“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

Real Crime - - Contents - Words Ben Biggs

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

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