Kenneth Parnell

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

Kenneth Eugene Parnell (September 26, 1931 – January 21, 2008) was an American convicted 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 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, 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 Stayner 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."

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


Soon 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.[3]

1981 trials[edit]

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 juveneille 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.

Stayner died in 1989 of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. Parnell later claimed that he cried for the first time since childhood when he learned 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 no child had been specifically targeted. 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 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 abducted had police not been notified. Wellman said 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 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).


  1. ^ "Alleged attempt to buy child leads to arrest of kidnapper". CNN. January 4, 2003. Retrieved 2008-08-17. 
  2. ^ St. Clair, Katy (January 15, 2003). "Inside the Monster". East Bay Express. Retrieved 2008-08-17. 
  3. ^ a b c "I Know My First Name is Steven", Mike Echols, 1999, Pinnacle Books, ISBN 0-7860-1104-1
  4. ^ Newton, Michael (2002). The Encyclopedia of Kidnappings. Michael Newton. p. 223. 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

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