Mugshot from the California state sex offender registry
Kenneth Eugene Parnell
September 26, 1931
|Died||January 21, 2008 (aged 76)|
Kenneth Eugene Parnell (September 26, 1931 – January 21, 2008) was an American convicted sex offender, child rapist, and kidnapper infamously known for perpetrating the kidnappings of seven year-old Steven Stayner and five year-old Timothy White in Merced, California.
Parnell was born in Amarillo, Texas, during the region's 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 Parnell 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 and impersonating a police officer; he was sentenced to four years in prison. Parnell had fooled the child through use of a deputy sheriff's badge he bought at an army-navy surplus store. He escaped from Norwalk State Hospital, in Norwalk, California, but was recaptured.
In a 2000 interview about his 1951 crime, Parnell said he kidnapped and molested the boy because his wife was pregnant and that he "had to find another outlet." Parnell claimed to have been married three times, but only two records of his marriages are known. He married in 1950, had a daughter in 1951, and divorced in 1957. Later that year he married again and had another daughter.
He denied in that same interview having been sexually abused himself, although Mike Echols' book I Know My First Name Is Steven states that 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 was convicted of armed robbery in Utah. While imprisoned for this charge, his second wife filed for divorce. Parnell claimed to have married a third and final time in 1968, but no records were ever found to substantiate this.
On December 4, 1972, Parnell abducted seven-year-old Steven Stayner from Merced with the help of Edward Ervin Murphy, a co-worker at the Yosemite Lodge where Parnell worked as a night auditor. Stayner was taken to Catheys Valley. (Parnell's cabin was, unbeknownst to Stayner, located only several hundred feet from his maternal grandfather's residence.) Parnell went on to tell Stayner 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". Stayner lived as Parnell's "son" for seven years, during which Parnell repeatedly sexually abused him. In addition to the molestation, Stayner later claimed that Parnell's attitude altered from severe beatings to sometimes "spoiling" him. As Steven got older and entered puberty, Parnell's sexual interest in Stayner waned, and sought a new boy to "build his family". He had attempted another kidnapping with his mistress Barbara Mathias, but that failed to go to plan. He also conscripted Stayner into aiding him in kidnappings, but Stayner had always failed to grab the targeted child to the point Parnell stopped using Stayner as an accomplice, berating him for being an "incompetent". (Years later in interviews, Stayner admitted to intentionally sabotaging the kidnappings).
Weeks after Parnell kidnapped White, Stayner escaped Parnell's house with the boy; he later said he did not want White to suffer the abuse that he had endured. Stayner waited until Parnell had gone to his night shift job at a local motel on March 1, 1980 and, carrying White on his back, hitchhiked to Ukiah. Unfamiliar with Ukiah, Stayner decided the best option was to seek out the local police, who originally considered Stayner a delinquent, until an exhaustive search of missing child posters and a piecemeal interrogation confirmed he was a missing child as well. By daybreak the following morning, Parnell had been arrested. While investigators were checking into Parnell's past, the 1951 sodomy conviction came to light, although at the time Stayner insisted that Parnell had not sexually abused him.
Parnell was tried for kidnapping Stayner and White but not for sexual abuse. He was convicted of both kidnappings and served five years of his seven-year prison sentence. Edward Murphy, Parnell's accomplice from the Stayner kidnapping, was sentenced to five years imprisonment and paroled after two years. Sean Poorman, Stayner's schoolfriend who abetted Parnell in the White kidnapping, was sentenced to a term in a juvenile work camp. Barbara Mathias, Parnell's girlfriend who lived with him and Stayner for some time, was never charged with any violation and cooperated with authorities in Parnell's trials.
In January 2003, Parnell was arrested again after trying to coerce his caregiver into buying him a four-year-old boy. 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' testimony, Parnell requested that the child have a "clean" rectum, indicating sexual intentions. 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, subsequently telling authorities "I wanted a family".
Parnell was convicted on February 9, 2004, on the charges of attempting to purchase a child and attempted child molestation, even though no child had been targeted. The prosecution successfully argued that sexual aids and pornography found in the apartment, along with Stevens' 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 had largely argued his case before the jury by showing a slideshow of Stayner marked "1", then of White marked "2", and a blank screen marked "3" to show the nonexistent child that would have been abducted had police not been notified. Wellman said Parnell "was looking for one last hurrah. One last Steven Stayner, one last Timmy White."
Parnell remained incarcerated until his death in 2008 at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California. According to prison officials, Parnell died of natural causes. He had been under hospice care for some time.
Stayner's account of his time with Parnell formed the basis of a book by Mike Echols, the manuscript of which was adapted as the 1989 TV miniseries I Know My First Name Is Steven with Arliss Howard in the uncredited role of Parnell. The book was published with the same title in 1991. (The miniseries was also released under the alternate title The Missing Years).
- "Alleged attempt to buy child leads to arrest of kidnapper". CNN. January 4, 2003. Retrieved August 17, 2008.
- St. Clair, Katy (January 15, 2003). "Inside the Monster". East Bay Express. Oakland, California: New Times Media. Retrieved August 17, 2008.
- Echols, Mike (1999). I Know My First Name is Steven. New York City: Pinnacle Books. ISBN 0-7860-1104-1.
- Newton, Michael (2002). The Encyclopedia of Kidnappings. Michael Newton. p. 223. ISBN 978-0-8160-4486-3. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
- Yang, Allie; Rhee, Joseph; Schiffman, Keren. "Steven and Cary Stayner: The tale of two brothers' horror and heroism". ABC News. American Broadcasting. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
- "Alleged attempt to buy child leads to arrest of kidnapper". CNN. January 4, 2003. Retrieved 2008-08-17.
- "'Steven' kidnapper convicted". CNN. February 9, 2004. Archived from the original on 2008-06-03. Retrieved 2008-08-17.
- Rubenstein, Steve (January 22, 2008). "Kenneth Parnell, kidnapper of Steven Stayner, dies at 76". San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco, California: Hearst Corporation.
- "Kenneth Eugene Parnell, A Notorious Child Molester Dies In Prison". ABC7 San Francisco. January 22, 2008. Retrieved July 19, 2017.