MODESTO — Just like that, they're gone. One moment, Carole Sund, her daughter and a teenage friend visiting from Argentina were camera-toting tourists, enjoying winter in Yosemite National Park. The next, they had vanished, leaving only mystery in their wake.
Their disappearance 10 days ago has spawned an exhaustive hunt through heavy snow in the Sierra back country where the Eureka businesswoman and two girls were last seen. While investigators search for clues on foot and by plane, relatives of the missing trio sit and wait, replaying the frightening possibilities in their minds.
Were they abducted? Carjacked? Did their rented red Pontiac plunge off a high Sierra cliff?
"It is so unbelievable," said Francis Carrington, Sund's brother. "For three people in a car to just vanish, it's like the Earth swallowed them up."
So far, detectives have no answers, no evidence of what went wrong. The only clue is a portion of the 42-year-old woman's wallet that turned up, seemingly intact with credit cards and driver's license in place, a week ago in Modesto, two winding hours down the road from the national park.
That discovery has authorities worried about the possibility of foul play, that the three--Sund, her daughter Julie, 15, and Silvina Pelosso, 16--may have been kidnapped.
The FBI has put more than two dozen agents on the case, and scores of officers in winter gear and snowshoes are prowling the steep slopes along roads leading from the national park. There have been several snowstorms in the days since the disappearance, hampering search efforts.
Sund's husband, Jens, and other family members have set up camp, along with Pelosso's parents, who flew in from Argentina, at a Holiday Inn in Modesto. They have helped organize a small army of volunteers who have covered the countryside with leaflets featuring pictures of the three and a photo of the Pontiac Grand Prix they were driving. The California car's license number is 4BMV025.
The missing woman's family, which operates a real estate firm based in Eureka, has offered a $250,000 reward for information.
Scores of reporters from the national media have descended on the Modesto hotel, and Jens Sund is talking to everyone he can, eager to get the word out in hopes that someone, anyone, might have seen what happened to the three.
Meanwhile, Jens Sund said he has prepared himself and his three other children, ages 11, 13 and 14, for the worst possibility.
"It can only be bad, the longer it goes," he said. "I break down emotionally about two or three times a day. I tell them we've had it easy so far, we have been lucky with our lives. And now it will get harder. My wife did everything for us."
Pelosso's mother, Raquel, is grappling with growing anger that she says "comes from my heart." She has known Carole Sund for more than 20 years, since the American woman was a foreign exchange student in Argentina at a time of intense turmoil there.
"I can't help but think if Carole could come to Argentina and survive that experience, the guerrilla fighting, the shootings, how could my daughter not come to America and survive here?" Raquel Pelosso said. "I have hope. I believe someone has seen something. I don't know what. A car crash. The two girls on a trail. In this world you can do few things without a witness."
Investigators, however, have little to go on. FBI agents have conducted countless interviews with shop owners and others along the routes from the park.
"The territory here is huge, the territory is rugged, and the search is going to take some time," said FBI Special Agent James M. Maddock. "But if the car is out there, we'll find it."
Maddock said the discovery of Carole Sund's wallet "obviously did raise a red flag," prompting concerns that they might have met with foul play. But there still is no credible evidence of a crime, he said.
On Thursday, the FBI issued a plea to anyone who might have come in contact with the wallet to come forward and provide more information. The credit cards in the wallet were not used after Feb. 14, two days before the disappearance.
So far, authorities have followed leads that suggest that the trio left the Cedar Lodge in El Portal, at the western edge of the park, on the morning of Feb. 16 and headed a few miles away to see the big sequoia trees of Tuolumne Grove. Searchers have been focusing on the grove in recent days, and have expanded the laborious, step-by-step search along the snowy edges of California 120, a winding road commonly used by travelers headed back to the Bay Area.
The missing threesome were supposed to meet Jens and the other Sund children at San Francisco International Airport in the early evening Feb. 16. Silvina planned to travel to the Grand Canyon with Jens and the children, while Carole and Julie would return to Eureka.
They never arrived, and were reported missing the next day.