Oxygen Insider Exclusive!

Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, breaking news, sweepstakes, and more!

Sign Up for Free to View
Crime News Cold Cases

California Teen Who Vanished in 1986 Could be Buried in Yosemite National Park

“All the ugliness has opened up again,” said Patricia Chupco, the mother of Susan Bender, who disappeared 37 years ago. Raymond Stafford was charged with the teen's murder this month. 


By Dorian Geiger
Tips On How To Report A Missing Person

A 15-year-old California girl who mysteriously disappeared in 1986 could possibly be buried in Yosemite National Park, according to newly filed court documents in the cold case.

Susan Bender went missing on April 25, 1986 after she told a friend she was headed to Carmel to see friends. She was last seen entering a green van at a Greyhound bus depot in Modesto, California, instead of her bus. For decades, her case baffled authorities, until investigators reopened her file in recent years, which led to the arrest of Bender’s suspected killer this month.

RELATED: Police Re-Open Cold Case Of California Teen Susan Bender, Who's Been Missing Since 1986

Nearly four decades after she went missing, an arrest warrant was secured for Raymond Stafford on August 10 and he was taken into custody in Texas days later on a number of charges in Bender’s disappearance and suspected murder, according to The Modesto Bee. He was charged with first-degree murder with a special circumstance alleging he committed a murder while engaging in the crime of kidnapping.

Bender’s remains have never been recovered by authorities. In 2007, authorities disclosed they had uncovered new information that led investigators to suspect she’d been murdered.

A photo of Susan Bender

Stafford was 39 at the time of Bender’s disappearance. He first became a suspect in the case when he got into trouble with the law in May of 1986, stemming from an alleged burglary and arson of a plumbing business. 

According to a witness, a woman named Diane who was employed by Stafford and also lived with him, he confessed to murdering an unknown “female,” whose body he dumped near a camping ground by Big Oak Flat Road near the entrance to Yosemite National Park. Diane also claimed that Stafford had rented a van for a supposed business trip to Los Angeles — and that he’d been particularly concerned about cleaning it thoroughly despite returning it just 24 hours later. 

The security company owner also allegedly admitted he’d used a cord or a wire to fatally choke the victim for roughly 40 minutes. The woman also noted that Staffaord had “said something about ‘a payback,’” according to the case’s affidavit. 

RELATED: Cape Cod's "Lady of the Dunes" Was Killed by Her Husband, Authorities Say of the 49-Year-Old Cold Case

Stafford had already been on authorities’ radar for decades related to Bender’s disappearance. Modesto Police Department detectives interviewed Stafford and searched his home and company in May of 1986 related to the cold case, according to The Modesto Bee. During the search, Bender’s address book, a pair of pink underwear, as well as black bathing suit, which Bender’s family confirmed was hers, were found. Investigators also located a calendar that allegedly had Bender’s name and telephone number printed on it.

Stafford admitted to renting a green van and to driving by the bus station where Bender disappeared from but said the teen was never in the vehicle. He then told detectives he’d driven to a number of locations in Fresno, Tuolumne, and Mariposa counties to visit friends. Stafford maintained his innocence in Bender’s disappearance and was ultimately released. 

Three days after Stafford was in police custody, he allegedly faked his own kidnapping, officials said. 

In 2020, detectives reopened the case and confronted Stafford again, who at the time was jailed on probation violation charges related to his sex offender status. Following another police interview, investigators allege he searched online for “what evidence is needed to convict someone of murder in California” and “murder conviction without a body,” court documents stated. 

A lake and canyons at Yosemite National Park

“It’s great they got him,” Dick Ridenour, the former lead detective on the case, told The Modesto Bee.

In 1986, authorities had coincidentally searched the area on horseback where Stafford's former employee Diane said he claimed to have disposed of Bender’s body, but they were unable to locate any signs of her, Ridenour told the newspaper.

Despite Stafford’s arrest, the renewed focus on the unsolved case is bittersweet for Bender’s loved ones.

“All the ugliness has opened up again,” Patricia Chupco, Bender’s mother, told The Modesto Bee. “I am glad [the case] is getting toward an ending, but it will never end for me.”

RELATED: Man Convicted in 1991 Cold Case Killing of Teen Found Fatally Shot on Fire Escape in Massachusetts

Chupco told the newspaper that her daughter had worked for Stafford for a short time. Court documents also stated that the California teen was employed by Stafford in August of 1985. 

Authorities said the pair dated from time to time. However, the missing girl’s mother was adamant the two had only gone out for coffee together and nothing more. 

Stafford, who also once ran a corrupt campaign for Modesto City Council, is now awaiting extradition from Texas to Stanislaus County in California, The Modesto Bee reported.