In a complicated tale of tragedy the Steven Stayner story is one you are unlikely to forget. Steven was just 7-years-old when he was abducted in Central California by a man with disturbed intentions and held captive for seven long years. After the abduction of another young boy, Steven managed to escape in order to save him from the same fate he had endured. This innocent child had experienced an ordeal few could imagine.
Upon his escape, he could only inform his rescuers “I know my first name is Steven.” In a terrible twist of fate, after escaping and recovering from his captivity, Steven died in a motorcycle accident at 24-years-old. Thirteen years later in 2002 his brother, Cary Stayner, was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of three women in a case entirely unconnected to his younger brothers kidnapping, but piling yet more heartache onto the Stayner family.
In the United States, over 2’000 children a day are reported missing, either due to abduction or a child lost. On the day of his abduction in 1972 in Merced, California, Steven Stayner was approached by Ervin Murphy, a man who claimed to be from the church looking for donations. He offered to drive Steven home to collect a donation from his mother. Steven was a shy and trusting 7-year-old, having no reason to fear this gentle stranger and having no knowledge of the danger he posed to him.
Murphy was acting as a collector for Kenneth Parnell, a man who had committed crimes against children in the past and was much more manipulative and cunning than his compliant acquaintance Murphy. When Steven innocently agreed to show Murphy to his home, Parnell appeared in a vehicle. For Steven, the drive to his home very quickly turned into a drive away from his family and away from the life he knew.
Parnell took Steven to his cabin, 20 miles away from Merced and his family, hidden from view and where he could be undisturbed with the young boy. Parnell told Steven he was now his guardian and convinced him his parents did not want him anymore. He was to live with Parnell from now on as his son, going by the name of Dennis Gregory Parnell. Over time Steven came to believe Parnell that his parents did not care about him and did not want him back.
At 7-years-old, Steven Stayner was trapped in this new situation and trapped with Kenneth Parnell. Over the following years, Steven was enrolled in schools as Parnell’s son. He was moved to various locations around California, given freedom and liberties to smoke and drink. Those around the pair fully believed Steven was Parnell’s son and had no idea of the reality of the situation. The treatment of Steven by Parnell to outsiders did not raise any suspicions, however, when the doors were closed and there was no one else around, Parnell was able to do as he wished, repeatedly abusing the young boy.
As Steven became older Parnell tried to lure in other young boys, often using Steven to befriend them. In 1980 Parnell got his wish when he successfully abducted Timothy James White from the small town of Ukiah, 200 miles away from Merced where Steven was taken. Timothy was just 5-years-old and while accompanied most of the way home from school by an older school friend he walked the last section alone — a distance long enough to be snatched from the street. Steven was distressed by this act and feared for the safety of the young boy. While Parnell was out working the night shift in a local hotel he escaped, taking the terrified young child with him intending to return him home to his parents. They were spotted by police and Steven told them who the boy was and his own true identity.
Upon taking his statement, the police officer spelt his surname incorrectly not realising he was the now 14-year-old Steven Stayner who had disappeared in 1972.
“My name is Steven Stainer. I am fourteen years of age. I don’t know my true birthdate, but I use April 18, 1965. I know my first name is Steven, I’m pretty sure my last is Stainer, and if I have a middle name, I don’t know it.”
Parnell, by now 50-years-old, was arrested the following morning and charged with kidnapping, as was his accomplice Ervin Murphy, 40. In January 1982, Kenneth Parnell and Ervin Murphy were convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy to kidnap with Parnell given a seven-year prison sentence and Murphy five years.
Parnell was never charged with the sexual assaults in relation to Steven for a number of reasons. These included state jurisdictions, consideration of the protection of Steven himself and the stigma of male sexual abuse and reluctance from Steven’s parents. This was in the early 1980’s where male sexual abuse was not as openly known or talked about as it is today. People still struggled to understand that this kind of behaviour took place and did not know how to deal with it or deal with the victims of such abuse. Times have changed in recent years and in today’s world, Parnell would almost have certainly been tried for these crimes.
Parnell had a history of antisocial behaviour spending much of his teenage years in juvenile detention. His first known inappropriate behaviour with children was at age 19 where he was convicted of lewd behaviour with a young boy for which he served three years in prison. He was later to serve a further prison sentence for armed robbery.
Kenneth Parnell told me I was given to him by my parents; that they couldn’t afford me and didn’t want me any more…he was going to be my new dad. – Timothy White
After his return home, Steven was plunged into the spotlight. He was the child who had been kidnapped, held captive for seven years and presumed dead but had returned to his family, and people wanted to hear his story. There were films, documentaries and books written telling Steven’s story, many of which he was involved in and received some monetary gain for. Outwardly he appeared a remarkably well adjusted young man considering what he had experienced for those long years of his life. He wanted to share his story, tell others of the dangers and what happened to him to help other victims and show others there is a way home.
Kenneth Parnell, the man who abducted him served only five years of his sentence and was released in 1985. In 2004 he once again appeared in court and was convicted of trying to buy a 4-year-old boy for $500 in Berkeley, California. By then a 72-year-old man in need of daily care he had offered the sister of his caregiver the money to bring him a child. Aware of his sinister past, she contacted the police who set up the ploy of a 4-year-old to capture Parnell. In court he was told he was a “danger to children his entire life” would spend the rest of his natural life in prison. He died behind bars in 2008.
In the years since his escape from Parnell, Steven had got married and had two children. In October 1989, when he was just 24-years-old he was returning home on his motorcycle from his local job in a pizza parlour. Uninsured and not wearing a helmet he was no match for the car which pulled out of a driveway in front of him. Steven died very shortly after the accident. The driver of the van fled the scene but was later identified after giving himself up at a police station. His death was a tragic end to such a short life that had been filled with so much heartache, but had the potential to go forth and flourish with the love and support of his family. “It seems like he has just been on loan to us” said his mother Kay Stayner.
The story of Steven Stayner is one of a terrified young child who found the courage, after seven years of pretending to be the son of a man he did not know, to escape his abductor in order to save a little boy from the same fate. The details and abuse in which Steven suffered has been documented but many of the details remained personal to him and too uncomfortable for him to talk about. As a 14-year-old, the younger child’s distress was too much for Steven to endure and he was determined to flee with the child and take him back to safety. In doing so, Steven has been commended for his bravery and selfless act of rescue and will be remembered for years to come by those involved for the actions he took that day.
For Steven to lose his life so young, only ten years after he regained his freedom and returned to his family, is truly tragic. A memorial statue of Steven and Timothy now stands at Applegate Park in Merced, California, designed to give families of those missing hope, that one day their loved one may return home.