A Voice In The Dark - ...
A Voice In The Dark - Esquire
By Sean Flynn - January 1, 2000
As a kid, Cary Stayner became famous for all the bad things that happened to his family. Last year, he became famous for the bad things that happened to four women in Yosemite National Park. He sits in jail now and says he wonders what the world thinks of him
IT IS EASY TO HIDE IN THE HIGH SIERRAS, to disappear in the shadows of the steep granite canyons and the bristled canopies of sugar pines and redwoods. Four million tourists a year traipse through these mountains and never see the felons and drunkards and bail jumpers, the drifters and dropouts, who lose themselves in plain sight. Runners, the locals call them, hobbled souls limping away from something or anything or maybe even everything.
The runners see things the tourists miss. Like the marijuana fields sprouting in the backwoods, or the cold, clear pools, perfect for swimming, where the river rolled away the boulders that tumbled down under the weight of ancient glaciers. Sometimes, one of them will even catch a glimpse of Bigfoot, who, under the pale light of a round white moon, might shamble too close to the edge of a meadow, too far from the dense stands of forest, then linger just long enough to become real.
Cary Stayner saw Bigfoot. Cary was a runner, too. When he was a younger man, he would steer his pickup east on Highway 140, over the Bradley Overpass and out of Merced, where he grew up and where his family became famous because of the bad things that kept happening to it. Like when his little brother, Steven, was kidnapped in 1972 by a pedophile who sodomized
him for seven years. When he escaped, the adults called him a hero; the kids called him a faggot. Later, Steven died in a motorcycle wreck just fifteen months before someone shotgunned a hole through Uncle Jerry's head. "That poor family," people would say. "Can you believe it?"
Cary didn't much like being famous. Mostly he liked being alone, and mostly he liked being stoned. So he'd run, driving a straight ribbon of blacktop past the almond groves and peach orchards and up into the mountains, where the road twists into hairpins and then settles along the crooked banks of the Merced River. Cary would follow the pavement all the way to the floor of the Yosemite Valley, then wander up a trail to smoke a joint and be alone in the woods.
Once, back before Steven was dead and Jerry got murdered, Cary dropped down a narrow trail to a tiny settlement near Yosemite called Foresta. He was riding in a truck with his eyes focused on the headlight beam, trying to ward off the motion sickness that roiled in his gut. When the lights swept across the frame of an old, rotting barn, Cary saw a creature crouching in the shadows, staring back with glowing red eyes. Startled by the glare, it sprang upright, spun away, and sprinted into the darkness with long, thoroughbred strides.
It wasn't a bear. Cary was sure of that. No, this thing was more simian than ursine, with lanky limbs and thick hair instead of stubby legs and silky fur. Then it howled from the shadows--"A horrible shriek," Cary says now, "like a woman screaming through a bullhorn"--the noise echoing through the dark cathedral canyon before fading to a low, soft growl, the sound of fear surrendering to sadness.
CARY NEVER SAW BIGFOOT AGAIN, but he loved to tell people about the time he did. "Do you believe in Bigfoot?" he'd ask, and the people would almost always answer that they didn't. "He's real," Cary would say. "I saw him."
One of the last people he told was a thirty-year-old cabdriver named Jenny Paul, who picked him up one clear, cold February morning in Sierra Village, not far from a place called Long Barn. Cary told her he'd been stranded there by some friends and paid her $125 for a ride to the Yosemite Lodge. As they twisted down a road high above the valley, he pointed to the trees beyond Big Meadow. "That's where I saw him," he told her.
Cary had run into the mountains for good in the spring of 1997, settling at Cedar Lodge, a 206-room motel on the same road, Highway 140, that leads back to Merced. He got a job working maintenance on the swing shift and rented a room above the bar next door. He was a good worker, always on time. He was quiet. Polite. He could fix almost anything, even the whirlpool tubs that befuddled so many other handymen. He was neat, a fastidious dresser, with his T-shirt tucked into his shorts--Cary almost always wore shorts, no matter how cold the weather--and his radio clipped to his belt just so. He kept his brown hair cropped close and covered by a baseball cap, the bill shading eyes that flashed from a muddy hazel to steely gray.
When he wasn't working, Cary would drive his truck, a baby-blue 1979 International Scout with wide white stripes and four mismatched tires, to a curve so tight that the speed limit drops to 25 miles per hour. He would climb out, walk down a steep bank to a beach of boulders and river sand, light a joint, and strip off his clothes. Cary liked to be naked. He would tell the high school girls working at Mountain Pizza that he was a sun worshiper. At night, he would take those girls across the road to a gazebo and get high with them.
Other times, Cary would go back to Foresta, near where he saw Bigfoot, even though a forest fire had charred the trees around there into soaring black spikes a few years back. He always hoped he'd find Bigfoot again. "I guess that's why I kept going back," Cary says. "To relive the experience." The last time he was there was July 21, 1999, which also happened to be when a park worker noticed his Scout parked just off the road.
The next day, in the same place, the police found twenty-six-year-old Joie Armstrong's headless body half underwater in a creek. Joie was the fourth woman murdered in the Sierras in five months. The first three were tourists who had disappeared from Cedar Lodge in February. Carole Sund, who was forty-two, and a family friend, Silvina Pelosso, who was sixteen, were dumped near Long Barn, their bodies stuffed in the trunk of a burned-out Pontiac. Juli Sund, Carole's fifteen-year-old daughter, bled to death along the shore of New Don Pedro Reservoir, an hour or so west of Yosemite. By the time Juli's body was found, the gash in her throat had spread so wide, it looked as if someone had tried to decapitate her.
For a time last spring, the police and the FBI thought they had the killers locked up. A grungy crew of ex-cons and crank freaks in jail on other charges seemed to know more about the murdered tourists than innocent men should. But there was never enough evidence to charge them. So the tips kept pouring in through the spring and early summer, more than three thousand whispered pleas for police to check out paroled rapists and skeevy woodsmen, angel-dusted drifters and Mexican janitors.
No one ever mentioned Cary Stayner. At night in the bar at Cedar Lodge, he would sit with the locals and listen as they talked about how awful the killings were, about how sadistic the retribution should be. "They should take him and tie him to the back of a truck," Darla Zeek would say while mixing drinks under a giant neon Budweiser sign. "And then they should drag him along the road until his flesh gets all chewed up and his skin gets torn off, and then let the maggots go to work on him."
"Yeah," Cary would say, taking a sip from the same Bacardi and Coke he'd been nursing all night. "Yeah, they should do that." He never offered any of his own grisly ideas, though.
When the park rangers and the sheriff's deputies asked Cary about Joie Armstrong, he didn't say much then, either. The day Joie's body was found, they tracked Cary to the beach below the tight curve where his truck was parked. He was naked and stoned, and the cops took away his weed. Yes, Cary told them, they could search his Scout. No, they couldn't search his green JanSport backpack. But the deputies still hadn't found Joie's head, so they confiscated his pack anyway.
That night in the bar, Cary sold his television and his VCR, his stereo and some CDs, to anyone who was paying cash. His truck needed fixing, he said. He was thinking about moving north, he said.
The next morning, July 23, Cary pitched his tent by a lake in a nudist resort southeast of Sacramento called Laguna del Sol. A few hours later, the police found Joie Armstrong's head. It was underwater forty feet downstream. It had been washed there by the current after it was sawed from her shoulders.
KEN PARNELL WAS ANOTHER RUNNER. By the spring of 1972, when he steered his battered white Buick down Highway 140 and ran, his forty-one years on this earth had been a dreary march of failure and shame. He'd spent his teenage years bouncing through California's juvenile lockups for arson and stealing cars and having sex with boys in public. As an adult, he drifted from one menial job to another and from one crumbling marriage to a second and then a third. When he wasn't working or divorcing, he was in prisons or mental hospitals, the first time, in 1951, for molesting a prepubescent boy and the last, between 1960 and 1967, for sticking up a gas station in Salt Lake City.
Yosemite offered refuge for a man like Parnell, or at least a steady job and a cheap room, both of which he found at the Yosemite Lodge, just inside the park. He also managed to find a friend, a slow-witted drifter named Ervin Murphy who scraped grease from the lodge ovens every night. Parnell worked the same shift but in the front office, counting the receipts and auditing the books. With his horn-rimmed glasses and pasty skin, his balding head and stooped gait, Parnell looked like a lonely old bookkeeper.
On December 4, 1972, Parnell and Murphy drove the Buick eighty miles west under a sleeting sky, down from the mountains and across the flats of the San Joaquin Valley into Merced. In the car, Parnell had a stack of religious pamphlets. He needed these, he told Murphy, because he was on a mission: He was going to rescue a battered child, find a boy on the street to take home as his own. Murphy, wide-eyed but simple, had heard Parnell promise as much before. Today, they would do it.
Just past two o'clock in the afternoon, Parnell dropped Murphy on Yosemite Parkway and told him to pass out tracts to children walking home from school. Seven-year-old Steven Stayner was three blocks from his house when Murphy pushed a pamphlet at him. Murphy said he was collecting donations for a church; Steven, who had been raised a proper Mormon, said his mother would surely contribute.
Parnell pulled to the curb. He told Steven he'd drive him home, get him out of the sleet. Steven climbed into the backseat. Murphy got in front with Parnell--the minister, Murphy called him. Then they drove east, past Shirley Street, which led to Steven's block, and over the Bradley Overpass. Don't worry, Parnell told Steven. We'll call your mother from our place, ask her if you can spend the night. Steven watched out the window. He'd never been that far on Highway 140 before.
A half hour later, Parnell wheeled the Buick up a dirt road in Catheys Valley, where he rented an unheated one-room cabin. That night, Parnell fed Steven, told him to shower, and took him to bed naked. The next night, back in Yosemite, Parnell drove Steven to a dark parking lot and unzipped his pants. "This is what I want you to do from now on," he told Steven, pushing the boy's head into his lap.
Parnell kept Steven squirreled away in his room at the lodge for a few more nights before driving back to Catheys Valley. Then, a week after the kidnapping, Parnell gave the boy a puppy--Steven named her Queenie--and sat him on his lap. Your parents don't want you anymore, he said. I've adopted you. Your name is now Dennis, and I am now Dad.
ONE NIGHT SOON AFTER his brother disappeared, eleven-year-old Cary Stayner walked from the family's boxy green clapboard house on Bette Street to the corner, looked up at the brightest star he could find, and wished for Stevie to come home.
He never wished it aloud, though. In Merced in the seventies, Steven Stayner wasn't someone you talked about. The strain on Cary's father, Delbert, who worked as a mechanic in a peach cannery, was obvious--the way he shrank into his grief, his already weathered face worn more hollow by mourning. It was harder to decipher in his mother, Kay. She was aloof, almost cold, and she still had Cary, her firstborn, and three daughters to raise, which she did with rote and distant precision.
As the years passed, Cary began spending more time with his uncle Jesse, whom everyone called Jerry, than he did at home. Cary would go to Jerry's after school and get high with his uncle and his uncle's best friend, Michael Marchese, who also goes by Sparrow on account of the tattoo--sparro--that an illiterate inmate had stabbed into his arm with cigarette-ash ink in 1970 when Michael did thirty days for possession. But even stoned, his eyes heavy and glassy under the bill of his San Francisco Giants cap, Cary wouldn't talk about Steven. Hell, he never talked about his family at all: Michael always thought Cary had only two sisters, not three.
Then again, Cary never dwelled much on girls. Oh, maybe he'd say yeah when Michael or Jerry would point at some girl and say how they'd like a piece of that ass. Girls liked Cary, however, especially once his muscles caught up with his six-foot-one-inch frame and when his hair was covered with a cap, or at least cut so short no one could tell how much of it he'd pulled out. But he never went out with any of them. Michael even started thinking Cary might be gay.
More likely, Cary just didn't like being around people, male or female. His four years at Merced High School were pointedly uncelebrated in El Rodeo, the yearbook. His name was misspelled almost every year, even in 1977, when he was hiding in the back of the yearbook staff's group photo. "Carry Stayner," the caption read. The next two years, he was "Gary Stayner." For a time, Cary wanted to go by his middle name, Anthony--or Tony for short. But it never caught on. One of the only times his name was spelled right was in the caption for the staff photo of The Statesman, the school paper for which Cary was the cartoonist. He was good at drawing. On the yearbook pages devoted to The Statesman, he sketched a news hawker holding up a paper, hollering, "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!" Cary was in the back row for the photo, staring at the floor.
BY 1979, KEN PARNELL WAS GOING from flophouse to cabin to trailer, having dragged "Dennis" north from Yosemite to Santa Rosa to the hills of Mendocino County. He'd done his best to raise the boy right, sending him to school, dressing him warmly in winter, whipping him when he goofed around with matches. But Dennis was fourteen already, galloping into puberty. Parnell needed a younger son.
In the middle of February 1980, he kidnapped five-year-old Timmy White from a street in Ukiah. By then, though, Dennis had figured out that young boys shouldn't be kidnapped and raped. So on March 1, he fled in the darkness into Ukiah, carrying Timmy when the smaller boy tired, hitchhiking his way to the police station.
Steven Stayner became an immediate celebrity, the victim who returned alive after being held for seven years by a pedophile, the hero who rescued a little boy. Reporters flooded Bette Street. Three days after he came home, Steven was on Good Morning America with his parents. His first words to the police--"I know my first name is Steven"--were so poignant, they became the title of a movie on NBC and a book written by Mike Echols.
Cary still never talked about his brother or, rather, what had happened to him. Nor did anyone else in the family. "It was like it never happened," one of Cary's friends says, "like he was never kidnapped or anything. There's just something, you know, off with that whole family."
Steven was surely off. He was a teenager hardened beyond his years, a kid who wanted to smoke dope and get drunk and set his own curfew. It hardly helped that Delbert and Kay forbade Steven to see any therapists. "They think you only go to those people if you're weak," says Echols. "And this family doesn't have anyone who's weak." Steven struggled through high school, missing classes to testify at the trials of Parnell and Murphy and to appear on the morning talk shows. He graduated and took menial jobs, packing meat and delivering pizzas. When he turned eighteen, he picked up $25,000 for consulting on the TV movie and another $15,000 for rescuing Timmy White. He blew the whole $40,000 on drugs and cars in three months.
THE FIRST THING CARY REMEMBERS wanting to be when he grew up was an artist. He changed his mind a few times, though, from stuntman to actor or cinematographer to director before finally settling on cartoonist. He figures he could have been any one of those things if he'd tried, too, except for an actor, because he doesn't think he photographs well. "It was always easier not to succeed," Cary says. "I was never a very motivated kid. I had a lot of things going on in my head."
So when Cary grew up, he became a glazer. Uncle Jerry taught him the trade, how to install windows and windshields, and put him to work at the company he'd founded, C&S Glass. It was steady work, and Cary was good with his hands.
They lived together, uncle and nephew, in a spotless house with an orange tree in the yard and a stalk of Cary's home-grown weed in the closet. He was an accomplished grower by then. In 1987, when he lived with some roommates in a house on Wolf Street in Merced, he planted fifteen seedlings under a white tent in the backyard and gently tended them until they swelled into fat, tender shrubs. Right before harvest time, as the sweet stink of the ripe buds wafted out from the yard, someone ripped off his crop. Cary was a lot more paranoid after that, so afraid of getting busted for his illegal cable converter that he plugged it in only when he wanted to watch something really special, like ultimate fighting. Cary loved ultimate fighting.
The marijuana stalk was still stashed in the closet at Christmastime in 1990, which was when Uncle Jerry was murdered right in his own house and with his own gun. He'd come home from work early one day and apparently surprised an intruder, who pointed a shotgun at Jerry's face and pulled the trigger.
Cary was never a suspect. He had an alibi, for one thing, and besides, he loved Jerry like a father. And even if he hadn't, he was too paranoid to turn his own home, the one he shared with Jerry, with the bootleg cable box and the weed in the closet, into a crime scene. "Uh-uh," Michael says. "No way he'd do that."
And Cary hardly needed to bring any more grief to his family. Jerry was the second Stayner to die in only fifteen months. On a rainy night in September 1989, Steven had gotten stoned after work at Pizza Hut, gotten on his motorcycle without a helmet or a license, and driven into the side of a farmworker's car stalled on Santa Fe Drive. He left a widow, a son, and a daughter. He was twenty-four years old.
SPROUT FOX SAW THE BREAKDOWN COMING, which isn't all that clairvoyant, since Cary told her he was going nuts. It happened in the spring of 1995, when Cary was working at Merced Glass with Sprout's common-law husband, Michael Marchese. One night in a bar, Cary sat on the stool next to her, fidgeting with a glass of draft beer.
"I can't handle it," he blurted.
"Can't handle what?" Sprout asked him. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know," Cary said, his voice edgy. "I have these, these . . . thoughts." He fidgeted, then started up again. "Sometimes," he said, "I feel happy. But then I feel really, really angry."
A few days later, Michael was loading the truck in the glass shop early in the morning when Cary showed up. "Man, I don't feel so good," he told Michael, pacing the floor, clenching his fists. "I don't feel right."
Michael told Cary to wait out back while he finished loading. When he was done, he found Cary standing in front of a rack that held glass and plywood, his eyes glassy, his face crimson. Cary was driving his fist, torn and bloodied, into a sheet of wood.
"Cary, stop it!" Michael shouted. "You're hurting yourself."
"Mike," Cary panted, "I'm just freakin' out."
"Man, maybe you've got a chemical imbalance or something," Michael said. Cary said someone had told him that once, that his brain chemistry was off.
"You gotta go see a doctor," Michael told him. "They got pills for that stuff. Take a pill and you'll be all fixed."
Cary cut him off. "I don't know, Mike. I just feel like getting in the truck and driving it through the wall and killing Gordon and getting out and killing everyone and just torching the place."
Now Michael was worried. Gordon Ekas, the boss, could be tough. But kill him? Christ, Gordon liked Cary. "Gordon," Michael told him, "Cary's freaking out. You need to get him to a doctor." Which Gordon did, waiting at the mental-health center with Cary for more than an hour. He told Cary to take all the time he needed, that his job would be waiting whenever he was ready to come back to it.
Cary left the Merced County Mental Health Center a few hours after Gordon. He never went back. Three days later, he picked up his paycheck at Merced Glass and announced he was moving north to Santa Cruz. He was going to sell caricatures on the boardwalk.
SHORTLY PAST TEN O'CLOCK the night after Valentine's Day 1999, Cary Stayner knocked on the door of Cedar Lodge room 509. He'd been laid off for the winter lull--the lodge rented only 20 of 206 rooms that night--but Carole Sund didn't know that. All she knew was that there was a handyman, clean-cut and soft-spoken, at her door telling her he needed to fix a leak behind the bathroom wall. She believed him.
Cary edged past her, nodded at Juli and Silvina, and ducked into the bathroom. Then he fished out the .22 pistol he'd brought in his toolbox, turned back toward the bedroom, and leveled the barrel at Carole's chest. "This is only a robbery," he said. "No one's going to get hurt."
Maybe Carole believed that, too. Because she didn't struggle when Cary wrapped her wrists, didn't scream when he sealed her mouth with duct tape. He bound Juli and Silvina next, herded them into the bathroom, and pulled the door shut. Then he pushed Carole onto the bed.
He would later tell investigators that he never suspected it would be so hard to strangle someone. Cary is a strong, broad-beamed man with hands built for plumbing and glazing, but there he was, pulling on the rope for what seemed like forever, staring into Carole's bulging eyes, squeezing her screams into silent, airless gags. She finally went limp, and he relaxed his grip, sweating and panting. Then he bundled her into the trunk of the Pontiac she'd parked out front next to the redbud tree.
Cary killed Silvina next, choking her the same way, and stuffed her into the trunk with Carole. Then he pushed Juli from the bathroom into the bedroom, unzipped his pants, and forced her to fellate him. She endured it for hours, gagging on his flaccid penis, Cary trying to get hard, fighting his impotence.
At four o'clock in the morning, he dragged Juli into the Pontiac and steered west, climbing up steep grades in the dark, until he reached Moccasin Point, a vista overlooking New Don Pedro Reservoir. He prodded her down a trail and into the scrub pines, where he unzipped his pants again. Still no erection. Finally, he cut her throat, deeply enough to kill her, but slowly. Juli begged him, rasping and gurgling, to shoot her dead. Cary threw some brush over her and left her to die.
He drove the Pontiac east to an old logging road off Highway 108 near Long Barn. He wanted to ditch the car, with the bodies in the trunk, deep in the forest, but he bottomed out on a stump a hundred yards from the main road. With dawn breaking, he walked two miles to a pay phone and called a cab.
CARY NEVER MADE IT TO SANTA CRUZ. The last time Michael saw him, in the spring of 1997, Cary was living in Atwater, working as a roadie for a local band called Big White Hiney and growing marijuana. The cops finally busted him, but Cary didn't seem to care. By then, his paranoia had faded into a sort of dreamy confidence. He said he was cultivating a medical crop, which was by then legal in California, and proved it with the ad he put in the local paper for a dummy co-op. "They don't know what to do with me," Cary told his old friend, which was true, because the charges were eventually dropped.
A few months later, Cary ran into the mountains. He showed up at Cedar Lodge, which was still recovering from the New Year's flood that tore the redbuds out at their roots and rearranged the boulders and the swimming holes in the river. Cary ate most of his meals in the diner next to the lodge, sitting at a red vinyl booth by the window where he could watch the pubescent girls splashing in the pool. His room was upstairs, unit 4, in the northwest corner, where the morning view is of Trumble Peak slathered in pink light.
Cary kept his room tidy. Scrubbed it clean every day, wiping away the dust, sweeping out the clutter. No family photographs, no stray newspapers, no piles of laundry. The bathroom was practically sterile. Said so on the paper band Cary slipped over his own toilet seat some mornings before leaving: sanitized for your protection!
Only a few people ever saw his room, though. One of them was Jen Yates, the seventeen-year-old stepdaughter of Jesse Houtz, whose family runs the bar and restaurant at the lodge. She and Cary would go for long walks in the woods or sit by the river, even though her mother, Trisha, thought he was creepy. "There's something about his eyes," Trisha would say. "You just don't understand him," Jen would counter.
One night in the summer of 1997, Cary invited Jen up to his room. Minutes later, she was back in the bar, pale and clammy. She was spooked. The bathroom--with the whole sanitized for your protection! thing--was eerie enough, she told her mom, but then Cary started pulling his hair out and ranting about his bitchy sisters. Jen told her mother, "You were right."
Trisha was relieved. She knew it wasn't normal for a man in his mid-thirties to flirt with girls in their teens, and she'd tried all summer to push him away from Jen. "Listen, Cary," Trisha had told him only a few days earlier, staring across a white plastic table on the porch. "I asked you once, now I'm telling you. Stay away from my daughter."
"I think that's Jen's decision," Cary answered, calm as always.
Trisha stared a little harder, gathering words in her throat. "You must be the most moronic motherfucker on the planet," she snarled. "I'm telling you, stay the fuck away from my kid. I will tear your dick off and shove it down your throat if you go near my daughter, you child-molesting piece of shit."
Cary looked away, a flush rising up his neck and into his face. Under the table, his fists were clenched. "Cary," she finally said, her voice level again, "she's seventeen. You're thirty-five. Why are you picking on my daughter?"
Cary stared back with eyes now more gray than hazel. "Because," he said, "she let me."
TWO DAYS PASSED before Carole Sund and the girls were reported missing, enough time for Cary to drive back to Long Barn and torch the Pontiac. Park rangers and sherriff's deputies and volunteers searched thousands of acres, but the only thing anyone found was Carole's wallet in Modesto. Cary had dropped it there, in the middle of an intersection, hoping to steer everyone away from Long Barn. By then, five days after the women had disappeared, investigators already assumed they were dead, killed by exposure if nothing else. Now the wallet suggested a robbery, which in turn suggested murder.
It took a stray hiker nearly a month to happen upon the Pontiac. When news of the discovery hit, Cary wrote the FBI a letter telling them where Juli's body could be found. He sealed it in an envelope he got another man to lick and dropped it in a mailbox in Stockton, an hour north of Modesto. Between all those clues and all those miles, investigators were certain they were looking for at least two killers, maybe a gang of them, like those crank freaks they'd picked up a couple months back.
When the FBI came to Cedar Lodge to investigate the last place the three women were seen alive, Cary was very helpful. He answered all their questions, then unlocked the guest rooms so the forensic people could hunt for evidence. But Darla, the bartender, noticed something different about him. "My God, Cary," she gasped one night, snatching the cap from his head. "What are you stressing out about?"
Cary grabbed his hat back. His short brown hair was woven through with new gray. "Runs in the family," he told her.
CARY TRIED AGAIN WITH A WOMAN last summer. She is tall and doesn't want her name used, because no one in Yosemite knows she took Cary to bed three times. Technically, she had sex with him, but the duration was measured in seconds, sometimes less. As soon as he entered her, Cary would climax.
Later, after he was arrested, Cary would tell the FBI he'd wanted to kill that woman. And a few other ones, too. It was a struggle not choking anyone, fighting away the fantasies, especially now that he knew he could get away with it, now that he had the feds scratching their stupid heads. But then Cary happened upon Joie Armstrong, a pretty blond of twenty-six who worked as a naturalist, teaching tourists and children about the spectacular canyons and forests of eastern California, and he couldn't resist. Cary saw her from Foresta Road, not far from where he swears Bigfoot once sprinted through the woods. The warm midsummer sun was just starting to throw shadows across the valley when Cary climbed out of his Scout and said hello to Joie just outside her cabin.
He wanted to be sure she was alone. Then he grabbed her. Joie fought like hell. She wriggled away from Cary and bolted into her cabin. Cary chased her, struggling to get the duct tape around her wrists. He finally stuffed her into his Scout, put the truck in gear, and started to roll up the road. Joie squirmed through the window, squeezing out as the truck bounced over ruts, and flopped onto the dirt. She scrambled to her feet and ran. Cary slammed the Scout to a stop and barreled after her. He wrapped his arms around her, pushed up her bra, and tugged down her pants. Joie still fought. Finally, he cut her throat, pushing the flat, sharp blade of a knife through her jugular.
Surging on adrenaline and rage,
Cary kept sawing, driving the blade through her spinal cord until he got her whole head off. He thought about taking it with him, like a trophy. But after a few seconds and a few steps, he stopped, hesitated, then turned back. He dropped her head in the water.
When he finally drove away, Cary had left behind a crime lab of evidence: tracks from his mismatched tires, fingerprints, blood, hair, and possibly a drop of semen.
And this time, there was a witness, a Yosemite firefighter who saw Cary's truck on Foresta Road, lingering too long at the edge of the woods.
JANET DAMANT PLAYS DARTS on weekend nights, which was why she was in the lounge at Laguna del Sol the last time she spoke to Cary Stayner. It was late, after eleven o'clock, and he was sitting at the bar watching the news. He was sipping cranberry juice splashed with vodka. "Not too strong," he told the barkeep. "I don't do alcohol."
Cary wasn't really a regular at Laguna del Sol, a nudist resort outside of Sacramento. In fact, he'd been there only four times before. The last time was in late March, shortly after the first three bodies were found. Janet remembered because Cary had been wearing a T-shirt with yosemite stenciled across the front and a cap with cedar lodge embroidered above the bill, which gave her a reason to ask him about the killings. "The cops are just too much," is about the most Cary had to say. "They're everywhere. I just had to get out."
Now, in July, Janet sidled up to the bar and asked Cary how he was.
"Not so good," he told her.
"What's wrong? Are you looking for work again?" Janet remembered Cedar Lodge was seasonal, that he'd been laid off the first time she'd met him.
"No," he said. "It's just that things changed really fast." He paused, toying with his glass. "So I packed up my truck, and I'm heading north. Maybe Oregon. Or Utah."
Janet lingered for a moment, trying to read his mood. Then she went back to darts.
The next morning, she woke up early enough to watch the seven o'clock news. The anchor said the FBI wanted to question Cary Stayner and that anyone who knew where he was should call the 800 number on the screen. Janet did. Then she called the manager, Steven Sailors, who dispatched some groundskeepers to prune the bushes in view of Cary's tent to keep an eye on him. Cary noticed but didn't seem to care. He'd already flipped through the morning newspaper to see if his name was in it. It wasn't. So he walked up to the restaurant for breakfast.
Three FBI agents and two sheriff's deputies arrested him at his table a few minutes later.
CARY WAIVED HIS RIGHT to remain silent. He wanted to talk, like an eager schoolboy who has to show everyone the bugs he found under a rock.
He led the FBI back to Foresta and, in front of a video camera, walked them through the killing of Joie Armstrong. Later, from a cell in the Sacramento County jail, he told a television reporter named Ted Rowlands that he'd killed Joie and the other three women as well. Then he wrote a letter to the Fresno Bee, saying someone should buy his story so he could give the victims' families some cash. "I realize the money would be little consolation for the loss of their loved ones," he wrote, "but until the jury, judge and the executioner fulfill their role in this matter, it's all I can offer."
Cary won't talk about the killings anymore and wishes he'd never opened his big mouth in the first place. "For my lawyer's sake," he says. "I guess I didn't make his job any easier." Cary has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial in federal court for the murder of Joie Armstrong, who was killed inside the park; when that's over, the state of California wants him to stand trial for the murders of the Sunds and Silvina Pelosso.
He is in a small cage now, sitting behind a thick partition of glass and heavy-gauge metal mesh. His wrists are shackled to his waist, but there is enough slack in the chain to allow him to hold the jailhouse phone to his ear. He looks well rested, better than he did last July, when his face was gaunt and his jaw clenched firm and square. His weight is back up to a solid two hundred pounds, he says, and his neck rises from his bright-yellow jumpsuit thick as a redwood. The gray is spreading across his head like wildfire, though, and his eyes look darker somehow, dirtier, the color of stagnant water. His voice is soft, almost gentle, and when he says something he finds funny--like how the guards think he's going to kill himself--his lips pull back into an affable grin, his teeth movie-star white. Maybe he's just grateful for the company: Cary spends his days in solitary, except for a shower every other day and two half-hour visits each week. His parents come once in a while, as does his lawyer, Robert Rainwater. "He'll go berserk if he finds out I was talking to anyone," Cary says. "I mean, he'll hit the roof." He grins at that.
Sometimes he draws in his cell, now that the guards trust him not to stab himself with a pencil. Cary even sent one recent sketch--a portrait of a woman with long hair and pouty lips he calls Babe in the Woods--to a guy named Rick Downey, who posted it on an Internet gallery that also features work by Richard Ramirez and Henry Lee Lucas. "It's all mass killers," Cary says. "I didn't find that out until after I gave it to him."
Cary reads his mail, too. "A lot of people write to me," he says. "Mostly women. No proposals yet, but I'm waiting." He laughs, because he knows only someone crazy would propose to a stranger who confessed to killing four women. "A lot of them say they don't believe I'm the animal the media portrays me as," he goes on, now quite serious. "And that's comforting."
Mostly, though, Cary just sits and thinks. "About the usual," he says, which apparently means the killings. And about Laguna del Sol. "I wish they'd given me one last day there," he whispers. And about how nothing he did is anyone else's fault. Not Ken Parnell's. "I don't even want to hear about him," he says. Certainly not Kay and Delbert Stayner's. "My mom and dad, they were great parents and all, but no parents are perfect," he says. "It's always the kid's responsibility, no matter what happened to him earlier."
Cary won't say what might have happened to him earlier, those things his parents can't be held accountable for. If he did, no one would know whether he was telling the truth or embellishing a script. Like when he said none of his victims had suffered. Or that none of them were sexually assaulted. "For me," he told the FBI agents who arrested him, his voice as soft and level as when he told people Bigfoot was real, "this wasn't about sex. It wasn't about violence. It was about control." As if he'd read it in a criminology text or in a pamphlet about date rape. As if he'd rehearsed it, practicing in front of the mirror until he sounded like an appropriately deranged gentleman or like a fabled monster who wasn't so very scary once you flushed him out of the woods.
KEN PARNELL ISN'T RUNNING anymore. After five years in Soledad Correctional Training Facility and two years on parole, he's a free man. He lives alone in a white cement row house in Berkeley. His bed is covered in a dirty green blanket and surrounded by clutter piled on tables and cabinets. He dodders when he walks, the stoop pressing more heavily on his spine these days, his hands grabbing doorknobs and chairs to keep from falling over. With his short white beard and scabby head, he looks like Santa Claus in the throes of scurvy and shingles.
Sitting in his kitchen on a chair wedged between a table and a greasy beige refrigerator, he answers all the questions about Steven Stayner, about how he told enough lies to make a seven-year-old fellate him, how he would have liked it if Steven had come to see him before he died. "His parents wouldn't let him," he says. He sounds disappointed.
Parnell knows a bit about what Cary did, but only what he picked up from the headlines, because he never reads the smaller print. Anyway, he doesn't see any threads connecting his crimes to Cary's. Cary never even liked Steven, he says. "I heard once that when Cary was twelve or fourteen, he told one of his friends, 'I hope Steven never comes back,' " Parnell says. "No, there's no connection. No."
Sometimes, he says, lighting another cigarette off the butt of the first, people just do bad things. Parnell knows this because he did bad things. "I've thought about it, and I don't know why," he says. "I can't give you no reasons." He considers that, crushes out his cigarette, and stares at the floor. "Who knows why people do what they do? I never did."