Steven Gregory Stayner
April 18, 1965
Merced, California, U.S.
|Disappeared||December 4, 1972 (aged 7)|
Merced, California, U.S.
|Died||September 16, 1989 (aged 24)|
Merced, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Motorcycle crash|
|Resting place||Merced Cemetery District|
Jody Edmondson (m. 1985–1989)
|Relatives||Cary Stayner (brother)|
Steven Gregory Stayner (April 18, 1965 – September 16, 1989) was an American kidnapping victim. On December 4, 1972, Stayner was abducted in Merced, California by child molester Kenneth Parnell. He lived with his abductor 200 miles away in Mendocino County, California until he was 14, returning to his family after he was discovered while returning another of Parnell's victims, Timothy White, to his own family.
Stayner died in 1989 in a motorcycle accident while riding home from work.
Birth and family
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 1999 murder 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 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 convicted child rapist Parnell (who had passed himself off as an aspiring minister to Murphy) 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. Parnell began raping Stayner thirteen days later, on December 17, 1972.
After telling Parnell that he wanted to go home many times during his first week with the man, 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, among others living in Santa Rosa and Comptche. He allowed Stayner to begin drinking at a young age and to come and go virtually as he pleased. Parnell had also bounced from one menial job to another, some of his work requiring travel and he would leave 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 Parnell, 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 living with Parnell.
For a period of 18 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, in fact, been kidnapped.
As Stayner entered puberty, Parnell began to look for a younger child to kidnap. Parnell had used Stayner to kidnap children on prior occasions; however, all were unsuccessful, causing Parnell to believe Stayner lacked the means to be an accomplice (Stayner later revealed he 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 Timothy White in Ukiah, California. 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. Unable to locate White's home address, he decided to have White walk into the police station to ask for help, without him. But police officers spotted and detained both of them. Stayner immediately identified Timmy White and then revealed his own true identity and story.
By daybreak on March 2, 1980, Parnell had been arrested on suspicion of abducting both boys. After the police checked into Parnell's 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 Steven 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. This is likely due to the prosecutors' belief that they were "protecting" Stayner because rape and molestation victims were seen as "damaged goods." They may also have felt that they were respecting the Stayner parents' reluctance to discuss Parnell's crimes because of the stigma of male sexual abuse. Ervin Murphy and Randall Poorman, who had helped abduct Timmy White, were convicted of lesser charges. Both claimed they knew nothing of the sexual assaults on Steven. Barbara 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.
Steven 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 Kenneth Parnell. In an interview with Newsweek shortly after he was reunited with his family, 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 initially underwent brief counseling but never sought additional treatment. He also refused to disclose all the details of sexual abuse he endured while he was living with Kenneth Parnell. In a 2007 interview, Stayner's sister Cory 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 teased 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. 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, California and working at a pizza shop.
On September 17, 1989, Stayner sustained fatal head injuries while on his way home from work when his motorcycle collided with a car. 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 the production company (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 was based on a manuscript by Mike Echols, who had researched the story and interviewed Stayner and Parnell, among others. After the premiere of I Know My First Name is Steven, which received four Emmy Award nominations, including one for Corin Nemec, Echols published his book, 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, convicted serial killer Cary Stayner, at the request of his publisher who 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 (note the incorrect spelling of his family name);
"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."
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 charged with, 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, Kenneth Parnell, then 72 years old, was convicted of trying the previous year to persuade his nurse to procure for him a young boy for five hundred dollars. The nurse, aware of Parnell's past, reported this to local police. Timmy White, then a grown man, was subpoenaed to testify in Parnell's criminal trial. Although Stayner was dead, Stayner's testimony at Parnell's earlier trial was read to jurors as evidence in Parnell's 2004 trial. Kenneth 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.
Timothy James "Timmy" White later became a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Deputy. He died on April 1, 2010, at age 35 from pulmonary embolism. White was survived by his wife, Dena, and two young children, as well as by his mother, father, stepfather and sister. Nearly five months later, on August 28, 2010, a statue of Stayner and White was dedicated in Applegate Park in Merced, California. Residents of Ukiah, the hometown of White, 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.
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- Cawthorne, Nigel (2012). Against Their Will: Sadistic Kidnappers and the Courageous Stories of Their Innocent Victims. Ulysses Press. p. 245. ISBN 1-612-43066-X.
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- Echols 1999 p. 212
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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