April 24, 2002


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in this issue

I GOT WEIRD looks from people when I told them I was writing about thrill killer Cary Stayner. One writer I know asked why I'd spend my days immersed in the realm of the homicidal and deranged. Another friend feared I was in danger of becoming a dispenser of tabloid-esque "true crime" pap.

But after just a few interviews I became fascinated by the story of the so-called Yosemite handyman. While the broad outline is well known, there are dozens of intriguing still-unexplored questions that branch off the main narrative.

For starters, why? What triggered Stayner's savage behavior? As one lawyer who has extensive experience representing murderers told me, the guy really doesn't fit the profile of a serial killer. Unlike most serial killers, he allegedly committed his crimes within a relatively short six-month time span. And prior to those purported deeds he didn't show any of the telltale signs – torturing animals as a child, for instance – that shrinks and criminal profilers usually see in serial murderers. In contrast to other predators, he seems genuinely regretful for his actions.

Then there's what I believe to be a major public policy blunder. At a time when California is facing a $22 billion budget shortfall, prosecutors are spending $3 million in state tax dollars in a bid to put Stayner (who is already in prison for life without hope of parole) to death.

Researching the piece, I also wanted to know more about the human beings Stayner has admitted to murdering. So I spent a day with Leslie Armstrong, whose 26-year-old daughter Joie was slain in July 1999. I watched home videos and looked at family albums and asked a lot of questions. The media has an annoying tendency to lionize homicide victims, portraying them as virtual angels, not as real people with both decent qualities and character blemishes. But it's hard not to do that in the case of Joie Armstrong. From everything I've been able to glean, Joie truly was an amazing person – and after years in the oh-so-cynical news business I don't say things like that very often.

Leslie Armstrong has a three-minute video montage of Joie. In it are images of her as a grade school kid with an enormous grin, giggling with her friends; floating down a river somewhere far from civilization in an orange rubber raft; scaling a snow-blanketed Mount Shasta. In the background a reedy voice sings, You were my best friend.

It's pretty much the saddest thing in the world.

A.C. Thompson