steven was abducted by Kenneth Parnell and his co-worker Edward Ervin Murphy. Kept in a cabin in Catheys Valley, Steven never realised that he was only a hundred feet away from his grandmother’s property. Parnell told him that his parents could not afford to raise him anymore and so they had sent him to live with him.
Cary grew up feeling overlooked as his parents grieved for Steven. As for Steven himself, he lived the next seven years with Parnell as his son “Dennis” and was repeatedly sexually abused by him. In February 1980, Parnell kidnapped a five-year-old boy named Timothy White from Ukiah. Steven did not want Timothy to suffer the same fate as himself. He escaped with Timothy and informed the police. The Stayners were ecstatic to have their lost son back.
Steven was killed in 1989 in a motorcycle accident. During this period, Cary lived with his uncle Jesse. In 1990, Jesse was murdered. After his capture, Cary would tell the police that Jesse had sexually abused him and that he tried to commit suicide in 1991. Prior to the murders, he barely had any criminal records. In 1997, he faced charges for possession of marijuana and methamphetamine, but they were later dismissed.
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In 1997, Cary Stayner got a job as a handyman at the Cedar Lodge motel in El Portal, located near the Highway 140 Arch Rock entrance to the Yosemite National Park. He would later tell the police that initially he had planned to murder his girlfriend and her two daughters about a year before the Yosemite murders, but when he noticed the male caretaker in her property, he did not go through with it.
He would also reveal that he had been fantasizing about killing women since he was seven years old, four years before Steven’s kidnapping. A week before the murders, his fantasies had become so overwhelming that he gathered a murder/rape kit, which included a rope, a serrated knife, a camera, a gun, and a roll of duct tape. He also considered killing four young girls but then realised they were with an adult male.
Stayner started his murderous rampage in early 1999. He got his chance when 42-year-old Carole Sund, along with her daughter, 15-year-old Juli Sund and Juli’s friend, 16-year-old Argentine exchanged student Silvina Pelosso were staying at the Cedar Lodge.
On the night of February 15, 1999, Stayner, pretending to be part of the maintenance team, got into their room and held all three females at gunpoint, although, as he later told Juli, the gun was empty. He put them on the two beds in the room after gagging and tying them up.
Stayner dragged Carole Sund into the bathroom and killed her by strangulation. He then left the body in the trunk of Carole’s car. He then came back into the room and stayed there for the next six or seven hours. According to his statements, he raped the girls but after a while got frustrated with their non-cooperation and his own failure to continue the sexual abuse and torture. He killed Pelosso next and put her body in the trunk beside Rund’s.
He returned to the room once more and sexually assaulted Juli Rund. He later brought her to an area close to Lake Don Pedro. He slashed her throat and hid the body. Stayner burned Carole’s car with the bodies still inside the trunk.
When the police recovered the remains of Carole Sund and Silvina Pelosso, they were burned beyond recognition. Their identities were later confirmed using dental records. The police received a hand-drawn map pointing to Juli’s body, alongside a note that read, “We had fun with this one.”
Stayner was questioned by the police, but as he had no criminal history, he was overlooked by the cops. Furthermore, he had been able to maintain his composure during the police interview. However, that changed when the decapitated body of Yosemite Institute’s 26-year-old employee and naturalist Joie Ruth Armstrong was discovered.
According to several eyewitnesses, a blue 1979 International Scout was seen parked outside the cabin where Armstrong had been lodging. The investigators found out that the car belonged to Stayner.
Capture & Trial
Cary Stayner quickly became prime suspect in the case. FBI launched a manhunt and he was caught in late July at the Laguna del Sol nudist resort in Wilton. His vehicle was searched and the FBI found incriminating evidence linking him to Armstrong’s murder.
After a gruelling interrogation, he broke, admitting to all four murders as well as sending the note and the map that led to the discovery of Juli’s body. On August 6, 1999, he was taken to the US District Courthouse in Fresno where the trial began. He entered a plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity.”
According to his defence team, the Stayner family had a history of mental illness and sexual abuse that had not only turned him into a murderer but had also resulted in his obsessive-compulsive disorder. They told the court that he would confess if he were to be provided with child pornography. Dr. Arturo Silva, a court-appointed forensic psychiatrist, stated before the court that he had diagnosed Stayner with mild autism, OCD, and paraphilia.
Conviction & Sentence
A jury found Cary Stayner sane despite his plea of insanity and convicted him on all four counts of first-degree murder in 2001. He was sentenced to death on December 12, 2002, and became the 617th inmate on California’s Death Row. As of January 2018, Stayner has been imprisoned at San Quentin Penitentiary.
In Popular Culture
In ‘I Know My First Name Is Steven’, a 1989 television miniseries based on the book of the same name, actor Scott Curtis portrayed an eleven-year-old Cary.
A&E Network’s ‘American Justice’ did a featurette in 2002 on the investigation and the subsequent arrest of Stayner.
Many pieces of literature have been published on the murders, including ‘Murder at Yosemite’ (1999) by Carlton Smith and ‘The Yosemite Murders’ (2000) by Dennis McDougal.