Steven and Cary Stayner: Stories of hero, serial killer in same Merced family revisited

Photo of infamous serial killer taken by Modesto Bee photographer to be featured in ABC documentary

One brother, Steven Stayner, saves a little boy snatched by the same child molester who had kidnapped him seven years earlier. But Stayner’s brother, Cary, brutally murders four women in Yosemite National Park.
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One brother, Steven Stayner, saves a little boy snatched by the same child molester who had kidnapped him seven years earlier. But Stayner’s brother, Cary, brutally murders four women in Yosemite National Park.

The tragically separate stories of brothers Steven and Cary Stayner, both of which gripped the Modesto region along with the entire country, will be relived Friday in a special two-hour program on ABC.

“The unimaginable story of two brothers — one a hero, the other, a monster,” says a teaser ad promoting the show, 20/20.

Steven Stayner, kidnapped in 1972, was hailed a hero at 14 when he led a newly abducted 5-year-old boy to freedom from their captor in 1980, and generated heart-breaking headlines again when he was killed in a motorcycle crash in 1989. Cary Stayner burst onto a national stage after killing a total of four women in Yosemite National Park in 1999.

Friday’s 20/20 show roughly coincides with the 20-year anniversary of the disappearance of three of the women, who had been sight-seeing in Yosemite. The show is titled “Evil in Eden,” reflecting the shocking murders in such a beautiful location.

Modesto: A backdrop for Stayner stories

None of the events occurred in Modesto, but the city provided a backdrop for various reasons.

The 20/20 promo, for example, makes use of an eerily stunning photograph snapped at a 1980 news conference as just-freed Steven Stayner returned to his family in Merced, where they lived and where he had been kidnapped seven years before. Pictured are the brightly beaming faces of 14-year-old Steven and his father, Delbert; several feet behind them, positioned just between their two heads, is the onlooking face of Cary Stayner.

The picture was taken by Modesto Bee photographer Ted Benson, now retired, who had waited several hours for the delayed press conference to begin.

“The whole thing was this miraculous `Steven’s been found!’ homecoming. His parents were overjoyed,” recalled Benson, of Modesto. “It was one of those dumb luck pictures,” Benson continued; he had no idea that he had just captured the face of a future serial killer. No one knew, until 19 years later as Bee journalists sifted through old Steven Stayner photos and suddenly noticed Cary, peering from the background.

“He had a kind of dopey look on his face,” Benson describes, “with the requisite ball cap on, at the time, a Valley Oakie like the rest of us. I was probably wearing a ball cap too.”

Steven Stayner had led the other boy to safety, at the Ukiah police station, because he didn’t want him to suffer the same fate he had — years of continuous sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of Kenneth Parnell, a depraved pedophile. Parnell had been telling young Steven that his parents no longer wanted him, gave him another name and directed him to refer to Parnell as his father.

The devastating story, with a seemingly optimistic ending, became a book and a TV documentary, both called “I Know My First Name is Steven”. The title came from the fact that, upon escaping, Steven wasn’t sure about his last name.

Several of the characters in this drama have died. Steven was 24, married and a father of two when he was struck by a car while riding his motorcycle home from work in Merced, in 1989. The 5-year-old boy he had saved, Timothy White, became a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff, but died of a pulmonary embolism in 2010 at age 35. Delbert Stayner died in 2013. Parnell served a prison term of only five years for those crimes; he later was convicted of trying to buy a child, sentenced to life and died of natural causes while in custody in 2008 at age 76.

Yosemite sight-seers go missing

Ten years after Steven Stayner was killed, Carole Sund, 42, her daughter Juli, 15, and 16-year-old Silvina Pelosso, a family friend from Argentina, went missing while touring Yosemite. Cary Stayner was a handyman at the Cedar Lodge, just outside the park in Mariposa County, and got them to open the door to their room by saying he needed to fix a plumbing leak.

Four days later, Carol Sund’s wallet was found in Modesto, planted there by Stayner to throw off the search. The FBI ran a command center from downtown Modesto’s DoubleTree hotel.

The car that had been rented by Carole Sund was recovered a month later, burned, near Sierra Village east of Sonora, with her charred remains, as well as those of Pelosso, in the trunk. Stayner, still in the shadows, taunted authorities with a note and a map that they followed to find the body of Juli Sund, her throat slashed, near Don Pedro Reservoir.

Police and FBI agents rounded up some sex offenders and drug users and assured people they were confident they’d apprehended the women’s killers. But the headless body of another victim, Joie Armstrong, 26, who had worked with children in Yosemite, was found in July 1999. Investigators circled back to Stayner, who had been dismissed as a suspect in the sight-seers’ slayings. They arrested him at a nudist colony near Sacramento, and he confessed to all four murders.

Stayner received a life sentence in exchange for pleading guilty in Armstrong’s murder. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in a trial for the Sund-Pelosso killings, but jurors in 2002 found him guilty and sentenced him to die, and he remains on death row in San Quentin Prison.

Relatives of the Sunds established a nonprofit organization offering rewards in cases of missing persons, and based it in Modesto. The group publicized dozens of cases in 48 states in a decade of work.

Ties to Scott and Laci Peterson case

Among those that ended sadly was that of Modesto’s Laci Peterson, who was 27 and eight months pregnant when she disappeared on Christmas Eve 2002. Her husband, Scott, was convicted of murdering her and their unborn son, Conner, and he awaits appeals on death row as well. When the Carole Sund-Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation stopped offering rewards, its support shifted to the Laci & Conner Search and Rescue Fund, which also since has disbanded.

The Sund-Carrington Foundation’s former executive director, Kim Petersen, maintains contact with both families surviving the slain sight-seers. All gathered in a reunion of sorts just last year, Petersen said.

“Being with them at the worst time in their lives, and seeing their strength and courage and determination to seek justice, was always amazing to me,” she said. “Taking something so horrific and turning it into something that helped others — I have such respect for them.”

The survivors and Petersen, she said, declined to be interviewed for the 20/20 special; “They don’t want to rehash it.” But she intends to watch Friday’s show, “to see what they’re saying, who they interview, how they’ve changed.”

“Evil in Eden” is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. Friday on ABC. Check local listings for channels.

Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.