By Patrick Rogers
August 09, 1999 12:00 PM

To neighbors in scenic El Portal, Calif., motel handyman Cary Stayner was one of their own—a laid-back outdoors-man who savored life near California’s majestic Yosemite Valley and skinny-dipped in the crystal waters of the Merced River. “He was a perfect gentleman,” says Jim Houtz, owner of the Cedar Lodge Restaurant and Bar, above which Stayner, 37, had rented a $90-a-month room since 1997. “I always wondered why some of the ladies didn’t date him. He seemed like a good catch.”

But on July 25, FBI agents investigating several murders near Yosemite National Park began touting Stayner as a catch of a different sort. The day before, he had been arrested after confessing to the slaying of Yosemite naturalist Joie Ruth Armstrong, 26, whose decapitated body had been found partially submerged in a drainage ditch on July 22. In addition, investigators named Stayner as the prime suspect in the highly publicized killings of three tourists—Carole Sund, 42, her daughter Juli Sund, 15, and family friend Silvina Pelosso, 16—near Yosemite last winter. But it wasn’t until a reporter from San Jose television station KNTV reached Stayner for an interview at the Sacramento County Jail that the handyman seemed to settle the matter. “I did it, I’m guilty,” Stayner reportedly said off-camera and admitted murdering the Sunds, Pelosso and Armstrong.

In a startlingly candid monologue, Stayner went on to describe how he had felt the urge to kill women since he was 7 years old. The Sunds and Pelosso just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, he told reporter Ted Rowlands, 32. According to Stayner’s alleged description of events, he strangled Carole Sund and Pelosso in their Cedar Lodge motel room and placed their bodies in the trunk of their car. Only then, Stayner told Rowlands, did he drive Juli Sund, who had been in another room, to a scenic overlook and slash her throat. None of the women were sexually assaulted, he said.

The FBI declined to confirm whether Stayner’s account was consistent with the facts of the case, but unnamed law enforcement officials filled in the portrait of a calculating serial killer. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Stayner dampened bath towels in the Sunds’ motel room to give the false impression that the women had showered before leaving on the morning of Feb. 16, when in fact all three had been attacked the night before. Three days later he burned Carole Sund’s rental car and dropped her wallet in downtown Modesto, 80 miles west of El Portal, to mislead police. He also apparently wrote an anonymous letter to investigators with information on the location of Juli’s body.

The FBI questioned Stayner about the Sund and Pelosso murders before ruling him out as a suspect. But they zeroed in on him just hours after the discovery of Armstrong’s body, when a park employee reported seeing his blue-and-white International Scout SUV near Armstrong’s Yosemite National Park cabin at 7:30 p.m. on July 21—about an hour after the nature-loving Florida transplant, whose two roommates were away, was last seen alive. The FBI interrogated Stayner twice, then sought to question him again on July 23 after analysis of tire tracks allegedly confirmed his presence at Armstrong’s cabin. That morning, though, the handyman had failed to show up for work at Cedar Lodge, further arousing investigators’ suspicions. Special agents following up on a tip tracked Stayner to the Laguna del Sol nudist camp near Sacramento, where he was detained the following day.

This was not the first time the Stayner family had been in the news. Cary Stayner’s younger brother Steven was kidnapped by a pedophile in 1972 and subjected to seven years of sexual and psychological abuse before escaping at the age of 14. Cary’s mother, Kay, now 58, told PEOPLE in 1989 that his brother’s abduction had left Cary “very much a loner and very angry at the world.” During the turbulent years after Steven’s return, Kay and her husband, cannery mechanic Del Stayner—who had placed Christmas presents under the tree for their son every year that he was missing—split up for two years before reuniting. Then in 1989, Steven, riding his motorcycle, was killed in a hit-and-run accident just months after his story had been made into a TV miniseries.

Cary Stayner told KNTV’s Rowlands that his brother’s plight had no bearing on his unexplained rage against women. After graduating from Merced High School in 1979—where Cary played chess and drew cartoons for the school paper—he worked for a time with an Atwater glass company. He was living with an uncle, Jerry Stayner, in 1990 when Jerry, 42, a dispatcher for a hay chopping company, was shot and killed by an unknown gunman while entering his house one afternoon. At the time, police suspected the elder Stayner might have interrupted a robbery, but now the Merced County sheriff has ordered that Cary be investigated as a possible suspect.

It was about two years ago that Stayner was hired to do maintenance work at the motel in El Portal, where last February, Carole Sund, a property manager from Eureka, Calif., brought her daughter Juli and Silvina Pelosso, visiting from Argentina. Stayner allegedly told Rowlands he was confident he’d gotten away with murdering the three women, although the pressure of the massive manhunt for their killer had unnerved him, causing him to lose weight. He couldn’t resist killing again when he met Joie Armstrong, an attractive, vivacious instructor for the Yosemite Institute, a private environmental education group that operates in the park. “She made boys swoon and girls want to be her friend,” says artist Kim Fox, a longtime friend from Armstrong’s hometown of Orlando. Five days before her death, Armstrong had sent Fox an e-mail about her thriving vegetable garden and a trip to a waterfall with her live-in boyfriend, fellow Yosemite Institute instructor Michael Raffaeli. “It was straight out of a dream,” wrote Armstrong. To honor Armstrong’s love of the outdoors, Fox and others hope to plant a tree in her memory near her childhood home in Florida.

While surely a relief to anguished relatives of the victims and frightened tourists alike, the arrest of Cary Stayner (who may not have acted alone, investigators say) also raises questions about how the FBI, which for weeks had maintained that those responsible for the February murders were already behind bars on unrelated charges, overlooked him last winter. (“I struggled with that issue for the last 24 hours, and I continue to do so,” said FBI chief investigator James M. Maddock at a press conference on July 25.) But such finger-pointing is beside the point to at least one family all too close to the crimes. “We’ve had four or five months of terrible stories and [our own] imagination,” says Carole Carrington, Carole Sund’s mother. “I think it’s going to be a relief to know what really did happen.”

Patrick Rogers

Lyndon Stambler and Leslie Berestein in El Portal, Lorenzo Benet and John Hannah in Los Angeles and Fannie Weinstein in Orlando