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Drowning May Be Linked to Yosemite Killings, Family Says

Crime: Man whose body was found in Tuolumne River witnessed rape of Juliana Sund, his relatives say. But investigators have been unable to confirm the story.

May 07, 1999|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — At first it looked like a drowning case, plain and simple. But authorities are now investigating whether Terry Ray, a 38-year-old man pulled from the Tuolumne River last month, was killed after he witnessed a sexual assault on one of the three slain Yosemite tourists.

Dennis Ray, the dead man's brother, said he was told by a nephew that Terry Ray saw 15-year-old Juliana Sund being raped at a house in Modesto. Terry Ray was an acquaintance of the loose-knit cadre of prison parolees whom investigators are focusing on in the Yosemite slayings, authorities say.

Though unsure of an exact date, the brother said Ray told family members that he walked in on a sexual assault sometime in early March, several weeks after Juliana Sund, her mother, Carole, and family friend Silvina Pelosso, 16, disappeared outside Yosemite National Park.

"Terry went over to this house, walked into the bedroom, saw what was going on, turned around and split," said Dennis Ray, 42, who works for a Nevada roofing company. "He wasn't into all that stuff."

FBI agents confirmed Thursday that they are investigating the family's report, but have so far been unable to corroborate it. They declined to say whether the teenager might have been sexually assaulted before she was killed. A medical examiner's report on Ray's death, including a toxicology report, is still incomplete.

Joseph Sheehan, an FBI special agent, said investigators have been working for several weeks to determine if there is any connection between Ray's death and the slaying of the three sightseers. But he said that, so far, the allegations amount to "another potential piece" in an investigation that could last several more months.

"I've been an FBI agent for 28 years, and this is one of the most intensive investigations I've ever been involved with," Sheehan said. "It's difficult and complex."

Investigators have faced a blizzard of conflicting stories, making it difficult to precisely determine the course of events that led to the killing of all three women.

Dennis Ray said he is convinced that his brother's death was no accident.

"We just know he was murdered," he said Thursday. "So now I'm rattling cages. I want to know what happened."

Terry Ray disappeared March 7 and his decomposed body was found a month later in the river near Hughson, just outside Modesto. A good swimmer, he was fully clothed and was still wearing his boots when found, his brother said.

Ray was a parolee who spent nearly four years in prison for assault with a weapon and drug crimes.

No charges have been filed in connection with the slayings of the Yosemite sightseers, who were last seen near the park Feb. 15.

Dennis Ray said his brother had sold counterfeit mailbox keys to several parolees who have been questioned extensively by the FBI about the killings. The homemade keys, he said, allowed thieves to get into apartment mailboxes to steal bank checks and credit cards.

"Terry had about a three-inch stack of credit cards when I last saw him in February," Dennis Ray said.

A connection with the Yosemite case did not emerge, he said, until his 17-year-old nephew told the family that Terry Ray had walked in on the rape of Juliana Sund. Dennis Ray said he didn't know who his brother saw attacking the girl, or why he was at the house.

The nephew, who had been hanging around with Terry Ray in the evenings, has been kept in seclusion by the family out of fear for his safety, Dennis Ray said.

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