SAN FRANCISCO — Motel handyman Cary Stayner has agreed to plead guilty to the murder of a Yosemite naturalist in a deal that will spare him a federal execution, but he still faces a possible death sentence if convicted of killing three sightseers.
The plea is scheduled to be entered Wednesday afternoon in federal court in Fresno before Judge Anthony W. Ishii. In exchange, Stayner will be sentenced at a later date to life in prison without parole, federal law enforcement sources told The Associated Press on Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
Stayner, 39, initially pleaded innocent to charges of kidnapping, attempted sexual assault and murder in the July 21, 1999, death of Joie Armstrong, who led children on nature hikes.
The case was being prosecuted in federal court because she was killed in Yosemite National Park.
A change of venue had been granted and a trial date set for April 10.
U.S. Attorney Paul Seave and Assistant Federal Defender Robert Rainwater did not immediately return phone calls for comment.
Lesli Armstrong, who has said publicly that she would prefer not to sit through a trial and hear the details of her daughter’s murder, could not immediately be reached.
She is expected to attend Wednesday’s hearing.
Prosecutors considered the sentiments of the Armstrong family in agreeing to drop their pursuit of a death sentence in return for the plea, according to a federal source.
The plea bargain will not affect the state’s plan to seek the death penalty against Stayner in the murders of Carole Sund, 42, her daughter Juli, 15, and family friend Silvina Pelosso, 16, of Cordoba, Argentina.
The three women were killed five months before Armstrong, during a sightseeing trip to Yosemite National Park.
They had been staying at the Cedar Lodge in El Portal, where Stayner lived and worked.
Mariposa County prosecutors, who had unsuccessfully appealed to Attorney General Janet Reno for the right to proceed first with their case, can go forward once Stayner is formally sentenced on the federal charges. No pleas have been entered and no hearing dates set in the Sund-Pelosso murders.
Carole Carrington, Mrs. Sund’s mother, said Tuesday she was surprised prosecutors agreed to the guilty plea in Armstrong’s murder, since they were pushing for the death penalty.
But she is relieved the state’s case can proceed sooner.
“I’d like to get it going,” she said in a telephone interview from her Eureka ranch. “I just hope they have it all figured out now.”
Relatives of the Sunds and Pelossos are mixed about whether they want a death sentence.
Carrington said she and her husband, Francis, would be satisfied if Stayner gets a parallel sentence of life in prison without parole. Raquel and Pepe Pelosso, Silvina’s parents, oppose the death penalty.
Stayner, who according to sources has confessed to single-handedly killing all four women, has been in custody since his arrest three days after Armstrong was killed.
He is being held in isolation at the Fresno County Jail.
Delbert Stayner said he and his wife, Kay, visit their son weekly, and that the government’s agreement to drop its demands for the death penalty answered their prayers.
Stayner is a brother of Steven Stayner, the center of a highly publicized kidnapping case two decades ago.
Steven was snatched off a Merced street at age 7 in 1972. He remained missing for seven years, then was hailed as a hero for finally going to police when his abductor kidnapped another boy.
He died in 1989, at age 24, in a collision with a hit-and-run driver.