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Stayner to Plead Guilty to 1 Yosemite Slaying

Court: Suspect is likely to get a life sentence on federal count, but could still face death in state trial for tourists' slayings.

September 13, 2000|BETTINA BOXALL and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Cary Stayner, the motel handyman charged in the highly publicized murders of three Yosemite National Park tourists and a naturalist last year, is expected to plead guilty today in one of the slayings.

Robert Rainwater, Stayner's defense attorney, said Tuesday that his client will plead guilty in federal court to charges that he decapitated Yosemite naturalist Joie Armstrong in July 1999.

With the plea, Stayner, 39, will avoid a possible death penalty but agree to life in prison "without the possibility of release," Rainwater said.

Stayner still could receive a death sentence in a separate state trial for the earlier killings of three Yosemite tourists, Carole Sund of Eureka, her 15-year-old daughter Juliana and family friend Silvina Pelosso, 16.

Federal prosecutors declined to discuss the Armstrong plea, scheduled for this afternoon in Fresno before U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii.

Armstrong's mother, Leslie Armstrong, apparently did not want a trial in the grisly case.

"I do know in the past she has expressed to us she did not want to sit though a trial," said Carole Carrington, the mother of Carole Sund and grandmother of Juliana. "She did not feel she could do it . . . and hear all the details. So I think for her it's a very good thing."

As for the Sund case, Carole Carrington and her husband, Francis, said they want prosecutors to take it to trial.

"My feeling is we should let the American justice system work," said Francis Carrington. He added that he was not convinced that Stayner had acted alone in the February 1999 killings of the Sunds and Pelosso.

"It's our very strong feeling that Mr. Stayner had help in the case," Carrington said. "We'd like it to come out."

The Sunds and Pelosso, who was visiting from South America, disappeared from a motel just outside the park in El Portal, sparking an extensive search and national publicity.

The burned bodies of Carole Sund and Pelosso were found weeks later in the trunk of a car abandoned on a forest road. An anonymous letter, which Stayner later confessed to writing, led investigators to Juliana Sund's corpse at another location.

Though initially questioned in the case, Stayner was not charged until he was picked up five months later in the Armstrong slaying and confessed to authorities that he had carried out all four killings. He has said he acted alone.

Stayner, a back-country enthusiast, worked at the motel in which the three victims stayed during a tour of Yosemite. He gained access to their room by saying he needed to fix the plumbing.

Authorities first suspected that a small band of San Joaquin Valley methamphetamine users was involved, but only Stayner has been charged in the three deaths.

Although the tourists' slayings baffled authorities for months, there was enough evidence in Armstrong's death to almost immediately lead to Stayner's arrest.

Authorities say that after he attacked the 26-year-old outside her Yosemite cabin and dumped her body in a nearby stream, he left footprints and drove away in a vehicle that left distinctive tire tracks.

Defense attorney Rainwater said he believes his client "feels good about the disposition," of the Armstrong case, filed in federal court because the killing took place in a national park.

Mariposa County Sheriff's Lt. Brian Muller said that he did not know when Stayner's state trial would occur, but that detectives and prosecutors were ready to proceed.

A change of venue had been granted in the federal case because of widespread publicity, and Muller said he would not be surprised if one was also granted in the Sund case.

The state is expected to seek Stayner's execution.

Carole Carrington expressed some ambivalence about the death penalty but said her daughter's widower, Jens Sund, thinks Stayner deserves it.

After the slayings, the Carringtons created a foundation to provide rewards in unsolved cases across the country. They are offering rewards totaling $450,000 and are issuing them in five cases in which convictions have been won.

Though Carole Carrington said time has somewhat dulled the pain of loss, "It's still difficult."

"My husband said not too long ago, 'This thing about closure--it's a nice word. But I don't think there ever is closure.' "

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