MARIPOSA — When his wife, daughter and a teenage friend failed to return from Yosemite National Park and meet at a San Francisco airport rendezvous, Jens Sund thought nothing of it and boarded a plane for Phoenix.
It was only after finishing a round of golf the next day that he began worrying, an anxiety that grew all day and lasted more than a month – until his worst fears were realized after the bodies of the three were found outside the park.
Sund was the first witness Monday in Mariposa Superior Court as prosecutors began presenting testimony against motel handyman Cary Stayner to see if enough evidence exists to charge him with murdering the three tourists.
Stayner, 39, already is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty in federal court to murdering a woman who led children on nature walks in the park. He could face execution if convicted in state court in the triple murder case.
Carole Sund, 42, daughter Juli, 15, and family friend Silvina Pelosso, 16, of Argentina had gone to the park to witness the cascading waterfalls, soaring cliffs of granite and towering trees after Juli competed in a cheerleading competition in Modesto.
Seated only 10 feet from Stayner, Jens Sund avoided eye contact while testifying that the last time he saw the three women was when they left their Eureka home in February 1999.
Despite testimony of his worries, there was hardly a hint of the grisly fate the women met. The words “killings” or “murders” were not uttered by any of the 10 witnesses during the first of the preliminary hearing.
Assistant District Attorney Kim Fletcher moved methodically through testimony to build a foundation for her case, distilling the drama of the disappearances down to the mundane issues of how Cedar Lodge, where Stayner worked and lived, kept records of visitors, copies of receipts and how maids cleaned rooms.
Through the bland testimony, however, a more poignant image began to emerge: These were the last people to see the women alive and well. The clerks who sold them knickknacks at the gift shop and the waitress who served what must have been their last meal of burritos and burgers.
“I had the, uhhh, missing women,” testified waitress Barbara Jane Bonner. She worked at the Cedar Lodge restaurant and said she served the trio on the night of Feb. 15, 1999, when the Sund-Pelosso party was last seen alive. Jens Sund said he last spoke to his wife by phone at the lodge on Feb. 14.
They were supposed to meet Feb. 16 at the San Francisco airport so he could take Pelosso and his other three children to the Grand Canyon. Sund’s flight was delayed by bad weather, and when he arrived at the airport his wife was nowhere to be found.
“I thought maybe I had misunderstood Carole’s plans, so I just figured everything was fine,” he said.
Jens Sund went ahead and boarded the Phoenix flight without them and played golf the next day in Arizona. But as he continued to try to reach his wife, calling their home and leaving messages with in-laws, Sund said he became increasingly concerned. He flew back to San Francisco the next day and met his brother-in-law. The two then went to the Cedar Lodge to look for the three, to no avail.
Defense lawyer Marcia Morrissey, who had offered to waive the hearing and proceed to trial but was rebuffed by prosecutors, aggressively cross-examined witnesses.
She picked away at seemingly innocuous details and revealed conflicting testimony and inconsistencies in witness statements about the chronology of the tourists’ visit, the clothes they wore, and whether Silvina Pelosso spoke with an accent.
The hearing will likely result in two outcomes. Judge Thomas C. Hastings will determine if there’s enough evidence to proceed and, if so, prosecutors will reveal whether they will seek the death penalty.
Outside of court, Carole Carrington, the mother of Carole Sund, said she wants prosecutors to seek the death penalty if Stayner is convicted, referring to Monday’s execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Although what McVeigh did was terrible, she said it was less personal, more like a pilot dropping a bomb on a city.
“This was face-to-face,” she said.