Sunday, January 20, 2008

"The Case of a Lifetime" - by Stacy Finz

Stacy Finz, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, December 15, 2002


The call was damned inconvenient.
FBI agent Jeff Rinek was used to getting pulled away from home on Saturdays. But this weekend the boys were away. He and Lori had the house to themselves. For 15 years, she had put up with him working odd hours on cases too horrible to imagine.

Now the bureau wanted him to pick up some guy named Cary Stayner -- a possible material witness to a murder -- at a nudist resort in Wilton. It wasn't Rinek's case. His office just needed a driver.

All he knew was that three days earlier, on July 21, 1999, a young Yosemite nature guide had been killed. Yosemite was a sore spot for Rinek. In February, he was removed as lead agent on an investigation involving three slain Yosemite tourists. It had been a humiliating experience -- one that had deeply shaken Rinek's faith in the bureau.

As Rinek showered, put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, it didn't seem possible that the earlier case and this recent killing could be related. He kissed Lori goodbye. He was amazed his wife tolerated all the extra hours he put in. Yet she always did.

He had missed countless special occasions -- anniversaries, family parties. When a chase through Sacramento kept him from making his wife's 37th birthday party, Rinek dialed Lori on his cell phone and made the suspect apologize to her for interfering with their plans.

Stunts like that made Rinek popular among the other agents, but not among his bosses. He was a little too coarse for the bureau's buttoned-down supervisors. He used profanity and had once been written up for using sexually explicit language in the office. He was dinged for insubordination, and got into a few too many faces a few too many times.

At 47, he was a little more than two years away from early retirement. He figured the top brass would be happy if he took it. And he wouldn't miss them a bit. It was a shame, though. He liked the work.

Winding down his narrow driveway in his FBI-issued Ford, he wondered whether there was any way he could get this over with quickly and salvage the rest of the day.

Rinek chose the back roads, not the highway, from his house, 40 miles east of Sacramento. Some might call it poetic that the town he lived in was called Rescue. Rinek's specialty was rescuing children.

He kept a heavy foot on the gas pedal during the 50-mile drive to Wilton. When he got to Laguna Del Sol, the resort's manager was waiting for him at the gate. Two other agents and two Sacramento sheriff's deputies also had arrived. Rinek had never been to a nudist camp. He scanned the gathering naked crowd, but was disappointed with what he saw. The women were mostly out of shape.

He and John Boles, a cocky young agent, were directed to the resort's restaurant. Stayner was inside eating breakfast. Rinek, like most people in the area, knew of the Stayner family. Stayner's younger brother, Steven, made national headlines in 1980, after he escaped from his abductor, Kenneth Parnell, a convicted child molester.

Steven was held and sexually abused by Parnell for seven years after his kidnapping in 1972. His story had been chronicled in a book and dramatized in a television miniseries. And after surviving a hellish childhood of abuse, Steven died in a motorcycle crash in 1989.

Rinek wanted to talk to Stayner about his brother. The bureau wanted to talk to him about the Yosemite murder. Rinek thought Stayner might have been a former boyfriend of the victim.

When he and the other investigators walked into the restaurant, Stayner stood and raised his hands above his head. They thought it was a little strange. So Boles handcuffed him as a precaution.

Some of the patrons in the restaurant were nude, but Stayner was wearing shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and baseball cap. At 37, he was a good-looking guy: tall, well-built, rugged.

"You ever see the movie 'Billy Jack'?" Rinek asked him as they walked toward his car. "You look just like him."

Stayner said he'd never seen the 1971 film, and they kept walking.

"No kidding," Rinek said. "I don't know why we're here. They want us to interview you. Would you be willing to be interviewed here or back at the office?"

"Back at the office," Stayner responded.

Rinek opened the car door and Stayner got in. The two men sat there for a while in silence. The crowd of gapers was moving closer, so Rinek figured he had better follow strict procedure just in case Stayner turned out to be more than a witness.

"I'm going to read you your rights now," Rinek told him.

To the agent, it was just routine.

It would turn out that Rinek had spent his whole life preparing for this day, this case, this man.

Rinek turned the key in the ignition and with Stayner's guidance left the nudist camp, found his way to Highway 99 and headed north. Boles followed in another car.

The 40-minute drive to FBI headquarters in Sacramento turned into 90 minutes because of road construction. But the delay was fortuitous. There was something about Rinek that made Stayner relax -- and talk. People were often caught off guard by the agent. He had the body of a wrestler, the bushy mustache of the Marlboro man, but the spirituality of a clergyman. He took confessions, and people seemed to want to give them to him.

So when the agent said, "Tell me about your brother," Stayner suddenly wanted to talk about the ordeal that started 27 years ago.

His little brother, Steven, then 7, had been walking home from Charles Wright Elementary School in Merced just a few weeks before Christmas. Parnell, posing as a church minister, offered to give Stevie a ride home and the second-grader accepted.

But Parnell would never stop at the Stayner home. Instead, he drove all the way to Cathy's Valley, about 40 miles away. There, Parnell, accomplice Ervin Edward Murphy and Stevie holed up in a little red cabin. Parnell renamed Steven "Dennis," and for the next seven years he passed the boy off as his son by day and used him for sex at night.

When Stevie was 14, Parnell kidnapped and brought home 5-year-old Timmy White. Steven wanted to save Timmy, so he summoned up enough courage to escape. The two hitchhiked from Manchester, a tiny coastal town in Mendocino County, into Ukiah, where they walked to the police station.

Cary Stayner was 18 when his brother came home. He was returning from a camping trip at Yosemite when he heard the news of Stevie's escape on the radio. By the time he got to Merced, news crews had taken over the small town.

Rinek asked him how he felt about the investigation into his brother's disappearance. "Did law enforcement treat you and your family OK, and was there anything we could have done better?"

Stayner got emotional and said he thought Parnell got off easy -- he was only sentenced to seven years in prison for the kidnappings. He also voiced anger at the driver who killed his brother during the hit-and-run accident in 1989.

Rinek listened to Stayner as he talked. He watched as his passenger's eyes welled up with tears. He had seen that kind of sadness countless times in the family members of victims. And it still ripped his guts out.


ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS
For almost as long as he could remember, Rinek dreamed of being an FBI agent. He remembered when agents showed up at his father's funeral home in Philadelphia one summer. Some mobbed-up guy was getting buried. The agents watched people coming and going and took pictures of license plates on parked cars. Rinek was drawn to the good guys in the bad suits, not the bad guys in the good suits.

After graduating from a small liberal arts school in Reading, Pa., with a degree in history, Rinek was accepted into law school. But he couldn't afford to go. So he took a job working as a clerk for the FBI in Washington, D.C., and attended accounting classes at night. The FBI liked agents to be lawyers or accountants.

When he was 26, the bureau offered him a job as a special agent. By 1980, Rinek was transferred to New York City, where he worked on white-collar crime and foreign counterintelligence.

But the job was turning out to be a disappointment -- a lot of tedious paperwork and not enough time in the field.

One good thing had happened, though. Rinek had met a young, pretty woman. Her name was Lori Firman and she was getting over a divorce. The pair started spending a lot of time together and married in 1984 on the back porch of the vintage farm house they had lovingly restored.

Three years later, their first son was born and they named him Joe. When Lori gave birth to their second boy, Jordan, life should have been wonderful for the couple. But Rinek was suffocating in the FBI's New York office and Joe was very sick.

He was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a complex set of symptoms caused by renal diseases. The doctors prescribed medication that didn't help and the 3-year-old got worse.

About that time, Rinek was informed that he would finally be getting out of New York -- a commitment of five years that had become 11. There was an opening at the FBI's Sacramento office.

So the Rineks packed up a moving truck, loaded the kids, three dogs and six cats in the car and drove west. They got as far as Omaha, Neb., when Joe was rushed to an emergency room. For the next week, they sat by Joe's bedside and prayed he wouldn't die.

He pulled through and the family made it to Sacramento. But Joe's health was still fragile and would be for several years to come. It made Rinek painfully aware that the young were so vulnerable, and their hold on life so tenuous.

LITTLE BOY LOST

Rinek found his true calling in 1993.

That year two armed men pushed their way into Frankie Proctor's Sacramento home, southeast of the Capitol. They locked Frankie's parents in the bathroom, snatched the 7-month-old off the couch and fled.

Rinek and Sacramento police Detective Greg Stewart worked night and day on leads. As the hours passed, investigators held little hope of finding Frankie alive. Then they got a strange tip. It was from a less-than-reliable informant. The snitch said he knew a woman who had miscarried and desperately wanted a child of her own. He believed she stole Frankie.

Although it seemed remote, Rinek and the other investigators had a gut feeling -- the kind that comes from years on the street. The lead panned out, and a day later, Rinek clutched Frankie close to his heart. He could feel the baby's strong pulse and hear his steady breathing. Surrounded by an army of cops with enough firepower to take down an entire city block, Rinek cried. First, the tears came for finding Frankie.

"We passed that baby around and around the room," Rinek said. "We couldn't stop holding him."

Then he cried for his son Joe, who like Frankie seemed to be out of danger.

Rinek's success in helping to solve the Proctor case elevated his status in the office. Soon he was specializing in child abduction cases. But finding Frankie was bigger than a promotion. He knew what he was meant to do -- save children.

And sometimes he could. But not Michael Lyons.

The 8-year-old was found face down along the shore of the Feather River clutching a silver bracelet in his tiny hand. It was May 17, 1996. His Batman shirt was covered in blood. Rinek thought Michael could just as easily be Joe or Jordan, his own young sons.

Michael had probably been dead for just a few hours when Rinek and investigators got there. A news helicopter buzzed overhead and a camera man tried to get footage of the scene. Rinek, a police detective and the county coroner all carried Michael under a canopy of trees in hopes of camouflaging him.

He remembered thinking: "Oh, God, don't let this be the last image Michael's mother has of her son."

A half-mile away, authorities arrested Robert Boyd Rhoades, a repeat sex offender. The day before, Rhoades had grabbed Michael as he was walking home from Bridge Street Elementary School in Yuba City. He sodomized the boy and then stabbed him multiple times with a fishing knife.

Rinek had seen so much, and still he couldn't imagine how someone could do this to a child. He didn't believe in Satan, but he believed that man was capable of great evil. And the Old Testament provided an antidote: an eye for an eye. He wanted Rhoades to die -- to suffer the way Michael had.

IN THE PRESENCE OF EVIL
Stayner and Rinek continued to talk much of the way to FBI headquarters. Rinek found his passenger to be likable and intelligent. As they drove up to the FBI complex, Rinek noticed that the parking lot was nearly empty. Many of the agents were still at the murder scene in Yosemite, interviewing friends and family members of the victim. Before Rinek could put on his emergency brake, a smirking Stayner turned to him.

"You know what I think I'm gonna do then?" said Stayner, reciting exactly from 'Billy Jack." "Just for the hell of it? I'm gonna take this right foot, and I'm gonna whop you on the side of your face and you wanna know something? There's not a damn thing you're gonna be able to do about it."

"Well, I'll be damned," Rinek said. "You did see the movie."

It was 84 degrees in Sacramento that day -- cooler than usual for July. But the office felt like a sauna. Rinek was sweating and he had to use the bathroom. He left Stayner alone in a small office, while he relieved himself. Then he went to the lounge, where he rummaged through the candy bowl looking for chocolate. After devouring a candy bar, he and Boles prepared for the interview: setting up fingerprinting, mug shots, a lie detector test.

Before the polygrapher had time to set up his equipment, Stayner asked Rinek whether he could speak to him alone. Just the two of them.

With Boles out of the room, Stayner confided that he had been a bad person. He told the agent that he had been sexually abused at the hands of a relative when he was 11 years old. Stayner said his uncle had showed him pictures of naked 10-year-old girls and had fondled him. He also confessed to Rinek that he'd never had a normal relationship with a woman. And then Stayner dropped a bomb.

"I can give you closure," he told the agent.

Rinek felt like someone had just poured ice cold water over his head. Unsure about what Stayner was talking about, Rinek waded in slowly.

"Closure about what?" he asked. "You mean about what happened in Yosemite?"

"And more," Stayner responded.

"Like what more?" Rinek continued.

Stayner answered, "Everything."

Rinek couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"Are you talking about the three women traveling in Yosemite -- the Sund-Pelosso case?"

Stayner nodded yes.

Suddenly Rinek needed air.

He left the interrogation room. He needed to clear his head and call Lori. He wanted to let her know that he would be late -- very late.

When he heard her voice on the other end of the line, he whispered that he would never have to wear a jacket and tie again. He told her he was about to solve the biggest case of his career or completely screw it up. And he was scared. She didn't hear a word he said, but in verbal shorthand -- the kind that goes on between couples -- she said, "That's great, honey."

Meanwhile, Boles slipped back into the interrogation room and kept Stayner company.

"I guess you've dealt with some really sick people in your day," Stayner remarked to Boles as they waited for Rinek. A pepperoni pizza they had ordered sat on the table.

"I gotta eat, I'm starved," Rinek said to Boles and Stayner as he walked back into the room.

"This is gonna be my last pizza," Stayner said.

"Stop that. Stop that," Rinek chastised. He knew it was a risk to feed a suspect who was already eager to talk, but Rinek and Boles felt Stayner needed to eat.

"If everything goes OK, we're going to be here for a while," Rinek told Stayner. "My goal would be to keep you here as long as I can and help you feel better."

"And nothing does that like a pepperoni pizza," Boles chimed in.

The three men ate and chatted about trivialities -- rock climbing, movies, cars. Then Stayner got serious.

"Well, it is so weird, Jeff," he said. "I love life so much. I can breathe, I can wake up and see the sun. I like my friends. I can't tell you why this happened. One minute I'm thinking great thoughts and world peace and the next minute it is like I could kill every person on the face of the earth."

Rinek could clearly see the dichotomy that was Cary Stayner. He believed he was in the presence of great evil. But he was also convinced that Stayner was the victim of great evil. Now Rinek knew that Stayner had committed unspeakable acts against women. But he was persuaded that the man had a conscience -- he could cry for his victimized brother and recoil at his own inner demons.

Rinek decided to channel the man who had sat in his car just hours earlier -- not the bloodthirsty killer -- to get Stayner's confession.

"Today is the beginning of the rest of your life," Rinek told him. "You are controlling you, probably for the first time since you were 11. Do you know what the greatest harm to a child is when a child is abused? That child tries to figure out what they did to cause this. . . .

"When you were 11 years old, something bad happened to you, and you've been spending your life trying to live with it. Does your family know you have these tremendous internal issues?"

"I have no idea," Stayner answered.

"Have you told anyone in your life about them other than me?"

"Never."

"Well, don't you think it's time that we dealt with it now? . . . Doesn't mean you're a bad person, it just means you're a troubled person."

Stayner appeared ready to confess, but then he waffled. He would tell Rinek things, but only if three conditions were met: He wanted to be housed in a federal penitentiary near his home town, to see his parents receive the reward money put up by the victims' families. Then the doozy -- he wanted a "good-size stack" of photographs and videotapes of child pornography.

"It's very sick, I realize that," Stayner said. "Maybe because I never got to see it, these (killings) happened."

Rinek and Boles stalled him for a while, but in the end, they would say no to everything he wanted. Rinek could offer him only one thing: an opportunity to repent.

"You know what's really gonna happen when we're done?" Rinek asked. "You are gonna feel a lot of relief . . . you're gonna feel peaceful, a feeling you haven't had in a long time."

'Always ready to go'

But Rinek was not about to rush things. The three men sat in the FBI interrogation room and finished their pizza. Stayner sketched small caricatures of Rinek and Boles, and Rinek thought the drawings were good.

Stayner made an offhanded remark that sheriff's deputies and park rangers had interviewed him a day after the murder of the 26-year-old nature guide, Joie Ruth Armstrong.

They had seen his International Scout parked near the scene that day and apparently thought he might know something. But after questioning him and searching his truck, they had let him go.

No one will ever know for sure why Stayner decided to tell his story on this particular day. Stayner told Boles that the bureau owed his confession to Rinek.

And when the time came, Rinek got right to the point.

"First of all, are you the one -- I don't even know her name -- who murdered what's her name?" Rinek asked.

The agent felt ashamed as he shuffled through the police reports he had been given. He prayed that later, when this was all over, the victim's family wouldn't be offended that he didn't even know her name.

"I think I have her name somewhere here. Joie Ruth, is that the girl that you murdered?"

"Yes, it is."

"How did you come about her?"

"I was driving up to Foresta and went down to a bridge that was washed out and closed down. I was walking around just checking it out 'cause I'd seen Bigfoot in the area back in the early '80s . . . And there was this house on the edge of the meadow. I guess that's where she lived.

"I just noticed her. She is a fairly attractive girl."

"Uh-huh," Rinek said, encouraging him to go on.

"I had a small green backpack. In the backpack I had a .22 revolver . . . and a large knife and duct tape.

"I walked back by the house and she was out front, and we started talking -- actually about Bigfoot. I asked her if she'd ever seen or heard anything, and she said no.

"She stepped up on the porch and then she turned around," Stayner continued. "That's when I pulled out the gun and put it to her head. She freaked out. I told her to go inside . . . where I duct-taped her and gagged her."

"You're doing fine," Rinek assured him. "This is hard, you're being good, brave. Go ahead."

"She resisted quite a bit," Stayner said. "I took her down to my truck and put her in the back seat. She was fighting all the way . . . and as I was driving, she started going crazy, just jumping all over the place. And she fell out through the window onto the road."

"So she was trying to get away from you?"

"She did a very good job of it," Stayner said. "I kinda freaked out. I had the knife in my back pocket. I tried to subdue her, but she was fighting very hard."

"What did you do next?"

"Took the knife from my back pocket and I slit her throat. She didn't die right away."

"How long did it take her to die?"

"(I) drug her another 10, 15 feet . . . I finished the job. I parked my truck in a parking area next to an asphalt road. I went back . . . and I cut her head off."

"Let me ask you a question," Rinek said. "It's a hard one, and I don't want you to think I'm angry at you. When did you put the duct tape, the knife and the gun in your backpack?"

"It's been there for a long time."

"It's because you're always ready to go?"

"Right," Stayner answered.

"You had these items, not because it hit you on the moment?"

"No, it was something I was looking forward to."

"You said to me at one point you were obsessive-compulsive," Rinek continued. "Is it something that you feel occupied most of your thought process?"

"Every waking moment," Stayner responded.

"What was your intent?"

"To sexually molest her."

Rinek needed another break. He needed emotionally to prepare himself to hear the rest of Stayner's confession. The Sund-Pelosso case had been his. And he would have to live with the knowledge that a fourth woman had to die before they caught the killer.


A FRUSTRATING MYSTERY
The Sund-Pelosso case had turned Rinek's career upside down.

More than five months earlier, on Feb. 16, 1999, Carole Sund, her 15-year-old daughter, Juli, and their Argentine friend failed to show up in San Francisco after a visit to Yosemite National Park. The three women, who had traveled from the Sunds' home in Eureka, were supposed to meet Carole's husband, Jens, and continue on to the Grand Canyon. They wanted to show 16-year-old Silvina Pelosso as many sights as possible before she returned to South America.

Carole Sund had been an exchange student in Argentina when she was a teenager and lived with Silvina's mother and her family. Sund and Silvina's mother, both in their 40s, continued their friendship and wanted the same for their daughters.

But they and their red rental car seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. Investigators believed they had stayed the night of Feb. 15 at the Cedar Lodge in El Portal, a rustic motel located just outside the park near the Merced River. Numerous witnesses saw them there that evening. But the rest was a mystery.

Then a clue -- Carole Sund's wallet was found on a Modesto street three days after the three disappeared. It was turned over to authorities the next day.

The Mariposa County Sheriff's Department combed El Portal for leads. They found some curious inconsistencies in the motel room where the three stayed. One of the beds was missing a top sheet and a blanket was gone. They didn't know it at the time, but shreds of Juli's pajamas were matted in the carpet.

James Maddock, the special agent in charge of the Sacramento FBI office, felt sure the three had been the victims of a crime. Maybe they were attacked in their motel room or in the parking lot as they packed up their car to leave the lodge early on Feb. 16. There was also a chance that they were carjacked in Modesto.

But FBI profilers, sent from Quantico, Va., found there was just as much evidence to indicate that Carole Sund's car had skidded off an icy road in the winding Sierra. If the three had survived such a crash, time was running out for them. Temperatures were at freezing.

Rinek was called to Modesto on Feb. 22 and was made case agent. It was one of those investigations that the whole world was watching. His career could soar. Or it could crash and burn.

After Rinek was put in charge of the Sund-Pelosso case, he spent weeks trying to hunt down bank records. Suspicious calls had been made to Carole Sund's bank by one or more women claiming to be Sund. They had Sund's Social Security number and were requesting financial information.

So Rinek and a banking specialist tried to trace the origins of the calls. It was no easy job, and Rinek feared that his boss, Maddock, thought it was a waste of time. But Rinek believed it was the best lead they had and continued the tedious work.

As the days passed, FBI agents and sheriff's detectives began looking closely at the staff at the Cedar Lodge. One employee in particular piqued their interest. The man had been seen changing the locks on the Sunds and Pelosso's motel room on the day they vanished. He had a criminal record and his brother was a registered sex offender.

Maddock was excited. The top supervisors were sure this was their guy. Rinek advised Maddock that it was still too early to focus on any one person. Not long after their conversation, Rinek sensed a chill between them.

Rinek was right not to get his hopes too high, because their suspect passed a polygraph test. So he and the other investigators quickly moved on. They started investigating a second employee at the Cedar Lodge.

The worker agreed to take a polygraph and failed. Maddock's hopes soared. Rinek was cautious. After all, lots of innocent people fail lie detector tests.

They were unable to link him to the Sunds and Pelosso's disappearance, so over the next couple of weeks, agents broadened their investigation by looking at sex offenders in the area.

They also continued to interview lodge employees, including a handyman named Cary Stayner.

INVESTIGATORS AT ODDS

On March 18, 1999, a man target shooting about 100 yards north of Highway 108, between Long Barn and Sierra Village, discovered Carole Sund's red Pontiac Grand Prix.

The rental car was badly burned and clothing, purses and other items were found strewn across the area. Agents waited until the following morning, when they would have more light, to search the trunk. It was there that they found the charred remains of Carol Sund and Silvina Pelosso.

The case, which the FBI had dubbed "Tournap," for tourist kidnapping, immediately switched gears from a missing persons search to a homicide investigation. And authorities were focusing on a pair of ex-cons living in Modesto. They had pretty much ruled out Cedar Lodge employees. Stayner, who lived at the motel, was questioned for a short time and never looked at again.

Eugene "Rufus" Dykes and Michael "Mick" Larwick, half-brothers with long criminal records, lived near the area where Carole Sund's wallet had been recovered. Both men had been arrested for unrelated crimes shortly after the three tourists vanished. A retired Modesto police officer received a tip from an informant that the two, now in custody, may have been involved in the women's disappearance. The retired cop told an FBI agent, who in turn told her supervisor.

Soon, she and Rinek were on their way to Modesto. They and other investigators interviewed Dykes' and Larwick's neighbors and searched apartments and cars. Sixty-seven miles away, an evidence response team combed the Pontiac and the surrounding areas, looking for clues -- anything that would lead them to the killers or to Juli Sund.

During the next couple of days, Rinek worked hard with the other members of the Tournap task force to link Larwick and Dykes to the Sunds and Pelosso. But he found himself disagreeing more and more with his supervisors over the direction of the investigation. And he felt that he was somehow being edged out.

Suddenly, Maddock announced that Nick Rossi, an agent with only four years' experience, would take over the case. Rossi, a Harvard-educated lawyer, served as a spokesman for the Sacramento FBI office. He was well-liked by reporters and considered to be a close confidant to Maddock.

Maddock thought that Rinek was bad with paperwork and that Rossi's organizational skills were more suited for such a complicated case.

It was a slap in the face to Rinek, who in addition to feeling belittled, thought it inappropriate to put an inexperienced agent whose official duty was to deal with the media in charge of a high-profile case. His resentment nearly caused him to walk out on the job. Pride and a sense of responsibility made him stay.

On March 25, authorities found Juli's badly decomposed body near a lookout point at Lake Don Pedro, northeast of Merced. An anonymous letter and crude map had been mailed to the FBI's Modesto office, tipping them to the third victim's whereabouts.

And Dykes was talking. He was telling investigators that he was involved in the tourists' killings. A grand jury in Fresno began investigating, and soon confidential aspects of the case were leaked to the press. Though no charges had been filed, the media was only too happy to gobble up every morsel and feed it to the public.

After weeks of failing to corroborate Dykes' confession, Rinek and other members of the task force feared they were going in the wrong direction. They advised Maddock to move on. But their supervisor felt that there was some physical evidence -- fibers found near Juli's body matched fibers found in one of the brother's trucks -- linking them to the killings. And Larwick and Dykes had no alibi at the time of the murders.

In June, Maddock made a public declaration that the killers of the Sunds and Pelosso were safely behind bars. Charges, he said, would be filed imminently.

There was a sense of relief. Tourists returned to Yosemite in droves, and residents felt it was safe to again walk in the woods.

Joie Armstrong's father, Frank, would later tell agents that after the Sunds and Pelosso went missing, he warned his daughter to be careful. She told him not to worry, that the FBI had announced that the killers were in jail.

Rinek's role in the case had become tertiary, and, frankly, he was glad. He feared the investigation was turning into a debacle.

The whole experience was taking a horrible toll -- emotionally and physically -- on the agent. Chronic pain in his knees, which he had been trying to ignore for years, became unbearable that summer and doctors recommended knee replacement surgery.

The case had so worn him down and Rinek was depressed. He was no longer the confident and capable man he once was.


THE CHILLING CONFESSION
Now, as he listened to Stayner's chilling confession, Rinek knew he had been right all along.

There would be vindication, but no consolation. Rinek and Boles would hand Maddock his case on a platter. But four women were dead, and Rinek no longer felt good about the agency he had been proud to serve for 22 years.

As Stayner started talking about the Sund and Pelosso killings, Rinek paid close attention. The handyman said he first spied the trio in room 509, in a secluded wing of the Cedar Lodge. They had settled down for the night and were watching "Jerry Maguire" on the VCR.

"I didn't see a man in the room, so they were vulnerable. Easy prey," Stayner said. "I went back to my room and got my backpack with my kit."

Then he returned to their room.

"I knock on their door. (Carole Sund) opened up the curtain and looked out."

"OK," Rinek said, encouraging him.

"I told her we have a water leak problem. She didn't wanna let me in. I said, 'OK, no problem, ma'am, I'll just get the manager.' Then she agreed to let me in."

"As soon as she opens the door, do you force it open to go in?" Rinek asked.

"No. I walked in there, stood on the toilet, pulled the fan down, made it look authentic. I was walking out of the bathroom. That's when I pulled the gun out.

"I told them I was a desperate man. I needed out of the county, I needed the keys to their car and all their money."

"What did they do when you pulled the gun out?"

"The mother's eyes got real big and she went for her purse. I told her to get on the bed . . . And I tied them up."

"OK," Rinek said.

"I led both (girls) into the bathroom," Stayner continued.

"And you go out and mom was lying on the bed where you left her?" Rinek asked. "What'd you do next?"

"Went to my backpack and got some rope. . . . I stepped on the bed and stepped over and kinda sat on her back and wrapped the rope around her neck and nonchalantly strangled her to death."

Stayner said he dumped Carole's body in the trunk of her rental car and came back into the room. He retrieved the teenagers from the bathroom.

"I put Juli on the bed and the Pelosso girl on the other bed and cut their clothes off," he told the agents. "There was a lot of little pieces of cloth on the carpet."

He told the girls that Carole was in another room and proceeded to sexually assault them. When Silvina's incessant crying became too much for Stayner, he led her into the bathroom and strangled her, too. Later, he would stash her body next to Carole's in the car. Stayner abused Juli for seven hours, but he had been impotent much of his life and could not sustain an erection. Frustrated and worried that it would soon be light, he wrapped Juli in a blanket and drove her to Lake Don Pedro. There, he slashed her throat.

"I wished I could keep her," Stayner said. "I told her she had a good chance to get away (back) in the room. I took the knife out of my back pocket. I bunched her hair up in a ponytail on top of her head and pulled her head back and told her I loved her and I slit her throat."

Juli didn't die immediately, and Stayner said she motioned for him to finish the job.

Rinek asked him whether he felt anything during the killings.

"There really wasn't any -- very little feeling," he said while sighing. "I had no feeling."

"So you felt in control?" Rinek asked.

"Very much so. . . . I just felt like I had a little more power for once."

Throughout the confession, Rinek encouraged Stayner to come clean, to take responsibility for his actions.

Stayner admitted that he was the one who had sent the map directing searchers to Juli's body. He said he paid a kid $5 to spit in a container so he could use the saliva to seal the envelope.

Stayner said he tossed Carole Sund's wallet in Modesto to throw off investigators. Someone else, he said, must have gotten her Social Security number and called the bank.

In the end, he provided all the details necessary to get a conviction against him. While he was in the interrogation room, Stayner voiced resignation that his crimes would probably cost him his life.

"I know they are gonna give me the death penalty," he said.

Rinek thought there was a good chance that prosecutors would seek capital punishment. He should have felt proud. But Rinek just felt pity.

Stayner was a sick man. Maybe it was because he himself had been a victim, or maybe he just didn't work right. Rinek would never know. What he could see is the man across from him was articulate, handsome and artistic. There were four victims here, but five lives had been laid to waste.

"You helped a lot of people today, including us," Rinek told Stayner. "And the closure is just worth a lot. And you know what? I think your nightmares will start dissipating."

In the end, Stayner had done the right thing. Now it was Rinek's turn. "I'll be there for you as long as it goes, as far as it goes, because I believe in you."

Then he promised Stayner that as soon as the interview concluded, he would drive the more than 110 miles to the Stayner family home in Atwater. He wanted to be the one to tell Cary Stayner's story. He did not want his parents getting it from the evening news.

"The one thing I don't want them to see you as is the type of person that would take Steven and hold him for those years," he told Stayner. "You are not like those people. Those people had no conscience -- they didn't do what you are doing."

E-mail Stacy Finz at sfinz@sfchronicle.com.