Kenneth Parnell

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Kenneth Eugene Parnell
Mugshot from the California state sex offender registry
Born (1931-09-26)September 26, 1931
Amarillo, Texas
Died January 21, 2008(2008-01-21) (aged 76)
Vacaville, California

Kenneth Eugene Parnell (September 26, 1931 – January 21, 2008) was a convicted American sex offender, known infamously for his kidnapping of seven-year-old Steven Stayner in Merced, California.

Early life[edit]

Parnell was born in Amarillo, Texas, during the region's fabled dust bowl era which coincided with the Great Depression, to Cecil Frederick and Mary Olive (Pollard) Parnell. He later moved with his mother, his two half-sisters, and a half-brother to Bakersfield, California. Parnell was raised mostly without his father, who abandoned the family when he was six. He spent much of his adolescence in and out of juvenile hall and mental institutions.

In March 1951, Parnell was arrested for sodomizing a young boy, as well as for impersonating a police officer (Parnell had used a fake deputy sheriff's badge which he had purchased from an Army-Navy surplus store); he was convicted of the crime in 1952 and sentenced to almost four years in prison.[1] While receiving treatment at Norwalk State Hospital, he cut a lock from a clothes room window and escaped, staying free until February of the following year, when he was finally apprehended in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In a January 15, 2000 interview with East Bay Express journalist Katy St. Clair, Parnell said that he kidnapped and molested the boy because his wife was pregnant and that he "had to find another outlet."[2] Parnell claimed to have been married three times, but only two records of his marriages are known to exist. He married Patsy in 1950, who gave birth to their daughter the following year. They divorced in 1957. Later that year, Parnell married Emma, a woman 10 years his senior. She too gave birth to a daughter soon after their union.[3]

He denied in that same interview having been sexually abused himself, although Mike Echols's book I Know My First Name is Steven, says Parnell was indeed molested at the age of 13 by a boarder in a rooming house that his mother owned in Bakersfield.

More than a decade after the sodomy case, Parnell went back to jail for armed robbery in Utah. While he was in prison, his second wife filed for divorce. Parnell claimed to have married a third and final time in 1968.[3] As of February 2008, no records have been found substantiating Parnell's claim of this union.

Child abductions[edit]

On December 4, 1972, Parnell abducted Steven Stayner with the help of Edward Ervin Murphy, a co-worker at the Yosemite Lodge where Parnell worked as a night auditor. Steven was taken to Catheys Valley. (Incidentally, Parnell's cabin was, unbeknownst to Steven, located only several hundred feet from his maternal grandfather's residence.) Parnell went on to tell Steven that his parents couldn't afford to keep him anymore, that a judge had given Parnell legal custody of him, and that his new name was "Dennis."

On February 14, 1980, Parnell abducted five-year-old Timmy White from Ukiah, California with the help of Sean Poorman. Poorman was a minor and also an acquaintance of Steven's.[4]


Refusing to let the boy suffer the abuse that he had been enduring himself for so long, Stayner waited until Parnell had gone to his night-shift job at a local motel on March 1, 1980 and, carrying Timmy on his back, hitchhiked to Ukiah, where his intention was to return Timmy to his home and then 'escape' himself (still believing that Parnell had legal custody of him). Unable to locate Timmy White's home, he took the boy to the Police Department where the truth of what had taken place over the last seven years slowly came to light. By daybreak the following morning Parnell had been arrested, and while investigators were checking into Parnell's past, his record of the 1951 sodomy conviction came to light, although at the time Steven insisted that Parnell had not sexually abused him.[3]

1981 trials[edit]

Parnell was tried for kidnapping both Stayner and White but not for the sexual abuse that he had inflicted upon Stayner. He served five years of his seven-year prison sentence. His accomplice in Steven's kidnapping served two years of a five-year prison sentence; the Ukiah minor who helped kidnap Timmy White served time in a juvenile facility.

Steven Stayner died in 1989 of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. Parnell later claimed that he cried for the first time since childhood upon hearing of Stayner's death.

2004 convictions[edit]

In January 2003, Parnell was arrested again after trying to coerce his caregiver into buying him a four-year-old boy.[5] Parnell was, by this time, 71 years old and in ill health, suffering from diabetes and emphysema, plus other ailments brought on by a stroke that he had suffered earlier, requiring near 24-hour-a-day nursing care in his cluttered apartment in the 2600 block of Mathews Street in Berkeley.

The caregiver, Diane Stevens, was aware of Parnell's past and cooperated with police in setting up a sting operation that would lead to his arrest. According to Diane Stevens's testimony, Parnell requested that the child have a "clean" rectum, indicating sexual intentions.[6] He paid $100 for a birth certificate and had $400 on his person for the completion of the transaction when he was to receive the child on January 3, 2003. Parnell was arrested that day.[6]

"I wanted a family," Parnell told authorities after his arrest.

Parnell was convicted on February 9, 2004, on the charges of attempting to purchase a child and attempted child molestation, even though the child in question was nonexistent. The prosecution successfully argued that sexual aids and pornography found in the apartment, along with Stevens's own testimony, were enough to prove that Parnell's intentions were criminal in nature. Parnell was sentenced to 25 years to life under California's "three strikes" law.

Prosecutor Tim Wellman said that Parnell "was looking for one last hurrah. One last Steven Stayner, one last Timmy White."[6]


Parnell remained incarcerated until his death.[7] According to prison officials at the California State Prison Hospital in Vacaville, California, Parnell died of natural causes. He had been under hospice care for some time.

Media adaptations[edit]

Stayner's life with Parnell was documented in the 1989 TV miniseries I Know My First Name Is Steven (also released as The Missing Years). Parnell was portrayed (in an uncredited role) by Arliss Howard. In 1991, a true crime book by Mike Echols of the same name was published, the manuscript from which the screenplay had been adapted.


  1. ^ "Alleged attempt to buy child leads to arrest of kidnapper". CNN. January 4, 2003. Retrieved 2008-08-17. 
  2. ^ "Inside the Monster". East Bay Express. January 15, 2003. Retrieved 2008-08-17. 
  3. ^ a b c "I Know My First Name is Steven", Mike Echols, 1999, Pinnacle Books, ISBN ISBN 0-7860-1104-1
  4. ^ Newton, Michael (2002). The Encyclopedia of Kidnappings. 223: Michael Newton. ISBN 978-0-8160-4486-3. Retrieved 15 April 2013. 
  5. ^ "Alleged attempt to buy child leads to arrest of kidnapper". CNN. January 4, 2003. Retrieved 2008-08-17. 
  6. ^ a b c "'Steven' kidnapper convicted". CNN. February 9, 2004. Archived from the original on 2008-06-03. Retrieved 2008-08-17. 
  7. ^ "Kenneth Parnell, kidnapper of Steven Stayner, dies at 76", San Francisco Chronicle, January 22, 2008

External links[edit]