Steven Gregory Stayner
April 18, 1965
|Disappeared||December 4, 1972 (aged 7)|
Merced, California, U.S.
|Died||September 16, 1989 (aged 24)|
Merced, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Merced Cemetery District|
|Relatives||Cary Stayner (brother)|
Steven Gregory Stayner (April 18, 1965 – September 16, 1989) was an American kidnapping victim. On December 4, 1972, seven-year-old Stayner was abducted in Merced, California, by child molester Kenneth Parnell. He was held by his abductor 38 miles (61 km) away in Mariposa County, California, and later in Mendocino County, California, until he was aged 14, when he managed to escape with another of Parnell's victims, Timothy White.
Birth and family
Steven Stayner was the third of five children born to Delbert and Kay Stayner in Merced, California. He had three sisters and an older brother, Cary. In 2002, Cary was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of four women.
On the afternoon of December 4, 1972, Stayner was approached on his way home from school by a man named Ervin Edward Murphy, who had become acquainted with convicted child rapist Kenneth Parnell as they both worked at a resort in Yosemite National Park. Murphy, described by those who knew him as a trusting, naïve, and simple-minded man, had been enlisted by Parnell (who had passed himself off to Murphy as an aspiring minister) into helping him abduct a young boy so that Parnell could "raise him in a religious-type deal," as Murphy later stated.
Acting on instructions from Parnell, Murphy passed out gospel tracts to boys walking home from school that day and, after spotting Stayner, claimed to be a church representative seeking donations. Stayner later claimed that Murphy asked him if his mother would be willing to donate any items to the church. When the boy replied that she would, Murphy then asked Stayner where he lived and if he would be willing to take Murphy to his home.
After Stayner agreed, a white Buick driven by Parnell pulled up, and Stayner willingly climbed into the car with Murphy. Parnell then drove a confused Stayner to his cabin in nearby Catheys Valley instead. Unbeknownst to Stayner, Parnell's cabin was located only several hundred feet from his maternal grandfather's residence.
Parnell molested Stayner the first night at the cabin. Parnell began raping Stayner thirteen days later, on December 17, 1972. After Stayner told Parnell many times during that first week that he wanted to go home, Parnell told Stayner that he had been granted legal custody of the boy because his parents could not afford so many children and that they did not want him anymore.
Parnell began calling the boy Dennis Gregory Parnell, retaining Stayner's real middle name and his real birth date when enrolling him in various schools over the next several years. Parnell passed himself off as Stayner's father, and the two moved frequently around California, living in locations including Santa Rosa and Comptche. Parnell allowed Stayner to begin drinking at a young age and to come and go virtually as he pleased. Parnell had also moved from one menial job to another, some of his work requiring travel and leaving Stayner unguarded, causing an adult Stayner to remark he could have easily used these absences as opportunities to flee, but was unaware how to summon help.
One of the few positive aspects of Stayner's life with Parnell was the dog he had received as a gift from him, a Manchester Terrier that he named Queenie. This dog had been given to Parnell by his mother, who was not aware of Stayner's existence during the period when he was being held by Parnell.
For a period of eighteen months, a woman named Barbara Mathias lived with Parnell and Stayner. According to Stayner, Mathias, along with Parnell, raped him on nine separate occasions at the age of nine. In 1975, on Parnell's instruction, Mathias tried to lure another young boy, who was in the Santa Rosa Boys' Club with Stayner, into Parnell's car. The attempt was unsuccessful. Mathias later claimed to have been completely unaware that "Dennis" had been kidnapped.
As Stayner entered puberty, Parnell began to look for a younger child to kidnap. Parnell had used Stayner to attempt to kidnap children on prior occasions, but all the kidnapping attempts were unsuccessful. This caused Parnell to believe Stayner lacked the means to be an accomplice. Stayner revealed later that he had intentionally sabotaged these failed kidnappings. On February 14, 1980, Parnell and a teenage friend of Stayner's named Randall Sean Poorman kidnapped five-year-old Timmy White in Ukiah. Motivated in part by the young boy's distress, Stayner decided to return the boy to his parents.
On March 1, 1980, while Parnell was away at his night security job, Stayner left with White and hitchhiked into Ukiah. After they were unable to locate White's home, they went to a police station.
By daybreak on March 2, 1980, Parnell had been arrested on suspicion of abducting both boys. When the police checked into his background they found a previous sodomy conviction from 1951. Both children were reunited with their families that day. In 1981, Parnell was tried and convicted of kidnapping White and Stayner in two separate trials. He was sentenced to seven years, but was paroled after serving five.
Parnell was not charged with the numerous sexual assaults on Stayner and other boys because most of them occurred outside the jurisdiction of the Merced County prosecutor or were by then outside the statute of limitations. The Mendocino County prosecutors, acting almost entirely alone, decided not to prosecute Parnell for the sexual assaults that occurred in their jurisdiction.
Murphy, for helping kidnap Stayner, and Poorman, for helping kidnap White, were convicted of lesser charges. Both claimed they knew nothing of the sexual assaults on Stayner. Mathias was never arrested. Stayner remembered the kindness "Uncle" Murphy had shown him in his first week of captivity while they were both under the influence of Parnell's manipulation, and he believed that Murphy was as much Parnell's victim as he and Timmy were. Stayner's kidnapping and its aftermath prompted California lawmakers to change state laws "to allow consecutive prison terms in similar abduction cases."
Later life and death
After returning to his family, Stayner had trouble adjusting to a more structured household as he had been allowed to smoke, drink and do as he pleased when he lived with Parnell. In an interview with Newsweek shortly after his escape, Stayner said, "I returned almost a grown man and yet my parents saw me at first as their 7-year-old. After they stopped trying to teach me the fundamentals all over again, it got better. But why doesn't my dad hug me anymore? [...] Everything has changed. Sometimes I blame myself. I don't know sometimes if I should have come home. Would I have been better off if I didn't?"
Stayner underwent brief counseling but never sought additional treatment. He also refused to disclose all the details of sexual abuse he endured from Parnell. In a 2007 interview, Stayner's sister said that her brother did not seek counseling because their father said Stayner "didn't need any". She added, "He [Steven] got on with his life but he was pretty messed up." He was bullied by other children at school for being molested and eventually dropped out. Stayner began to drink frequently, and was eventually kicked out of the family home. His relationship with his father remained strained.
In 1985, Stayner married 17-year-old Jody Edmondson, with whom he had two children: a daughter Ashley and a son Steven Jr. He also worked with child abduction groups, spoke to children about personal safety, and gave interviews about his kidnapping. He joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just before his death. At the time of his death, Stayner was living in Merced and working at a pizza shop.
On September 16, 1989, Stayner sustained fatal head injuries while on his way home from work when his motorcycle collided with a car in a hit-and-run accident. The alleged driver of the car was later identified by witnesses. Five hundred people attended his funeral, at which 14-year-old Timmy White was a pallbearer.
In early 1989, a television miniseries based on his experience, I Know My First Name Is Steven (also known as The Missing Years), was produced. Steven, taking a leave of absence from his job, acted as an advisor for Lorimar-Telepictures and had a non-speaking part, playing one of the two policemen who escort 14-year-old Steven (played by Corin Nemec) through the crowds to his waiting family, on his return to his Merced home. Although pleased with the dramatization, Stayner did complain that it depicted him as a somewhat "obnoxious, rude" person, especially toward his parents, something he refuted while publicizing the miniseries in the spring of 1989. The two-part miniseries was first broadcast by NBC on May 21–22, 1989. Screening rights were sold to a number of international television companies including the BBC, which screened the miniseries in mid-July of the following year; later still, it was released as a feature-length movie.
The production, which received four Emmy Award nominations, including one for Nemec, was based on a manuscript by Mike Echols, who had researched the story and interviewed Stayner and Parnell, among others. After the premiere, Echols published his book, also titled I Know My First Name is Steven, in 1991. In the epilogue to his book, Echols describes how he infiltrated NAMBLA. In 1999, against the wishes of the Stayner family, Echols wrote an additional chapter about Steven's older brother Cary at the request of his publisher, which then re-published the book.
The title of the film and book are taken from the first paragraph of Steven's written police statement, given during the early hours of March 2, 1980 in Ukiah. It reads:
"My name is Steven Stainer [sic]. 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 [sic], and if I have a middle name, I don't know it."
In April 2022, Hulu released a limited true-crime docuseries "Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story" following the life of Stayner and his family and how the kidnapping impacted their lives. Particular attention was paid to how the events impacted the life of Cary Stayner. The docuseries focused heavily on the miniseries and featured appearances by both Corin Nemec and Todd Eric Andrews.
Ten years after Stayner's death, the city of Merced asked its residents to propose names for city parks honoring Merced's notable citizens. Stayner's parents proposed that one be named "Stayner Park". This idea was eventually rejected and the honor was instead given to another Merced resident, because Stayner's brother Cary confessed to, and was convicted of, killing four women in Yosemite in 1999; Merced city officials feared that the name "Stayner Park" would be associated with Cary rather than Steven.
In 2004, Parnell, then 72 years old, was convicted of trying the previous year to persuade his caretaker's sister to procure for him a young boy for five hundred dollars. Aware of Parnell's past, she reported this to local police. Timmy White, then a grown man, was subpoenaed to testify in Parnell's criminal trial. Although Stayner was dead, his testimony at Parnell's earlier trial was read to jurors as evidence in Parnell's 2004 trial. Parnell died of natural causes on January 21, 2008, at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California, while serving a sentence of 25 years to life.
White later became a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Deputy. He died on April 1, 2010, at age 35 from pulmonary embolism. Nearly five months later, on August 28, 2010, a statue of Stayner and White was dedicated in Applegate Park in Merced. Residents of Ukiah, White's hometown, carved a statue showing a teenage Stayner with young White in hand while escaping their captivity. Fundraisers for the statue have stated that it is meant to honor Steven Stayner and give families of missing and kidnapped children hope that they are still alive.
Steven's father, Delbert Stayner, died on April 9, 2013, at his home in Winton, California. He was 79 years old.
- List of kidnappings
- List of child abuse cases featuring long-term detention
- List of solved missing person cases
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- I Know My First Name Is Steven, by Mike Echols. Pinnacle Books, New York. 1999. ISBN 0-7860-1104-1
- From Victim To Hero: The Untold Story of Steven Stayner, by Jim Laughter assisted by Sharon Carr Griffen. Buoy Up Press, Denton, Texas, 2010. ISBN 978-0-937660-86-7