Homicides in the 54 national parks are rare; indeed, 64.5 million visitors thronged the parks in 1998, and remarkably, there were no murders.
Homicides in the 54 national parks are rare; indeed, 64.5 million visitors thronged the parks in 1998, and remarkably, there were no murders.
Homicides in the 54 national parks are rare; indeed, 64.5 million visitors thronged the parks in 1998, and remarkably, there were no murders. (Art Wager/iStock)
Joshua Hammer

The Horror Vault

The Yosemite Horror

In a setting of beauty and grandeur, a twisted soul was on the loose, a murderer who revived gnawing fears that our national parks are no longer safe. New evidence reveals the confessed killer's tortured past—and his bizarre obsession with Bigfoot.

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On Thursday morning, July 22, Dr. Desmond Kidd, Yosemite National Park's medical director, had just finished a busy 24-hour shift at the park's clinic—it was, after all, the height of the summer tourist season—and the 36-year-old physician was beat. But not long after he arrived back at the log cabin he shared with other park employees in Yosemite Village, his pager went off. Kidd called in to the park dispatcher and was asked to join a search for a missing person—a search, the dispatcher said, “with law enforcement implications.”

In two and a half years of working in Yosemite, Kidd had helped rescue a number of hikers who had lost their way, but before he headed out of Yosemite Village in a convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles toward the nearby hamlet of Foresta, he learned that this search was different. Five months earlier, three female tourists had vanished from their hotel room at the Cedar Lodge, near Yosemite's entrance, and had been found a month later, brutally murdered. Now, Kidd was told, another young woman had disappeared. Joie Ruth Armstrong, 26, an ebullient, strawberry-blond naturalist at the nearby Yosemite Institute and a casual acquaintance of Kidd's, had been planning to spend the weekend visiting friends in Sausalito. Armstrong had never shown up, and her friends feared something had happened to her.

Turning left off the main Yosemite highway, Kidd steered his Jeep down an unmarked road into Foresta: 30 cabins, inhabited mostly by park employees, scattered across the bottom of a wooded glen. A forest fire had roared through this area in 1990, and many of the pine trees here were still blackened and skeletal. For the past year, Armstrong had lived with her boyfriend, another Yosemite Institute naturalist, along with a second roommate, in a green cabin set by itself at the edge of a golden meadow. Rangers had cordoned off the area around Armstrong's secluded house with yellow police tape. Her white pickup truck was still parked in the driveway, packed with luggage for her trip.

Having decided to begin their search in the immediate area, the squad split up into five groups. Kidd and four other members of the search party walked the woods along Crane Creek. Beneath the hot noonday sun, they bushwhacked through dense brush, watching for rattlesnakes and looking for signs of the missing woman. After only a few minutes, they spotted footprints, broken saplings, trampled ferns and grass—all evidence of a recent run, perhaps a chase, through the woods. Suddenly one of the rangers noticed something metallic. “What's that?” he asked.

In a narrow ditch filled with three feet of still water, Kidd spotted a key ring glinting in the sun. Just beyond it lay something else: a woman's body, clad in a white T-shirt and blue jeans. As Kidd drew closer, he noticed something that nearly made him gag. “Jesus,” he said, and ran back to the ranger in charge. “We have an 11-44,” he said, using the police code for a dead body. “And she's been decapitated.”

For law enforcement and park officials in and around Yosemite, the gruesome discovery of Armstrong's corpse marked the return of a nightmare that most had thought was long over. Five months earlier, the disappearance of Yosemite visitors Carole Sund, 42, of Eureka, California; her daughter Juli,15; and Juli's friend Silvina Pelosso, a 16-year-old visiting from Argentina, had touched off one the biggest searches in the history of the Sierra Nevada. The three tourists had last been seen on February 15 at the Cedar Lodge, just outside the park, and evidence at the motel indicated that they had been abducted. For weeks hundreds of FBI agents, California Highway Patrol officers, and National Park Service rangers combed Yosemite's rugged backcountry with dogs and helicopters. Two dozen FBI agents commandeered part of the headquarters of the Stanislaus Hot Shots, a forest fire–fighting squad based in the old gold-rush town of Sonora, to sift through the little evidence they had been able to collect. TV crews and reporters swarmed over the Yosemite region and descended on the Modesto Holiday Inn, where the families of the missing tourists maintained a vigil.

On March 19, a hiker found a burned-out Pontiac on a logging road near the northeastern edge of the park, about 100 miles from the Cedar Lodge. It was Carole Sund's missing rental car, and her charred, bound body was found stuffed in the trunk alongside the body of Pelosso. One week later the FBI, acting on an anonymous tip, discovered Juli Sund's corpse dumped in heavy underbrush by an overlook at the Don Pedro Reservoir, several miles from the logging trail where the car had been found. Her throat had been cut.

Stayler stashed the bodies in the trunk of Carol Sund's Pontiac.
Stayler stashed the bodies in the trunk of Carol Sund's Pontiac. (Al Golub/Modesto Bee/Corbis Sygm)

The murders were particularly unsettling, of course, because of where and how they had occurred. Not only do such crimes violate our sense of an idyllic setting, but they represent everyone's worst wilderness nightmare come true: the unseen predator who creeps out of the darkness and then disappears back into the shadows of the forest without a trace. It hardly helped that such fears are belied by statistics: Of the four million visitors to Yosemite last year, just 15 were victims of violent crimes, a 70 percent drop from six years earlier. Homicides in the 54 national parks are rare; indeed, 64.5 million visitors thronged the parks in 1998, and remarkably, there were no murders. Before Armstrong's death, the last homicide inside Yosemite's boundaries occurred in 1987, when a man pitched his wife off a precipice to collect on her insurance policy. According to a statistician at the University of Florida, the odds of being murdered in a national park in 1995 were about one in 20 million—less than the odds of drowning in one's own bathtub.

Until the Yosemite murders, perhaps the most terrifying crime against women in the national parks occurred in May 1996, when two experienced backpackers, Julianne Williams, 24, and Lollie Winans, 26, were knifed to death at their campsite a few hundred yards off the Appalachian Trail in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. The two women had been out for a five-day circuit hike in the park when they were attacked; no suspect has been arrested in the killings.

According to a statistician at the University of Florida, the odds of being murdered in a national park in 1995 were about one in 20 million—less than the odds of drowning in one's own bathtub.

With the murders in Yosemite Valley, the dual nature of the wilderness—the threat lurking behind the beauty—came again into unnerving focus. By last spring the FBI was centering its investigation on two suspects from Modesto, ex-convicts and methamphetamine users who had had violent run-ins with police in the days after the Sunds and Pelosso vanished. Michael Larwick and his half-brother Eugene Dykes were both being held in the Modesto County jail—Larwick on charges of shooting a Modesto police officer, Dykes for drug possession and parole violations. On background, FBI agents told reporters the two men had been linked to the murders through acrylic fibers analyzed at the FBI laboratory in Washington and through self-incriminating statements made by Dykes. In June the chief of the FBI's Sacramento office, James M. Maddock, confidently announced that “we have all of the main players in jail, but we are in no rush to charge them.”

Then Armstrong's mutilated body was discovered. Although the clumsiness of that crime contrasted sharply with the methodical coverup that followed the Sund-Pelosso murders, Armstrong's beheading spread fear through Yosemite that the killings were connected—and that the FBI's investigation had gone awry. Park rangers received a flood of phone calls from parents and youth group leaders asking if certain areas of the park should be avoided; requests for guided hikes—especially from women—rose sharply.

Almost immediately, authorities received a lucky break: A park employee had noticed a blue and white 1979 International Scout parked near Armstrong's house the night of her death, and police had issued a be-on-the-lookout alert for the vehicle. On the afternoon of July 22, two rangers spotted the Scout, parked on the shoulder of California 140 in the Merced River Canyon, about 12 miles from the western entrance of the park. Descending to the rocky riverbank, one of the rangers, accompanied by a Mariposa County detective, came upon a handsome, solidly built man smoking a joint and sunbathing in the nude. He calmly identified himself as Cary Stayner and said he was employed as a handyman at the Cedar Lodge. The officers confiscated his marijuana and let him go. But shortly after that encounter, FBI investigators compared tire tracks at the crime scene with photographs of Stayner's treads—and got a perfect match. Two days later, the handyman was eating lunch at Laguna Del Sol, a “clothing optional” resort near Sacramento, when the cops took him into custody, drove him to Sacramento, and booked him on suspicion of murder. Stayner, 38, confessed to the murder of Joie Ruth Armstrong and then dropped a bombshell: He had also abducted and murdered Carole and Juli Sund and Silvina Pelosso. He told the FBI that he had fantasized about hurting women since he was a child and that he had been unable to stop his compulsion to kill.

For five months, it now appeared, the killer had been living under the noses of investigators—fixing leaks and handing out bed linens at the Cedar Lodge until the urge to murder had struck again. Agents had interviewed Stayner twice in the early stages of the probe but had dismissed him as a suspect. He seemed like too nice a guy, too ordinary, they said. Not only that, but Stayner's background—his own family had been victimized by a similarly monstrous crime—made the idea that he had metamorphosed into a violent predator almost unimaginable.

Cary Anthony Stayner was born in Merced, California, an agricultural town of 65,000 people that sprawls across the eastern flank of the San Joaquin Valley and calls itself the Gateway to Yosemite. Stayner, his three sisters, and his younger brother were raised in a little green-shingled house on Bette Street, in a lower-middle-class neighborhood at the edge of town. Delbert Stayner, their father, was a mechanic who worked for various canneries. Their mother, Kay, ran a day-care business and worked at food-service jobs in high-school cafeterias.

Merced is the kind of place where residents pride themselves on being free from the urban ills that beset Los Angeles and San Francisco. But in December 1972, the Stayner family's own sense of security was disrupted forever, with results that many believe helped shape the person Stayner became. Cary's younger brother, seven-year-old Steven, disappeared without a trace one afternoon while walking home from school alone down the Yosemite Highway. The distraught parents became consumed by the quest to find him. They put up billboards, passed out leaflets, consulted psychics, and according to family friends were never the same again. Kay, a Roman Catholic who raised her family as Mormons, became cold and distant, seldom displaying physical affection toward her children. Delbert was openly devastated by the loss of his favorite son. Cary, who was 11 when his brother disappeared, would sometimes find his father rummaging through Steven's dresser drawers, weeping. Steven had been “the apple of his father's eye,” a close family friend says. Mike Echols, author of the 1991 book I Know My First Name Is Steven, about the Stayner case, wrote that Delbert once chewed Cary out for painting over the name “Steven” that his younger brother had scratched into the garage door.

From the time Cary was a small boy, the Stayner family vacationed together in Yosemite and the surrounding high country—piling into the family van and driving 60 miles east to camp, fish, and hunt in the mountains. Cary entered his teen years as an avid and accomplished outdoorsman. In high school, he also found a measure of self-expression as the cartoonist for the high school newspaper, the Statesman, showing so much promise that classmates assumed he would someday draw his own comic strip professionally. His cartoons are scatter-
ed throughout the 1979 high school yearbook: humorous caricatures of his fellow students playing tennis, done with a deft style and a cheerfulness that offers no insight into the mind of a future serial killer. But aside from those flights of fancy, Stayner is remembered as shy and self-effacing. In a yearbook photo of the Statesman staff, Stayner is half-obscured in the back row, his skinny frame in a slouch, his head covered by a baseball cap. Jack Bungart, the paper's sports editor, once tried to engage him in a conversation about his brother. “He made it clear that he didn't want to talk about it,” recalls Bungart.

On March 2, 1980, Cary Stayner was returning from a camping trip in Yosemite with friends when he heard a radio report that 14-year-old Steven had escaped from his abductor and would be arriving in Merced that afternoon. Cary later told reporters that he “almost drove his car into the Merced River” in excitement. That day Steven came home to a hero's welcome and moved back into the tiny bedroom he had shared with Cary. Cary's euphoria over his brother's return soon faded. Steven became a celebrity: There was national newspaper and television coverage, as well as a book and a TV miniseries chronicling Steven's seven years as the sex slave of Kenneth Parnell, a drifter, convicted pedophile, and former employee of the Yosemite Lodge, inside the national park. Cary simmered, silently. In an interview with J.P. Miller, a screenwriter who spent a long period with the Stayners doing research for the 1989 NBC miniseries, he vented his frustrations about his brother: “His head was all bloated out,” Cary told Miller. “We never really got along well after he came back. All of a sudden Steve was getting all these gifts, getting all this clothing, getting all this attention. I guess I was jealous. I'm sure I was…. I got put on the back burner, you might say.”

By then Stayner, in his early twenties, had abandoned any ambitions he may have had. “He showed me his cartoons,” Miller says. “I said, 'Why don't you submit some of this stuff to colleges? Maybe you'll get a scholarship.' He said, 'No, I don't think they'd like this stuff.' He didn't feel he had a chance. He stayed in his room and smoked grass, and he went out camping in the mountains with his pals. The mountains were the only place where he could have some freedom to feel like a person and take control of his destiny.”

Stayner would later tell both the FBI and a San Jose TV reporter that he had his first violent fantasy about women when he was seven years old: On a shopping trip with his mother, he envisioned opening fire on the supermarket cashiers, slaughtering them en masse.

It was around this time that Stayner surprised friends and family members by claiming to have seen Bigfoot—the legendary half-man, half-ape of the Pacific Northwest that the Indians of British Columbia had called Sasquatch. “He talked about Bigfoot all the time,” recalls Kathy Amey, Stayner's cousin. “He absolutely knew that it existed. You couldn't have told him anything different.” The affectless way that Stayner talked about the creature made it difficult to know whether he feared it or identified with it. At the very least, however, it seemed a mark of the hold that the wilderness had over Stayner's imagination, taking him far from the oppressive atmosphere of Bette Street.

Stayner would later tell both the FBI and a San Jose TV reporter that he had his first violent fantasy about women when he was seven years old: On a shopping trip with his mother, he envisioned opening fire on the supermarket cashiers, slaughtering them en masse. His cousin Ronnie Jones, a camping companion and perhaps his closest friend, recalled how Stayner would often doodle pictures of naked girls in a notepad. The two frequented the Merced River together, but when Ronnie would run down to skinny dip with the girls, Cary refused to join him. He apparently dated several women for short periods of time, but he seemed incapable of establishing any lasting relationship.

Cary Stayner.
Cary Stayner. (Merced County Sheriff/Modesto Bee/Corbis Sygma)

By his midtwenties, Stayner had settled into a job repairing windows for Merced Glass and Mirror, sharing a house with Jerry Stayner, his father's brother, a truck dispatcher for a hay company. In 1989 Steven—who friends say never really put his life back together after his ordeal, though he got married and fathered two children—was killed in a motorcycle crash. Cary, like the rest of the family, was said to have been devastated. Then, in 1990, police discovered Jerry Stayner sprawled dead in the bedroom of the house where he lived with Cary, with a shotgun wound to the chest. Cary was questioned about the killing, but he had an alibi—he said he had been at work when the shooting took place—and was not considered a suspect, says a Merced detective who worked on the case. Police focused their investigation on an unknown vagrant whom Cary claimed was lurking around the house shortly before the killing. But the vagrant was never found, and the murder went unsolved.

Stayner seems to have maintained a quiet, unexceptional existence for the next several years. Then, one day in 1996, a coworker went out into the yard of Merced Glass and Mirror to find Stayner slamming his fist against a piece of wood and bleeding from cuts on his hand. “He said he felt like he was having a breakdown and said he was all nervous and didn't know why,” the colleague later told the San Francisco Chronicle. “He said he felt like getting in his truck, driving into the office, and killing everyone in there and torching the place.” Stayner's boss drove him to a Merced psychiatric center, where he spoke with a therapist. Stayner never went back to his job again. He told former coworkers that he was thinking of moving to Santa Cruz to pursue a cartooning career.

Instead he headed east, to the Sierra, back to the woods. By then his father had lost his job at a Merced tomato cannery and had moved with Kay into a trailer park in the town of Atwater, where two of Stayner's three sisters also lived. Stayner appears to have told few people outside of his immediate family where he was going. In El Portal, just west of Yosemite National Park, he found a job as a handyman at the Cedar Lodge, a sprawling complex of rustic pine bungalows that straddle the Merced River. He rented a room above the Cedar Lodge Restaurant & Lounge, a 1950s-themed diner with red Naugahyde banquettes and a vintage jukebox, and did odd jobs around the motel. He was “a cool guy” who mixed easily with the rest of the staff, according to a waitress at the diner. “At night we'd all hang out, watch a video in somebody's room. He was totally likable. He was ordinary.”

In the dead of winter, when snow dusts the granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada and the night temperatures drop below freezing, the Cedar Lodge is often nearly deserted, with most of the staff on hiatus until spring. Last February, Stayner was still living in his room above the lounge when he saw Carole and Juli Sund and Silvina Pelosso arriving in their bright-red Pontiac Grand Prix rental. The trio of tourists had spent a long day admiring El Capitan, Half Dome, and other granite monoliths, ice skating in Curry Village in the Yosemite Valley, and taking snapshots along the Merced River Gorge. “The girls were happy,” remembers Carole's father, Francis Carrington, who spoke to them on the telephone that day. “They were having the time of their lives.” They had dinner at the Cedar Lodge restaurant and then strolled back along dimly lit pathways lined with wooden statues of bears and bald eagles to room 509, in the far west wing of the hotel.

Based on what Cary Stayner told the authorities in his confession, this is what happened next. Around 11 p.m. Stayner, who was carrying a toolbox with duct tape, rope, a knife, and a gun hidden inside, knocked at the door of 509 and identified himself as the motel handyman. There was a leak in the room above, he explained, and he needed to check whether water was dripping through the ceiling. Suspicious, Carole Sund looked around and confirmed that there was no sign of a leak. But Stayner kept pleading with her through the locked door. Finally she let him in. Stayner chatted with her, fiddled around in the bathroom for a minute or two, and then emerged brandishing a gun.

He told Carole and the girls not to panic. He had only come to rob them, he said. Then he bound and gagged them with duct tape, placed Silvina and Juli in the bathroom, and turned to Carole Sund, who was lying on the bed. Silently, quickly, he strangled the woman with a rope. He took her car keys, dragged her corpse out to the dark, deserted parking lot, and heaved it into the trunk of the Pontiac. Stayner then separated the girls, killed Pelosso the same way, and placed her body in the trunk alongside Carole Sund's.

Around four o'clock in the morning, Stayner carried Juli Sund outside and put her in the front seat of the Pontiac. She still didn't know her mother and Silvina had been killed, Stayner told the FBI. At some point he removed the tape from her mouth. He drove west along the Merced River Canyon, unclear about his exact destination, making “small talk” with his captive.

Just before dawn Stayner turned off the two-lane road near the town of Moccasin and parked in a deserted parking lot. He lifted Juli from her seat and carried her up a steep hill toward the Don Pedro Reservoir overlook. He told the FBI that Juli had asked him to carry her because of the cold and indicated that he had lifted her in his arms in the manner of a bridegroom carrying his bride across a threshold. A law-enforcement source says that Stayner's account may reflect his own distorted hold on reality: “It fit in with his fantasy that there was some relationship between him and Juli.” Upon reaching the overlook, Stayner said, he grabbed his victim from behind and drove his knife blade across her throat. He hid her lifeless body, with its head nearly severed, in the underbrush.

Stayner ditched the car a few hundred yards down a little-used logging trail off California 108, walked two miles into Sierra Village, and telephoned for a cab after dawn. The cab driver, Jenny Paul, was bemused by the haggard-looking man who asked to be driven to the Yosemite Lodge (the former workplace of his younger brother's abductor), a 90 mile, $125 trip. She never reported the trip to the police until after Stayner's arrest, but months later she remembered an unusual conversation that transpired along the route.

“Do you believe in Bigfoot?” her passenger asked.

“No,” she replied.

“You should,” he said, “because he's real.”

Carol Sund, Juli Sund, and Silvina Pelosso.
Carol Sund, Juli Sund, and Silvina Pelosso. (Corbis Sygma)

The Yosemite Institute lies a few miles up the road from the Cedar Lodge: a rustic encampment of wooden cabins and trailers set in a clearing in a pine forest. It's a cheerful place with a communal dining room that fills each morning with visiting school groups and two dozen nature instructors in their twenties. Joie Armstrong, who grew up in Orlando, was one of the most popular members of the staff: a bright, energetic young woman who led kids on hikes through Yosemite's backcountry, sharing her knowledge about the park's history and indigenous plants, animals, and insects. Armstrong and her boyfriend, Michael Raffaeli, another instructor, commuted a few miles to the Institute from their pine cabin, which they called The Green House. Conditions at The Green House were primitive—they chopped their own firewood for heat and hauled water up from Crane Creek—but Armstrong was content. “I love it here in this house,” she wrote to a friend in Florida earlier in the summer. “I love Michael with my soul and every last cell in my body. I love the big meadow with all its daisies and incredible history.”

Several miles away, in El Portal, Cary Stayner was apparently enjoying the fear and confusion he had created. A few nights after the killings, the handyman returned to the logging road and set fire to the Pontiac; the same week, he dropped Carole Sund's wallet on a street in Modesto in a bid to throw off the authorities. Later, he wrote an anonymous letter to the FBI, directing them to the place where he had dumped Juli Sund's corpse.

At the Cedar Lodge he maintained a cool facade, even escorting FBI agents from room to room so they could gather fiber samples. The only time he seems to have commented on the killings, says a female coworker, was the afternoon he cast an annoyed glance at a pair of FBI agents having lunch in the diner. “Why didn't the FBI ever search for my brother?” he muttered.

On July 21, Joie Armstrong arrived at the Yosemite Institute around 8 a.m., worked a normal day, and drove the five miles home. Her boyfriend and her other roommate were away. Aware of the murders of the three tourists at the Cedar Lodge, she had told colleagues at the Institute that she'd worried about spending a night alone at her isolated cabin.

Just before dusk, as she packed up her car for her trip to Sausalito, a blue-and-white International Scout came down the dirt road toward her house and stopped. According to his confession, Stayner stepped out of his vehicle, approached Armstrong's pickup truck, and said hello.

Stayner apparently attempted to put the wary young woman at ease by asking if she had ever seen Bigfoot in the area, adding that he had once spotted the creature in the fields just beyond her cabin. When he realized Armstrong was alone, he pulled a gun and ordered her inside the cabin, where he bound her hands and gagged her with duct tape. Then he ordered her back outside. In the gathering darkness, he shoved her into the front seat of his Scout and began to drive back up the road.

But this time Stayner's victim was able to attempt an escape. At a parking area where the dirt track from her cabin joins the Foresta road, Armstrong managed to open the Scout's passenger door and leap out of the moving vehicle. She staggered to her feet and began running through the brush and trees along Crane Creek, heading toward a cabin where friends lived a few hundred yards away. Stayner jumped out and crashed through the woods in pursuit. Armstrong made it 150 yards before he caught her. Grabbing her from behind, he drew a long knife and cut her throat, continuing to slash until he had decapitated her. He dumped the body in the drainage ditch and discarded the severed head 40 feet away.

Stayner returned to his Scout and fled back up the road toward the Yosemite exit. He didn't get very far. On El Portal Road, a few miles short of the Cedar Lodge, his vehicle broke down, and he flagged down a ride from a passing Yosemite park ranger. The ranger later recalled that Stayner had been easygoing, affable, and calm. Incredibly, nothing had seemed amiss.

On August 6, two weeks after his arrest, Cary Stayner shuffled into a courtroom at the U.S. District Courthouse in Fresno to answer federal murder charges in the death of Joie Armstrong. Delbert and Kay Stayner sat motionless, hand in hand, eyes fixed on their son as he stood before the federal magistrate, clad in a yellow prison jumpsuit, his wrists and ankles shackled, and entered a plea of not guilty—a strategy that left the door open for an insanity defense. His mother cried softly and rested her head against her husband's chest. Their son, grim-faced, avoided any eye contact with his parents.

Stayner now awaits trial in a solitary-confinement cell in the Fresno County Jail. He could face the death penalty for the Armstrong murder and will almost certainly be charged soon in the Sund-Pelosso case. In a letter to the Fresno Bee that he sent from his jail cell in mid-August, Stayner wrote that “I truly am very sorry” for the pain he had caused and said that he hoped to sell the rights to his story to Hollywood to compensate the victims' families. (Earlier, in what seemed a twisted bid to match his late brother's celebrity, he had told the San Jose TV reporter that he wanted a “bidding war” for a “movie of the week” about his crimes.) “I realize that the money would be little consolation for the loss of their loved ones, but until the jury, judge and executioner fulfill their role in this matter, it's all I have to offer,” he wrote.

Since Stayner's confession, police departments across the Yosemite region and the Central Valley have reopened several long-dormant murder cases—including the unsolved 1990 killing of Stayner's uncle. Some criminologists say it is highly unlikely that a serial killer would begin his spree by confidently targeting three victims at once, though Stayner insists that he had never killed before. Sources at the FBI—which has come under intense criticism for its work in the Sund-Pelosso investigation—say that the Bureau still considers the case open and that investigators are still not completely convinced that Stayner acted alone.

On my trip to Yosemite in August, just days after Joie Armstrong's murder and Stayner's arrest, I found the campgrounds, hotels, and gift shops in and around the park filled to capacity. But there was a different mood a few miles away in Foresta. Driving along the El Portal Road, past dramatic views of the Merced River flowing through a granite-walled gorge, I found my way to the unmarked road leading into the hamlet. Looking for someone to talk to about Armstrong, I parked and walked toward a cluster of homes, where an elderly woman spotted me as I approached; she seemed to tense and then darted inside a cottage and slammed the door behind her.

Down by the meadow, in front of the simple green cabin where the young naturalist had lived, cardboard signs urged visitors to “let Foresta heal.” On a tree stump at the edge of the meadow near Joie Armstrong's cabin, three white candles, bits of colored glass, and purple flowers were arranged as a shrine. In the stillness of that summer morning, the only sounds were the songs of meadowlarks and clear water rushing over smooth rocks in the creek, not far from the spot where Armstrong's body was found.

By his own account, Cary Stayner seems to have been obsessed with the idea that these mountains and forests were the stalking ground of a malevolent Bigfoot—that incarnation of our primal fear of the wild, that terrifying yet oddly alluring symbol of the deep woods—but it's impossible to know if the beast really was on his mind the evening he says he murdered Joie Armstrong, and if a deranged conviction that the mythical Sasquatch lurks in Yosemite truly did possess his imagination the night the Sunds and Pelosso were killed. Or perhaps Stayner's Bigfoot was just one more ruse in a cruel game, another way to distract the world from the simple, twisted heart of a murderer.

From Outside Magazine, Nov 1999
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Lead Photo: Art Wager/iStock

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