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At around 10:40 on the night of Feb. 16, Jens Sund entered the commuter terminal at San Francisco International Airport. He scanned the half-empty building, expecting to see his wife, Catrole, 42, their daughter Julie, 15, and Silvina Pelosso, 16, a family friend visiting from Argentina. They had plans to meet there, then take off on the next leg of their trip, but Carole and the girls were nowhere in sight. His wife was so well-organized that Jens thought perhaps he'd misunderstood her instructions. So he didn't panic—that would come later. "I really didn't think anything was wrong," says Sund, 43, a property manager from Eureka, Calif. "We had never had anything bad happen to us."

But by now it is clear that something terrible has happened to Carole Sund and the girls. It has been more than a month since the three disappeared, apparently without a trace, after leaving a restaurant near Yosemite National Park at 7:35 p.m. on Feb. 15. According to FBI special agent James M. Maddock, who is leading what has become one of the biggest missing persons searches in California history, investigators are now operating "under the premise that the three women were the victims of a violent crime committed at or near the Cedar Lodge," the motel in tiny El Portal, Calif., where the missing tourists had checked in the day before.

As fate would have it, they never had a chance to check out. Four days later, on Feb. 19, a pedestrian in downtown Modesto found part of Carole Sund's black leather billfold, complete with ID and credit cards, on a roadway some 90 miles west of the Cedar Lodge. Although violence is rare in the National Park System—in 1998, with 65 million visitors passing through America's 54 parks, there were just 10 killings—authorities assumed the worst. For weeks, hundreds of federal and state investigators and volunteers have scoured the steep ravines and deep lakes of the Sierra backcountry, using helicopters, radar and rescue dogs, without uncovering a single conclusive clue to the women's whereabouts or that of the sporty red 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix that Carole had rented for their trip. A source close to the investigation says the FBI, after poring through the region's abandoned gold mines, has brought sophisticated sonar devices to probe the deepest local reservoirs in an attempt to find the car and bodies.

Not that the women's families have given up hope. Prominent in Eureka, with real estate holdings across the country, Carole's family has offered a $300,000 reward for information. More than 20 relatives have aided the FBI by hiking Yosemite's trails and driving back roads in search of Carole and the girls. Thousands joined a March 14 rally in Modesto billed as a Vigil of Hope in an attempt to focus attention on the case and encourage witnesses to come forward. "With the FBI saying they've got to be dead, it's been tough," says Carole Sund's mother, Carole Carrington, 64. "But we must just think they're alive—we just must."

Yet written on relatives' exhausted faces is the grim realization that the best to be hoped for now may be learning their fate. As Jens and Carole Sund's 13-year-old daughter, Gina, tenderly put it in a poem read at the rally, "Late at night I await for your return/ But deep in my heart I know something my mind does not want to learn.... Mommy, I don't want you to leave me."

Ironically, all who know the missing women agree that these were not likely victims. "My daughter is a survivor," says Carole's father, Francis Carrington, the founder of the multimillion-dollar commercial real estate concern that Jens works for. "If there's any chance to be alive to protect those girls, she will be." A 5'2" dynamo, Carole Sund is the sort of person who leaves little to chance: She stocks her car with emergency supplies in case of an accident and meticulously organizes family road trips using a Rand McNally computer program. She is well aware the world can be a dangerous place, and last Christmas a friend gave her a canister of pepper spray.

By all accounts, Julie is very much her mother's daughter. A sophomore at Eureka High School who plays violin in the city orchestra, she was a key organizer of Girls Against Violence, a support group that flourished in Eureka after two of her friends were raped by a knife-wielding stranger not far from the Sunds' modest five-bedroom home. "We're talking about such smart, competent people," says Valerie Bish, a family friend.

Jens and Carole met and became sweethearts at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa in the early 1970s. The third of five siblings, "Carole was the joiner of the family, just like Julie," recalls her mother. "I would limit the kids to two activities a year, and she would always end up with more." During her senior year of high school, Carole jumped at the chance to spend a semester abroad as part of an exchange program, living for six months with the Cucco family of Córdoba, Argentina. She and their daughter Raquel, now 44—who years later married soft drink bottler Jose Pelosso, 49—have remained close and often talked of bringing together their daughters Julie and Silvina.

Back in the U.S., Carole reunited with Jens (pronounced yens), who had just returned from his own trip to Latin America, where he visited the family of his mother in her native El Salvador. Jens's Danish-born father, who owned a commercial painting service in Santa Rosa, had retired soon after Jens was born, allowing him considerable time with Jens, his two brothers and a sister. Jens was attracted by Carole's fiery temperament and her determination, despite her family's wealth, to make her own way. They married in 1978 and spent their honeymoon at Yosemite. "We were maybe a little reckless," says Jens, who had dropped out of college and was driving a beer truck.

That year, Carole completed a business degree at San Francisco State University and went to work for a real estate company. "She said she didn't want to have any kids, she was going to be a businesswoman," says her mother. "All of a sudden she got pregnant and they had Julie, and then they just fell in love with being parents."

In fact, children transformed their lives. In the Sunds' typically hectic home hangs a white bulletin board where Carole tracks phone calls, music lessons and soccer practice for her four children: Julie and her adopted siblings, Jonah, 14, Gina and 10-year-old Jimmy. "Carole had Julie, then she adopted Jonah," says Valerie Bish, who first met the family through a support group for adoptive parents. "Then she got a call when Gina was one day old saying, 'Well, Jonah has a sister. Do you want her?' She said yes and went and picked her up." Since then, Carole has volunteered for adoption groups, taught parenting classes and worked at the group home where her mentally handicapped older sister, June, 46, now lives.

With the arrival of Silvina Pelosso for a three-month visit late last year, the decibel level at the Sund house edged even higher. Before Yosemite, the family had taken their visitor to Disneyland, San Francisco and the Carringtons' ranch in nearby Butler Valley, where the Sunds often spend weekends in rustic two-bedroom cabin. For Silvina, the trip overseas—a typical rite of passage in traditional Latin-American homes—was also a chance to move beyond the shadow of her older sister, Paula, 20, a geology major at the National University of Córdoba. "She didn't want to go to Miami, like Paula had," says Silvina's godmother, Juana Borghese de Pautasso, 62. "She wanted to see California."

And so, last Feb. 12, the travelers set off to see one of the state's wonders, Yosemite, after first spending a night in Stockton, where Julie competed in an American Spirit Association cheerleading contest. "Usually Julie was like somebody who swallowed an entire cylinder of tennis balls, bouncing off the wall," says her coach, Teresa Creech. But that day she thought Julie seemed down, perhaps because some of the team were going skiing, which she loved, while she was touring Yosemite. If so, it was a reversal of roles with Silvina, ordinarily the more serious of the two. Although delighted to be here, Silvina had been hampered socially by her erratic English and—according to her last letter to her mother—hadn't met any American boys who could dance to Latin music.

Carole phoned Jens from the Cedar Lodge on the evening of Feb. 15 to say that she and the girls had spent a wonderful day in the nearly deserted park and planned to return for more sightseeing the next morning. According to newspaper reports, the girls were eating hamburgers when Carole came into the motel's restaurant and abruptly paid their $21.13 dinner bill. The girls left with Sund, indicating that they would return to finish their meals. It was the last time they were seen alive.

After Carole and the girls failed to show up in San Francisco the following day, Jens assumed that Carole had made other plans and flew on to Phoenix, from where he planned to take Silvina to the Grand Canyon with his three younger children. But the next afternoon, when Jens called his inlaws, the Carringtons, after playing a round of golf, he learned that Carole still hadn't called home. What's more, Julie had missed a Feb. 16 appointment to tour the University of the Pacific in Stockton. Just after 7:30 that evening he called the California Highway Patrol, and the search began. According to the Carringtons, three family members, including Jens, were given lie detector tests and quickly dismissed as suspects. (Although the FBI refuses to give details of the investigation, special agent Maddock says, "The families have been really great.")

In time, the search effort grew to include 50 federal agents, planes, helicopters, plus family members crisscrossing the Yosemite area in four cars equipped with cell phones. Says Carole Carrington: "We thought it was probably an accident, that she ran off the road and that it was urgent that we find them." The FBI reportedly found 10 other abandoned vehicles but not the red Pontiac. Furthermore, there were no skid marks or other signs of a crash and no demands for ransom from abductors. In the small hours of Feb. 19, Jens placed what he calls "the hardest phone call I ever had to make"—to the Pelossos in Córdoba.

Raquel arrived in California on Feb. 21. She tearfully recalls the moment she had said goodbye to Silvina just before her daughter's flight to America. "It might be the last time I see you," Raquel had said, for no other reason than that mothers tend to worry. "She was crying, and I was too. Her heart was really beating."

Snow in the Sierras has hampered the work of agents investigating what could be a relatively large-scale crime. "Anything is possible," says Maddock, "but clearly it would be difficult for one person to take control of three women in a vehicle and dispose of all the evidence. It's more likely there was more than one person involved."

During a brief flurry of excitement last week, the Mariposa County sheriff's department arrested ex-con Billy Joe Strange, 39, a night janitor at the Cedar Lodge restaurant, for an alleged violation of parole stemming from a 1997 conviction for domestic assault. The FBI has not named Strange as a suspect in the disappearance of the Sunds and Pelosso. But PEOPLE has learned that federal agents did interview two of Strange's former girlfriends, and that both described beatings by Strange.

Back in Eureka, the Sunds' three younger children are coping with the disappearances as best they can. "Jimmy says he is really scared," says Ann Clark, a friend who has been helping to find counselors for the kids. "But it's Gina I'm worried about. She is so closed." Meanwhile, Jens shuttles between home and FBI search headquarters in Modesto, hoping for a break in the case—and facing a future that feels, more than ever, like uncharted territory.

While the town has been shaken by the Sunds' disappearance, Julie's friends in the 18-member cheerleading club have been particularly affected. "They always feel so secure when a parent is around," explains coach Teresa Creech. "Then this happens to Julie when her mom is there. Now suddenly they don't feel so safe."

Patrick Rogers
Suzanne Marmion, Vickie Bane and Ulrica Wihlborg in California and Joseph Harmes in Córdoba

  • Contributors:
  • Suzanne Marmion,
  • Vickie Bane,
  • Ulrica Wihlborg,
  • Joseph Harmes.