Teenager who went missing 37 years ago may be buried in Yosemite National Park

Susan Robin Bender was 15 years old when she vanished from a Modesto Greyhound station in 1986

Andrea Cavallier
Wednesday 30 August 2023 22:47 BST
Raymond Lewis Stafford, 70, was arrested nearly 40 years after Susan Robin Bender, 15, vanished from a Modesto Greyhound station in 1986
Raymond Lewis Stafford, 70, was arrested nearly 40 years after Susan Robin Bender, 15, vanished from a Modesto Greyhound station in 1986 (Modesto Police Department)

A man who has been a longtime suspect in the 1986 disappearance of a California teenager may have confessed to burying her body in Yosemite National Park.

Raymond Lewis Stafford, 70, was arrested in Texas earlier this month and charged in connection to the cold case murder of 15-year-old Susan Robin Bender.

Bender was last seen getting into a green van at a Greyhound bus depot in Modesto on 25 April 1986, according to the California Department of Justice. Her case was reopened several years ago, which finally led to Stafford’s arrest.

New details emerged this week, according to court records obtained by SFGate.com, that Stafford had allegedly told a woman he lived with in the 1980s that he had killed “a female.”

He then allegedly confessed to driving to a campground near the Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite National Park, where he buried her body, the records claim. The name of the campground was not released.

On the day Bender went missing, she had planned to take a bus to Carmel to see friends and then return in a few days, according to the investigation. But she never did.

A friend who ran into Bender at the depot later claimed to have seen the teen making a call on the pay phone and then getting into a green van willingly.

The van was traced to Stafford when he was arrested on suspicion of an unrelated burglary just a month after Bender vanished, according to court records filed in Stanislaus County.

Susan Bender was last seen getting into a green van at a Greyhound bus depot in Modesto on 25 April 1986
Susan Bender was last seen getting into a green van at a Greyhound bus depot in Modesto on 25 April 1986 (California Department of Justice)

Further investigation revealed that Stafford and Bender knew each other and that Stafford had briefly worked with her mother Patricia Chupco.

Ms Chupco told the Modesto Bee that she believed the two had formed a relationship even though Stafford was married with children.

Years later, in 1999, Ms Chupco also told the Modesto Bee that detectives found her daughter’s clothes and diary in the possession of a man who was not named in the press because he had not publicly been identified as a suspect.

However, recent court records allege that the man was Me Stafford, the SFGate reported. The same court records contained details about Stafford’s alleged confession about killing “a female” and burying her body at Yosemite.

Big Oak Flat Entrance at Yosemite National Park
Big Oak Flat Entrance at Yosemite National Park (National Park Service)

In an odd turn of events, within just a year of Bender’s disappearance, Stafford, then 38, ran for Modesto City Council.

When he was asked by the Modesto Bee about his criminal record, he told the paper in July 1985 that it was a result of his “being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” according to SFGate.

His criminal record at the time included allegations of soliciting an undercover officer for sex, operating an unlicensed private investigator business and carrying a badge saying he was a PI.

When asked about his campaign platform, Stafford responded, “We don’t spend any time getting the people who are molesting our children.” He lost the election.

In December 1986, Stafford’s criminal record got even longer when he was convicted of setting a business on fire. He also pleaded guilty to making a false police report after he reportedly faked a kidnapping to avoid appearing in court.

Stafford, at some point, moved to Texas where he was listed on the Texas Public Sex Offender Registry under the alias Gregg Tunningley. He was required to register as a sex offender after he allegedly abused a 13-year-old girl in California in 1994, SFGate reported.

Decades passed and Susan Bender’s case grew cold before it was reopened a few years ago.

And after nearly 40 years, an arrest warrant was issued by Modesto police in early August and Stafford was taken into custody in Van Zandt County, Texas, where he lived.

He is currently being held at the Van Zandt County Justice Center but is expected to be extradited to California.

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