This Day In History: March 19

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On March 19, 1999, law enforcement officials discover the charred bodies of forty-two-year-old Carol Sund and sixteen-year-old Silvina Pelosso in the trunk of their burned-out rental car, a day after the vehicle was located in a remote area several hours from Yosemite National Park. Cary Stayner, a handyman at the lodge where the women were last seen a month before, later confessed to their murders as well as those of two other women.

On the evening of February 15, 1999, Carol Sund of Eureka, California, along with her fifteen-year-old daughter Juli and their family friend Silvina Pelosso, from Argentina, were staying at the Cedar Lodge in the town of El Portal, California, near Yosemite. Cary Stayner later confessed to investigators that he entered the women’s room on the premise that he needed to fix a water leak and then strangled Carol Sund and sexually assaulted the two teens. He later killed Silvina Pelosso and put her body, along with Carol Sund’s, in their rented Pontiac Gran Prix. Stayner then drove Juli Sund to Lake Don Pedro, near Mocassin, California, where he slashed her neck.

After the women were reported missing, police questioned Stayner but didn’t believe the clean-cut handyman, who had no history of violence, was involved. Instead, the investigation focused on other employees at the Cedar Lodge as well as suspicious persons in the town of Modesto, where Carol Sund’s wallet was found in the street several days after her disappearance. (Stayner would later confess to dropping the wallet there to mislead police.) On March 18, 1999, a man found Carol Sund’s rental car in a secluded area 100 yards north of Highway 108, near Long Barn, California.

The following day, March 19, investigators arrived to open the car trunk, where they discovered the badly burned bodies of Sund and Pelosso. On March 25, after receiving an anonymous tip (which Stayner later confessed to sending), police located Juli Sund’s decomposed body in an isolated location less than an hour away from the rental car. At that time, Stayner was not a suspect in the case.

Then, on July 22, 1999, the decapitated body of Joie Armstrong, a twenty-six-year-old Yosemite naturalist was found near her cabin in Yosemite’s Foresta region. Investigators, who believed she had been murdered the previous day, questioned Stayner and searched his truck, but let him go. Deciding they wanted to speak with him further, authorities tracked down Stayner on July 24 at the Laguna Del Sol nudist camp in Wilton, California. Later that day, in a surprising confession to FBI agent Jeff Rinek, Stayner admitted to killing the Sunds, Pelosso and Armstrong.

During his trial, Stayner’s lawyers argued he suffered from mental illness, childhood sexual abuse, and the trauma of his brother’s kidnapping. In 1972, Stayner’s seven-year-old brother Steven was abducted by a child molester and held captive for more than seven years before he managed to escape. Following his escape, a television movie, I Know My First Name is Steven, dramatized the incident. Steven Stayner died in a tragic motorcycle accident when he was twenty-four.

Cary Stayner pled guilty to the Armstrong murder in 2001. He was convicted of the other three counts of murder in 2002 and sentenced to death.

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