MI-WUK VILLAGE, Calif. -- There was still hope Thursday when the rental car of three missing tourists was found after a month of searching. But yesterday, just hours after relatives appeared on news shows to say they remained optimistic that the women would turn up, authorities announced that two bodies, burned beyond recognition, were found in the car's trunk.
Carole Sund, 42, her daughter Julie, 15, of Eureka, and Silvina Pelosso, 16, a family friend from Argentina, had been missing since Feb. 15, according to authorities, who said they were last seen at the motel where they had stayed in El Portal during their Presidents Day weekend trip to Yosemite National Park. A passer-by stumbled upon their rental car Thursday, nearly three hours away from the motel.
Authorities were searching for a third victim in the vicinity where the car was found, about 300 yards off Highway 108 in ski country northeast of Sonora. James Maddock, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation, said the car had been left by someone familiar with the area. The car had been hidden off a road accessible only by narrow, muddy logging roads obscured by thick woods. Everything in the car, Maddock said, was consumed by fire. The car was identified by its rear license plate.
Maddock said that the FBI would be investigating the case as a double homicide while authorities searched for the third victim.
For four weeks after the women disappeared, nothing was known except that Carole Sund's wallet had been found on Feb. 19 off a highway in Modesto, two hours from the motel where the three were last seen.
Shortly afterward, the families of the missing set up a headquarters at a Holiday Inn in Modesto and news crews camped out, waiting with them for the mystery to be solved. For more than a month, Carole Sund's husband, Jens, and parents as well as Silvina's parents, who flew here from Argentina when they learned their daughter was missing, submitted to numerous interviews to keep the case in the spotlight.
Carole Sund's family, wealthy real estate developers, offered a $250,000 reward for the trio's safe return -- adding $50,000 a few days ago for information leading to the rental car. Friends organized a rally in Modesto last Sunday attended by 1,400 people, many of them relatives of missing or murdered children.
Yesterday afternoon, Jens Sund stayed away from the scene. He was at his family home in Eureka with his three younger children. Carole Sund's parents, Francis and Carole Carrington, made brief, tearful remarks in Modesto.
"I told you a week or two weeks ago that I would cry when the time came, and the time is now," Carole Carrington said, sobbing. "But we still need your help because we need to find the animals that did this. Because there are terrible people out there. And we don't want them to do this to anyone else's daughter and granddaughter."
Francis Carrington broke down, before composing himself to say: "What I was trying to say is we're supposed to die before our children and our grandchildren. This is the wrong way."
Carole Sund had planned the trip to Yosemite National Park for her and daughter Julie to spend with Silvina, a visiting exchange student who would soon be returning to Argentina.
On Tuesday, Feb. 16, they planned to join Carole Sund's husband and the couple's three younger children in San Francisco. Jens Sund would take Silvina and the younger children to the Grand Canyon, while Carole Sund and Julie would fly home to Eureka.
But the women never made it to Modesto, where they were supposed to turn in their rental car and fly to San Francisco.
At first, the FBI said that the women had last been spotted on Feb. 16, by people who remembered them asking for directions. Later, the FBI said those sightings were unconfirmed and that the last confirmed sighting was the night of Feb. 15, when the women had dinner at the restaurant attached to the Cedar Lodge in El Portal.
The car was found Thursday on a narrow road at a spot known as a dumping ground for refrigerators, washing machines and stripped and stolen cars. Maddock said the FBI and the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department had begun to question neighbors and business owners nearby.
But in this tourist-driven countryside, residents said they have been talking for weeks. In the nearby town of Twain Harte, shopkeepers said they had called the FBI to report seeing the women Feb. 16, the day after their last confirmed sighting. But, they said, they could not get through on the FBI hot line.
Penny Mann, owner of the Cedar Cottage gift shop in Twain Harte, told reporters yesterday that she believes Carole Sund and the two girls visited her shop the afternoon of Feb. 16. "It was them," she said. She said she got through to authorities last week.
Louise Guthmiller, the owner of a gas station about a mile from where the rental car was found, told the Stockton Record that she believes she sold the women a small amount of gas, but didn't remember the day or date. Maddock of the FBI refused to comment on these reported sightings. "We've got some very good tips in the last 24 hours," he said, "tips that have identified people that we're taking a hard look at."
He refused to elaborate or to answer questions about two men, one of whom worked at the restaurant attached to the motel, who are being held on unrelated charges in the Mariposa County Jail near El Portal.
Pub Date: 3/20/99