‘How It Really Happened with Hill Harper’: Did Yosemite serial killer Cary Stayner carry a victim's head in his bag?

Cary Stayner was convicted of the murders of four women: Carole Sund, her teenage daughter Juli Sund, Silvina Pelosso and Joie Ruth Armstrong

                            ‘How It Really Happened with Hill Harper’: Did Yosemite serial killer Cary Stayner carry a victim's head in his bag?
Yosemite serial killer Cary Stayner (HLN)

It was 1999. An evil shadow hung over Yosemite National Park. What was happening? As ‘Yosemite Murders part 1, The Missing Women’ begins, it sheds light on a mysterious terror that threatened to drown the grandeur and serenity of Yosemite National Park. Vibrant young women were vanishing into thin air. The emergency search and rescue efforts were massive, but the missing females were nowhere to be found.

The third episode of ‘How It Really Happened with Hill Harper’ begins with an investigation into the serial killer from the Yosemite Murders. Weeks and months passed and the FBI investigation turned from search to recovery and finally, to foul play. Agents discovered the mountain community was a hideout for child molesters and other convicted criminals looking to take refuge. However, all the likely suspects were cleared. Then suddenly and tragically, the murdered bodies of the four missing women were discovered. But, who committed these killings? And how did they happen? When key evidence is collected and run down, a prime suspect emerged. But as task force investigators closed in on their suspect, he packed up all his belongings and slipped through the net.

How will the lawmen finally connect the dots and solve the notorious case of "Malice in the Mountains?” The hour-long episode introduced a calm, young man named Cary Stayner — who was initially interviewed by officers but not considered a suspect in the case — and later on, he turned out to be the notorious serial killer convicted of the murders of four women between February and July 1999: Carole Sund, her teenage daughter Juli Sund, their travel buddy Silvina Pelosso and Yosemite Institute naturalist Joie Ruth Armstrong.

It was Mary Ellen Geist, a former reporter for KGO Radio who first identified him with a connection to his older brother Steven Stayner who was a kidnapping victim at 7. ​When Mary Ellen asked: "What's your theory about what happened?" Cary's demeanor suddenly changed into dark and dangerous. "He turned to me like this and his eyes just went black and flat. I just felt like a moment of evil. I felt in danger and I ran," she narrated. Confessing how similar it was to being one of his victims, she added, "I was in the same situation as his victims. I was alone with him. When he was alone with women, he became a predator."

For a long time, the case remained unsolved until Joie's beheaded body was recovered from the canal. While her body was found along with several bits and pieces of clues that could lead to the killer, her head couldn't be spotted. It was then that the FBI agents came across Cary again near the canal and caught hold of his rucksack. When they tried to search it, he denied it and that's when it was clear something was amiss. 

Officers were petrified that the bag might contain the head of Joie. However, the bag did not have the missing head. Instead, his bag had a copy of a novel about a crazed serial killer named 'Black Lightning' by horror novelist John Saul. The book was about two brothers — eerily similar to his real life — one of them being a stone-cold killer. Among other innocuous items that were found in Cary's dark green pack were a camera, a Corona beer bottle, sunflower seeds, a harmonica and tanning lotion.

Soon after, FBI agents John Boles and Jeff Rinek reportedly found him at the Laguna del Sol nudist resort in Wilton. He was handcuffed and taken to Sacramento for questioning. During his interrogation, Cary had a pizza and confessed to all the crimes. He left agents shocked after he described not only Armstrong’s decapitation, but the murders of Pelosso and the Sunds, and also sent out the map to find Juli's body. 

Catch the third episode of ‘How It Really Happened with Hill Harper’ Season 5 on Sunday, August 30, from 9 to 10 pm ET.

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