20 years after the Yosemite serial killings
One brother was lauded as a hero, the other branded a monster.
The separate stories of Steven and Cary Stayner made national headlines, first in 1980 and then nearly 20 years later.
Now, a new segment of ABC’s news magazine “20/20” recounts the crimes and tragedies surrounding the Merced, Calif., siblings on the 20-year anniversary of the 1999 Yosemite serial killings. The two-hour special airs Friday.
Steven, the younger brother, vanished on Dec. 4, 1972, when he was just 7 years old. Sleet was falling when an old Buick pulled up next to him as he walked home from school. Inside was a Ukiah hotel clerk named Kenneth Parnell, who accosted him about making a donation to a church. Parnell offered him a ride, but instead taking the boy home, he kidnapped him.
For seven years, Steven was held captive and sexually molested by Parnell, who forced Steven to call him “Dad” and told him his parents had abandoned him. He finally escaped with another boy that Parnell had abducted — a 5-year-old named Timmy White.
On Valentine’s Day 1980, Steven walked out of a Mendocino County cabin with Timmy, carrying the boy when he got tired. The pair then hitchhiked to the Ukiah police station. Steven was hailed as a hero for rescuing the youngster.
A photo taken after Steven’s escape to freedom shows him flanked by his beaming father, Delbert. In the background, wearing a baseball cap, is his 18-year-old brother, Cary.
From that point on, Cary lived Steven’s shadow.
A longtime next-door neighbor told the San Francisco Chronicle that the kidnapping scarred Cary, who was often described as a loner and introvert.
“I think it must have really affected Cary,” said Michael Kollman. “When Steven came home, Cary was kind of put on the back shelf. He was in the background always.”
One rainy night in September 1989, Steven jumped on his motorcycle and rode off without a helmet after finishing his shift at a Merced pizza shop. His helmet had supposedly been stolen days before. He crashed into a parked car and was thrown from the bike, his head slamming the pavement. Steven Stayner, celebrity savior of a young boy, was dead at 24.
Tragedy struck the Stayner family again 15 months later, in December 1990. Cary’s uncle Jerry, who he was very close to and lived with, was shot and killed by a home invader with Jerry’s own shotgun. The case was never solved.
Cary spent the ’90s bouncing from one handyman job to another. Friends and co-workers would say later that he struggled with impulses he didn’t understand and was susceptible to fits of rage. One day in 1995, he “freaked out” and he bloodied his fist pounding it into a sheet of plywood.
He would later tell the FBI he started imagining killing women and girls when he was just 6 or 7 years old.
Eventually, he found work doing odd jobs at the Cedar Lodge outside of Yosemite. On the night after Valentine’s Day 1999, Cary knocked on the door of the lodge’s room 509, saying he had to make a plumbing repair.
He actually was not working at the time — he had been laid off for the winter off-season — but the guests, Carole Sund, her teen daughter, Juli, and their friend Silvina Pelosso, didn’t know that.
When he got into the room, Cary pulled out a .22-caliber pistol, claiming he intended to rob the them. He bound and duct-taped the trio, then herded Juli and Silvina into a bathroom while he choked Carole to death. Silvina was strangled next. Cary then spent the next few hours sexually assaulting Juli.
The bodies of Carole and Silvina were found in their rental car a month later about 50 miles away, and investigators — alerted by an anonymous letter that Cary said he wrote — found Juli’s body near a Don Pedro Reservoir overlook. Her throat had been slashed.
Cary told a television reporter that four months later he drove to Foresta Road in Yosemite National Park, a favorite spot where he said he once saw Bigfoot, which was something of an obsession with him.
He came upon cabin where he met a 26-year-old naturalist named a Joie Armstrong and brought up the topic of Bigfoot in conversation. When he realized that she was alone, he said, he could not control the urge to kill her too. Her beheaded body was found near her cabin July 22.
“How could we have missed someone we felt was part of our family?” asked Lisa Hansell, then Cedar Lodge restaurant general manager. “Everyone living in this community knew and embraced this monster, who was capable of such horrors.”
Cary Stayner, now 57, was convicted of the murders of Armstrong, the Sunds and Pelosso, and sentence to death for all except Armstrong’s. He remains on death row at San Quentin Penitentiary.
“I wish I could have controlled myself and not done what I did,” he said in a 1999 jailhouse interview.
Previous reports by Chronicle reporters Susan Sward, Stacy Finz, Meredith May, Torri Minton, Zachary Coile and Matthew Yi contributed to this article.
Read Mike Moffitt’s latest stories and send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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