FRESNO — Motel handyman Cary Stayner was convicted Wednesday of murdering a Yosemite naturalist in a deal that spares his life but guarantees he will never be free and never be able to tell his story.
Stayner pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to killing Joie Armstrong on July 21 last year. He admitted he kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered Armstrong.
In exchange, he will be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison without parole instead of facing a death sentence.
The agreement that Stayner, his lawyer and prosecutors signed Sept. 6, also requires that he take his story to his grave.
“After the entry of judgment in this case until his death he will not speak to anyone, write to anyone, or communicate to anyone about the death of Joie Ruth Armstrong,” the agreement states. The only exception is any testimony or communication with his lawyer regarding his state or federal murder cases.
In order to guarantee that he never profits from his story, he agreed to a $10 million restitution order to go to a fund in Armstrong’s name.
Stayner, 39, initially pleaded innocent to kidnapping, attempted sexual assault and murder in the case, which was being prosecuted in federal court because Armstrong was killed in a national park.
At the same time it reaches resolution, it shifts Stayner’s fate to state court, where prosecutors have been eagerly awaiting their chance to try him in the slayings of three Yosemite tourists.
While Stayner has dodged execution in Armstrong’s murder, he still faces the death penalty if convicted in the slayings of Carole Sund, 42, her daughter Juli, 15, and their Argentine friend Silvina Pelosso, 16.
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, a remote and rustic motel outside the park’s western gate, where Stayner lived and worked.
It was their disappearance, in mid-February last year, that prompted one of the most intense FBI manhunts as scores of agents fanned out across the rugged and rolling terrain of the western Sierra to search for clues.
Stayner was interviewed early in the investigation but ruled out as a suspect. He later helped agents collect evidence from the motel rooms and was in their midst as the case unfolded in one grim twist after another and the investigation went astray.
Based on circumstantial evidence and what was later believed to be a false confession, investigators plunged deep into the Central Valley’s methamphetamine netherworld and focused on a looseknit group of violent ex-cons.
In fact, a grand jury was actually hearing evidence against this group the day after Armstrong was killed. And James Maddock, FBI agent in charge of Sacramento, maintained he was confident most of the main suspects in the sightseer case were behind bars on other charges, and that the murders were not connected.
It was Stayner, arrested three days after Armstrong’s murder, who finally unraveled the mystery, admitting to a top FBI interrogator that he single-handedly killed all four women, according to court documents. He also led investigators to weapons and other physical evidence, and later re-enacted the crimes on videotape.