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Drowning Not Linked to Tourist Slayings, Investigators Say

May 13, 1999|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Authorities said Wednesday that there appears to have been no foul play in the drowning of a Stanislaus County man whose family believes he was murdered after allegedly witnessing the rape of one of three slain Yosemite tourists.

An autopsy and toxicology tests on Terry Ray, whose body was pulled from the Tuolumne River, found no evidence of drugs or a significant amount of alcohol in his system and no signs of inflicted wounds, officials with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department said.

"The most likely conclusion is that Ray tried to swim across the river and drowned before making it to the other side," Sheriff Les Weidman said in a news release.

But the dead man's brother remains convinced that Ray was killed because he allegedly saw 15-year-old Juliana Sund, one of three tourists found slain a month after they disappeared during a trip to Yosemite, being sexually assaulted in a Modesto house. The FBI has confirmed that it is looking into those allegations.

"I kind of wonder now, if there were no drugs in his system, why he would have ended up in the river," said Dennis Ray, brother of the 38-year-old drowning victim. "I just totally still believe he was murdered."

He said his brother was a good swimmer. In addition, he said, the body was found fully clothed and with boots still on, hardly the dress one would expect for a swim.

But a pathologist found that there was no evidence Ray had been beaten or strangled, was involved in a struggle or suffered internal injuries. There were no broken bones and no knife or bullet wounds. The cause of death was determined to be drowning.

Nick Rossi, an FBI spokesman, said investigators in the Yosemite slayings are looking into questions surrounding Ray's death, but have no evidence confirming that he saw Juliana Sund before her death or establishing a connection between the two cases.

Juliana Sund, her mother, Carole, and family friend Silvina Pelosso, 16, disappeared Feb. 15 near the Cedar Lodge outside the western entrance to Yosemite. The charred bodies of Carole Sund, 42, and Silvina were found a month later in the trunk of their burned rental car, which had been abandoned in a Sierra forest. A tip led authorities to Juliana's body several days later at a nearby reservoir.

Although no one has been charged in the case, the FBI and other investigators are focusing on a loose-knit group of prison parolees from Modesto who share a common background of drug abuse, sex crimes and violence. Agents believe the women were abducted or carjacked by as many as three assailants. Several more people--including some women--may have been involved in a cover-up, authorities have said.

Dennis Ray said his brother, a parolee who spent nearly four years in prison for assault with a weapon and drug charges, was an acquaintance of several of the men and women being investigated by the FBI, a fact that investigators have confirmed.

Ray disappeared March 7. A month later, his body was found in the Tuolumne River near a popular fishing spot just outside Modesto.

A connection with the Yosemite case did not emerge, Dennis Ray said, until his 17-year-old nephew said that Terry Ray walked in on Juliana Sund being raped but quickly left.

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