Plea Deal In Yosemite Murder

Motel handyman Cary Stayner was convicted Wednesday of killing 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.

In exchange, he will be imprisoned for the rest of his life with no chance of parole instead of facing a possible death sentence if convicted at trial.

The agreement that Stayner, his lawyer and prosecutors signed Sept. 6 also requires that he take his story to his grave to spare the family from any additional media attention.

“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. He also agreed to meet with Armstrong’s family if they request a meeting.

The plea accepted during a subdued hearing is a pivotal — if anticlimactic — stage in a macabre case that has gained worldwide attention, embarrassed the FBI and left federal and state prosecutors quarreling.

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, 39, 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. 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 1999, 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 loose-knit 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, nd 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, according to law enforcement sources.

Stayner initially pleaded innocent to kidnapping, attempted sexual assault and murder in Armstrong’s death, which was prosecuted in federal court because Armstrong was killed in a national park.

Just weeks ago, a change of venue had been granted and a trial date set for April 10.

State prosecutors, who felt they were entitled to proceed with their case first and are still upset they lost their appeal to Attorney General Janet Reno, continue to feud with federal authorities over evidence and other issues.

The Mariposa County District Attorney’s office, which has jurisdiction, can go forward with its case against Stayner as soon as he is formally sentenced, sometime later this year, in Armstrong’s murder.

Thomas C. Hastings, a Santa Clara County judge who presided over the high-profile Polly Klaas murder trial, has been assigned to hear the sightseer case. But no hearing dates have been set, no pleas entered, and an attorney has not been appointed or hired to represent Stayner.

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