“it sent a shiver down my spine”
When handyman Cary Stayner asked to speak to Jeff Rinek alone, gut instinct told the FBI veteran that he was no fleeing witness – Stayner was the Yosemite Park killer himself
We speak to former FBI Special Agent John Rinek, who tells us about the toll that interviewing murderers has taken on him, and hearing the Yosemite Park killer’s confession
As a part of the field office in Sacramento, Jeff Rinek worked on some of the highest profile criminal cases in the US, including the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, killer cult leader Ulysses Roberson and the sadistic torture- murders of Robert Rhoades. Ironically, the former special agent’s career- defining moment came on a case that he had effectively been taken off. In 1999 he was called out to bring in a fleeing witness from Yosemite National Park: ‘ The Yosemite Park killer’, as he quickly came to be known, had murdered three women in spring and another in summer that year. As case agent in name only ( office politics and personal problems had seen him sidelined), Jeff was at home in Sacramento 225 kilometres away and had little information on the case, before an hour- and- a- half car journey back to the office with ‘ witness’ Cary Stayner most unexpectedly ended with a full confession.
We often think of law enforcement operatives as being hard- boiled by years in the field, a way of protecting themselves from the trauma of the horrors they witness, like an oyster forming a pearl. Jeff ’s methods flew in the face of this tradition – he bonded with suspects and kept in touch with families of their victims long after the case closed. This took its toll on his mental health, but it’s also earned him a reputation as a compassionate investigator with a supernatural ability to elicit confessions.
You must have had conflicting emotions when Joie Armstrong’s body was discovered, because you were already convinced that the men who had been arrested for the Yosemite murders weren’t responsible.
Yep. I started out being the case agent for this. As the case was in national, even international prominence, some of the people in the FBI who are very career- oriented became more involved in it, and I was slowly edged out. One of the frustrating things to me about the investigation was that people don’t just kill other people for the sake of killing others… more often than not, there’s a sexual motive.
For these three women and then for Joie to have gone missing – I just felt that we were limiting ourselves. It was very, very frustrating to me that the whole task force was focused on these two guys who had been locked up, and they were immediately indicating that they were the ones.
Then when Joie went missing, the information about her disappearance and about what had happened was very much kept to command post at Yosemite. Those of us outside the command post weren’t aware of the facts of what had happened. When I met Cary Stayner I knew virtually nothing about Joie’s disappearance and death. Even up until now, some of the only information I have about that comes from Cary Stayner himself.
It sounds like Stayner was more or less off your radar by the time you went to pick him up.
Yeah, I had been removed from the case several months before. I was actually back in Sacramento, addressing my other caseload. We’d had an event in the family: my wife is a fish and wildlife biologist and we’d always had a lot of animals in the house. At the beginning of the spring, a bunch of our dogs had got out and were hit by a car. So I stopped going to Modesto because I wanted to be with my family while they were going through this difficult time. I was aware of what was going on in the case and was frustrated that they were just looking at these two guys. Every time I heard something on the news about it, it would just frustrate me more. I was not… addressing it.
When Joie Armstrong disappeared I was attending a conference with another FBI agent, Chris Hopkins, who was the head of our evidence response team. When he left to attend to the case, I knew nothing. I stopped by the office on the way home and I heard them talking about Cary Stayner as a witness, but, more importantly to me, I knew who his brother was [ kidnapping victim Steven Stayner - see boxout]. But that was all I really knew when this thing started.
So you took him in, and out of the blue he forgoes the polygraph test and asks to speak to you alone. In that moment, how did you feel?
I have been very lucky and successful in getting confessions. As the book tries to demonstrate, I don’t try to hide myself from people… I am myself. I’m just the way I am, I try not to judge people. So when we went to get Cary Stayner, I didn’t know who he was but we did have a car ride together – that’s where we got to know each other. I was not considering him as a suspect, and even when we got back to the FBI office I was briefed by the special agent in charge that he was, in fact, a witness who was fleeing. We all believed that and we treated him as a witness.
When he asked to speak to me alone, it reminded me of many other times when people have said, “I want to skip the polygraph test and talk to Jeff.” Initially that means there’s a reason they don’t want to take the polygraph. Sometimes that reason doesn’t always reflect that they’re the killer.
I heard them talking about Cary Stayner as a witness, but, more importantly to me, I knew who his brother was
So Cary said he wanted to speak to me alone, yes – it was a shock, and I’d like to say I knew exactly what to do, but I didn’t. I went out to speak to my partner Ken Hittmeier and asked if he had any instructions or guidance he wanted me to carry out. It wasn’t until Stayner indicated to me that he had something to do with Joie Armstrong that I started to think of him as an actual murder suspect.
Do you think the fact that the car ride took longer than anticipated, you had time to chat with him and that you were treating him as a witness, encouraged Stayner into a confession?
When you say “encouraged him into a confession” – I don’t think I could say that, because I didn’t know there was a confession to come from him. In the car ride, all I really knew about him was what had happened to his brother. Since I worked so many of those cases with people who had been abducted, and their families are then faced with us, doing our job, it was important to me as an investigator to know how his family felt they were treated by law enforcement. As he was describing this to me, I was very anxious to know, what could we do better? How could we be better so that when we respond to missing children, the families are more comforted by us?
In the course of discussing this in regards to his brother, we had some very deep and emotional conversation. He described to me how much it hurt him and his family that the offender who took his brother only got seven years. His brother was held for seven years and the offender was put in jail for seven years – how is that right? They felt that when his brother came
home, it wasn’t a life happily ever after. He had behaviours that were no longer accepted in the family, he was living a riskful life, and eventually contributed to his own death by driving a motorcycle recklessly.
I would have to say that, in that car ride, the discussion we had was about what I tried to do as law enforcement to try and help these people. And I also extended to him and his family at the time, to try and get them counselling to deal with his brother if they weren’t feeling that things had worked so far. I think that meant something to him.
So I think that was more… not like I was coaxing a confession from him, it was more like he felt he could talk to me and not feel like I was judging him, and understanding the emotional impact that goes on.
So, almost inadvertently, you formed a bond with him?
Exactly. I love establishing bonds with people, whether they’re criminals or not. I love to meet people, I enjoy people, I think that everyone has something to offer… If you meet a homeless person on the street, that person knows a lot more than me about how to live on the street. They can teach me, tell me about it… everyone has something of value, and that’s how I treat people.
Your interview method almost sounds like the opposite of the Reid technique: you come from a position of not knowing anything and you're quite humble. Would you say that’s true?
Yes, I’d agree with that. When I wrote this book, it didn’t start out as a book. It was something to leave behind for my wife and children at their request. Then it got attention from literary agents and I was paired up with Marilee, my cowriter. Marilee realised that what I was actually doing was a technique. For me, it’s not a technique because it’s who I am and what I do. But I do know that people who have watched me do interviews have changed their own technique and have become much more successful with their interviews.
When you’re interviewing someone about committing a crime, they’re scared and they also feel pretty valueless. But if you can explain to them that they do have something to offer, that they can help others, that it can make a difference in how they help themselves. My wife describes my career as “suffering” a successful career, because it's impossible to share these things from these people and not be affected, to not have feelings about what you hear.
You quote Nietzche (“When you stare into the abyss…”) right at the start of the book. I’d imagine your experiences with the worst of humanity can have a deep effect on you.
It can. It’s not in the book, but I had an experience... all these interviews that I’ve done, all the confessions have taken such a toll on me that I was not physically or emotionally healthy.
We responded to this case where a 15- year- old boy had been drowned, and we went with local police officers and met this other boy who was 19. There was something about
My wife describes my career as ‘ suffering’ a successful career, because it’s impossible to... not be affected
the boy that just hit me. I suggested they bring him back to the station. I got in the car behind the driver and when that 19- year- old got in next to me, he let out this big sigh of relief. I heard it, and I said, “Just tell these guys what happened.
It’ll be fine, you’ll feel better, they’ll help you and it’ll work out.” When we got to the police station, I was leaving when somebody came and got me and said [ the 19- year- old] wanted to speak to me. When I do these interviews I like to know about these people, I like to know who they are, what their lives are like and what their happy times were, what their sad times were. In this boy’s case, I asked him if he could have anything in the world, what would he want.
Here’s a boy who had just brutally drowned a 15- year- old child. And he said he wanted to be loved by someone and wanted someone to love. Now, where did that come from? What does that mean about the person? I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist, but it means something to me.
Your approach is unconventional for law enforcement though – it does sound very doctor- patient.
It’s fascinating to me, to understand and learn about people. I think we can learn a lot about ourselves by learning about others. How many times have you watched an entertainer, a politician or actor, and you feel a type of camaraderie with that person because they’re expressing something that you feel or believe. I think there’s something to be said for that.
When I interview people like this, I usually start out by trying to get their summary of what they’ve done. Then I try to get an idea, from his point of view, what he observed, what he heard, what he smelled – everything. Then we go back again and I want him to tell me from the victim’s point of view. Because how many times do we look at a killer and think, “Oh that’s the last thing that the victim saw before they died.” He can help us shed light on that. Finally, the third trip is me standing in the room and him describing to me, as an observer, what I’m seeing.
You’d spent some time interviewing Stayner before you, Stayner and John Boles stopped to eat pizza. The atmosphere must have been odd – you all eating and chatting as if you’re just taking a break from a job.
The way it happened was: we went down to contact Stayner, not to pick him up, and while were down there we were told to pick him up. We had literally no idea why we were there or why we were doing it, other than we follow the requests given by the command post. So when we were asked to bring him back to the office for an interview, I did not think it would be me doing the interview.
When we got back to the office we were hungry. We hadn’t had breakfast and we had taken him away from breakfast. So I asked the desk to send out for pizza, which they did. So it was just all of us, trying to get through what we were asked to do in as pleasant a manner as possible.
There was no sense of pressure or imminent development. Basically, when he asked to speak to me alone instead of taking the polygraph, that’s when the old emotion meter started going up. That’s when things became tense, because for the next several minutes sitting with him is when he was trying to describe to me and tell me, without actually telling me, that he had done some very bad things, that he had some things to talk about concerning Joie Armstrong – that he was the one we needed to talk to.
And you’re right, that creates a lot of anxiety and tension… Ken Hittmeier, the acting supervisor, had him moved up to our polygraph room so that we could record audio and video of whatever was going to happen after that. When they moved us up there I thought that we should eat pizza first – people love to break bread, that’s how they get to know each other. But I didn't do it deliberately to do that, I guess I was looking for a break in the pressure myself!
My friend John Boles, when he came up carrying the pizza and walked into the room, I invited him to stay because I like being with other people and I think we work together well with the camaraderie. I can tell you that for the next six hours during that confession, John,
Cary Stayner and myself were just three guys, in a room, talking in- depth about what he had done. What he had done is remarkable and it's the reason you’re talking to me now, but I tried to focus on what he did and why he did it.
He sounded enthusiastic when he talked about his killer ‘ kit’. Do you think that’s because he was getting something off his chest, or was this more like someone talking passionately about a hobby?
When the interview started and he began talking about himself, I believe most if not every sexual offender has a sexual fantasy. So in Cary Stayner’s case, we talked first about his sexual fantasy. I knew from experience interviewing others and from the training I’ve been through… I knew that these guys, once they’re committed to a fantasy, they put together a kit. For a rapist, it’s a rape kit. For a killer, it’s a murder kit. For an abductor, it’s an abduction kit, you know. So I asked him if he’d put a kit together to accomplish his fantasy, and he advised that he had done that.
There were some people who were observing the interview who, when I asked whether he put a kit together, thought that there was something wrong with me,
that [ it was wrong that] I would know these things. That bothers me today, that they thought that I am that monster.
When we discussed the kit, it wasn’t as a hobby, it wasn’t the passion of what he was going to do. It was more a kit based on what he thought he would need to carry out his fantasy. We talked about several items – he had duct tape, he had rope, he had a gun. In his case, he had been watching TV shows, the learning channel, and trying to see how law enforcement investigates these cases. He knew not only what he was trying to accomplish, but he knew he’d have a better chance of accomplishing it if he didn’t tell the victim what he was there for. So in every instance he told the victim he was just there for money, or for their car, and if they cooperated with him, it would all be over and he would leave. He knew that would cause them to cooperate.
Do you think he ever believed that himself ? Was his intention always to kill?
In my opinion, his fantasy was composed of two young girls that I would describe as very pubescent, and he realised that they would have a guardian with them. So his fantasy was to kill the guardian from the outset and then to have sexual encounters with both girls together.
You mention that it was “as if Steven’s kidnapper had destroyed the Stayner family three times over”. Do you think that if Cary Stayner had sought help, some counselling for his issues, he might not have committed those crimes?
First of all, I’ve got to say that I’m not sure that anybody could say that what happened to Steven Stayner was the reason Cary went out and did what he did. I do believe that there was some family dysfunction and I think that contributed to how he was and who he was. In the
confession, Cary advised that he had been molested by an uncle. I think that had a profound effect on him. His family were very strict Mormons and I think the restriction of the religion might have imposed some hardship on him when he was growing up. So I think you have to look at it as if it’s a combination of everything, and although it’s tempting to try and point at this one thing as having more of a weight, I think that’s a dangerous road to go down. I think you have to look at the total life experience.
Another thing: after Cary confessed, I went down the next morning to prepare his family for what was coming. During that time his father made several admissions to me about what he had done. I chose not to memorialise them because these people were losing their second son and I did not want to add to the family’s burden by putting out there for the world the problems that family had been experiencing. The FBI is not happy with me about that, but I felt that we do this job to try and help people and to try not to hurt people in the course of helping them. Sometimes that can’t be helped but it bothers me. It travels with me when we work these cases and in the end we’ve disrupted or caused harm to other people. I try to be as empathetic as I can. When I do these things I feel so bad for these people, it’s so hard to see people suffer.
There’s a book called About Conscience by Dr. Robert Hare. It contains his theories about psychopaths, people he believes are incapable of emotion. My way of interviewing, the way I approach people, I have no ability to affect a psychopath. I think in those interviews where I’m able to make a difference, I do believe that those people are not all the way on the extreme end of psychopaths, I do believe that they’re capable of emotion.
You talk quite a bit about keeping in touch with the families of the victims. Do you think that’s as much about closure for you as it is for the families?
Absolutely. It is about closure for me, it’s about closure for my family as well. I don’t live in a vacuum, my family experiences my reactions to these cases and different people get different benefits from doing these cases. For me, the benefit that I get is the ability to try and help someone else, help them get on with their life and to be part of their life that has value and meaning to them.
I know it sounds altruistic… but I’ll give you an example. It’s not in the book, but I was involved in a homicide case in which I was summoned to California’s death row by a serial killer who revealed to me locations of unrecovered victims. As these victims were recovered and I got to meet the victims’ families, I met one mother of a victim who, when I met her, her health was bad, her teeth were falling out, her hair was falling out. She was trying to get herself committed to a mental facility when myself and others were able to help her, and help her deal with the loss of her daughter and the injustices she felt. Now she’s got a life: she looks great, she’s healthy, she’s got a boyfriend and she’s happy. To see her and to see the effect that had on her, it’s extremely rewarding and something you take home with you every time.
John, Cary Stayner and myself were just three guys, in a room, talking
P elosso Carole Sund, J uli Sund and SilvinaLodge room. get ready for bed at their Cedary bef ore they These photos w ere tak en shortl were murdered by Car y Sta yner
BELOW A photo of Cary Stayner taken prior to his arrest. Stayner was a Cedar Lodge handyman and had initially been ruled out as a suspect
RIGHT Silvina and Carole were found in their burnt- out rental vehicle and identified by their dental records. Juli was found shortly afterwards after a sinister note pointed investigators to a location at nearby Vista Point
Carole’s torched Pontiac Grand Prix was found at a remote dump site that only locals knew about. When the case was finally closed, Jeff Rinek had this car crushed, along with other evidence that could have ended up on the ghoulish murderabilia market
BELOW- INSET Stayner’s International Scout, spotted near Joie’s cabin around the time she disappeared, was an uncommon vehicle with an unusual paint job, and was easily identified A traffic camera at a highway pullout had captured Stayner on film as he drove Juli Sund to her death
ABOVE Cary Stayner was originally picked up as a witness, but after talking to Jeff Rinek during the 90- minute drive to the office, he eventually confessed to being the Yosemite Park Killer
A footprint found outside Joie’s cabin, which was an unmistakable match to the tread on Stayner’s sandals BELOW Stayner watched Joie walk to and from her cabin on the other side, from this bridgeBOTTOM Stayner revealed that Joie Ruth Armstrong had put up a hell of a fight as he abducted her. She had managed to leap from his vehicle, break into a sprint and had nearly escaped
ABOVE Following his confession, Jeff Rinek ( left) and Cary Stayner returned to Joie Armstrong’s cabin, where Stayner recreated the crime on videotapeBELOW Don Pierce, Jeff’s FBI supervisor early in his career, sent him this touching letter
left Courtroom artists captured this scene of Stayner sobbing at a preliminary hearing
BELOW DNA tied Robert Ben Rhoades to the murder of Michael Lyons, though he was convicted of murdering 14- year- old Regina Kay Walters. He took the photo below just before he killed her