FBI profilers join search for trio's killer

By Cynthia Hubert
Bee Staff Writers
(Published March 31, 1999)

Even in the most complex and baffling murder cases, the killer leaves a signature. A telling trajectory of a blood spatter. A soft blanket covering a victim. A vicious stab wound on a strategic part of the body.

To criminal profilers, trained to develop a behavioral analysis of perpetrators, even seemingly mundane clues offer a potential window into the murderer's soul.

"They always leave their emotions at the scene," said Sharon Pagaling, chief profiler for the California Department of Justice. "No matter how good they are, they can't help leaving their personality behind."

A pair of profilers from the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime are now part of a team trying to find those responsible for the kidnapping and deaths of Yosemite sightseers Carole Sund, 42, of Eureka, her daughter Juli, 15, and family friend Silvina Pelosso, 16.

In helping to lead detectives to those responsible, the profilers will study the route from El Portal, where witnesses last reported seeing the trio alive, to Long Barn, where a citizen on March 18 found the burned car holding Carole's and Silvina's bodies, to Moccasin, where investigators discovered Juli's corpse last week. Searching for insights into the killer's psychological state, feelings about women, and criminal past, they also will consider autopsy reports and other information that has yet to be released to the public, experts said.

"There are many ways to commit a violent crime, and the personality of the offender dictates the manner in which he will choose to do it," Pagaling said. "By understanding the choices the offender makes, we can identify characteristics of his personality and extrapolate the kind of lifestyle he would prefer."

Investigators have shared few facts about the Yosemite case with the news media, including any evidence establishing when, where and how the three travelers died, whether they were sexually assaulted, and what led detectives to the third body. They have been mum about possible suspects and witnesses, though they are holding at least six parolees who have been questioned in the case.

The limited facts that have been made public suggest a planned kidnapping, rather than a spontaneous abduction, by more than one person with an extensive criminal background, said Gregg McCrary, a retired FBI profiler who has informally followed the case.

"With abduction and transportation of a victim, you generally have a more organized offender," said McCrary, who now works with a private consulting group in Virginia. "It does not suggest a blitz attack, a sudden window of opportunity for the offender. In that case, you would find a frenzied, disorganized crime scene."

Investigators had virtually no evidence linking the travelers to their attackers until a resident found their charred rental car in a heavily wooded area of Tuolumne County a month after they disappeared. The car had been torched in an "obvious attempt" to conceal evidence, said FBI Special Agent James Maddock.

"This guy covered his tracks very well," said Eric Hickey, a criminologist and social psychologist at California State University, Fresno. Deliberate destruction of evidence suggests the perpetrator is someone with a previous criminal record, he said. "He has definitely committed crimes before. He's not new at it."

But fire may leave certain evidence, including fingerprints and semen, intact, experts said.

"All offenders make mistakes," Pagaling said. "It's only a matter of time before those mistakes lead to identifying the offender. There is no perfect crime."

In the Yosemite case, the manner in which the bodies were abandoned suggests a killer, possibly a sexual sadist, who did not know his victims, McCrary said.

If investigators have determined that the women were sexually assaulted, they likely are seeking potential suspects who have committed similar offenses in the past, particularly those who have been paroled within the past year, he said.

"They'll be looking at all known sex offenders in the area, on the assumption that sex offenses are pattern behaviors and fantasy driven. Offenders who are really driven might be OK for a few weeks, but they'll be back at it fairly soon."

An attack on three victims at once is extremely rare and suggests multiple perpetrators who are primarily driven by power and control, rather than financial rewards or other motivations, McCrary said.

But Hickey said a single perpetrator is possible. "If he had a gun, he likely looked at the mother, pointed it at the daughter and said, 'Do what I say or she's dead.' He might have taken the girls and made the mother drive the red rental car, and believe me she would follow him wherever he wanted her to go."

Once profilers provide a behavioral composite of the offender to investigating officers, detectives are better prepared to identify and question possible suspects. For example, a perpetrator whose criminal behavior suggests he is paranoid, Pagaling noted, will respond to certain questions in a manner that might incriminate him and lead to his arrest.

In one case in which Pagaling was involved, police sought a behavioral profile of a sniper who was firing shots at cars on the freeway.

"We suggested that the person was most likely a paranoid schizophrenic receiving command hallucinations to shoot at cars," she said. "As it turned out, that was fairly accurate. The perpetrator said the cars were talking to him."

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