It was a Monday at the beginning of December in 1972, and seven-year-old Steven Stayner was on his way home from school in Mercer, California. A stranger stopped him and engaged him in conversation. The stranger’s associate arrived in a car, and Steven got in. That was the last Steven’s family would see of the young boy for eight years.
Steven Gregory Stayner was born on April 18, 1965, in Merced to Delbert and Kay Stayner. The Stayners already had one son and a daughter, and later another two sisters for Steven came along. Steven’s elder brother was Cary, and we’ll hear more of him later. That day when Steven was walking back from school, the man who had first stopped him was Ervin Murphy.
By all accounts, Murphy was a slow-witted fellow easily influenced and manipulated by others. One of those who took full advantage of this situation was Kenneth Parnell. He was the one driving the car that day in Merced, a white Buick, and the one who opened the door and invited Steven to get in. Parnell had apparently convinced Murphy that he was planning to become a minister.
Parnell had further convinced Murphy to help him to abduct a boy to bring him up in a godly way. And so Murphy approached Steven with a cockamamie story about being a church representative. Presumably, at Parnell’s prompting, he was actually clutching a sheaf of church pamphlets to lend his story credibility.
Murphy asked Steven whether his mother might like to make a donation to the church. Steven thought she would and Murphy suggested that he would accompany Steven to his home to speak to his mother. That’s when Parnell appeared with the offer of a lift to Steven’s home. Fatefully, Steven got into the car voluntarily.
But Parnell did not drive Steven to his family home. Instead, he took him to a cabin in out-of-the-way Catheys Valley, about 25 miles northeast of Merced. What Steven was never to know was that he was a matter of a few minutes walk away from where one of his grandfathers lived.
Parnell started sexually abusing Steven from the first night at the Catheys Valley cabin, the start of an appalling regime of gross sexual assault that would continue for years. In fact, Parnell’s pedophilia was his sole motivation for abducting the young boy despite the nonsense he had fed to the gullible Murphy.
As adults, it’s almost impossible for us to imagine what must have been going through the terrified seven-year-old’s mind in the appalling situation that he found himself in. But he certainly did question Parnell and begged to be allowed to go home to Merced.
Parnell countered this pleading by insisting that he was now Steven’s legal guardian and that he was to all intents and purposes his rightful father. Steve’s parents, Parnell informed him, no longer wanted the boy. They simply had more children than they could afford.
This man Parnell, born in Amarillo, Texas in 1931, had a previous record as a pedophile. After troubled teenage years, many of which were spent in one institution or another, Parnell was handed down a four-year jail sentence for sexually assaulting a young boy in 1951. Now he had Steven Stayner at his mercy.
Parnell told Steven that his name was now Dennis Gregory Parnell. He used that name and Steven’s genuine birth date to enroll him at various schools as the pair moved around California. They lived in several places including Comptche and Santa Rosa.
This semi-nomadic life continued for eight years with Steven leading an undisciplined life, introduced by Parnell to liquor and largely left to his own devices. For a time, when Steven was about nine years old, a woman named Barbara Mathias lived with them and by Steven’s account joined in with the sexual exploitation of the young boy.
As Steven reached puberty, Parnell began to lose interest in him. The pedophile now wanted to find a younger victim to abduct. Parnell involved Steven in his plans, hoping that the boy would help him to entice new quarry for his perverted desires.
Steven pretended to play along, but as he later testified, surreptitiously stymied Parnell’s plans. Parnell now turned to a friend of Steven’s, a teenager called Randall Poorman, for help with his kidnap scheme. The two seized a boy called Timothy White in Ukiah, California on February 14, 1980. He was just five years old.
Steven was now confronted by another young boy about to endure years of abuse at the hands of Parnell, a boy in the same situation that he’d been in eight years previously. This was more than Steven could stand, and he decided that the two must escape. Two weeks after the abduction, Steven took the boy while Parnell was at work, and the two hitchhiked to Ukiah.
At Ukiah, they found a police station. Timothy was safe, and, after eight long years, Steven had finally made his escape. The two boys were returned to their families. Parnell was arrested and charged with kidnapping. At trial he was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in jail, although he was released after five. Parnell was not charged for the sexual abuse he’d inflicted on Steven.
Eventually, justice really did catch up with Parnell after he’d got off so apparently lightly for his appalling offences against Steven and Timothy. In January 2003, now 71, Parnell was arrested after he tried to buy a child for $500. This time, the court sentenced him to 25 years to life. In poor health, Parnell spent the rest of his days incarcerated in the secure California Medical Facility in Vacaville. He died in 2008.
Steven Stayner’s story was relayed around the world, and the boy was recognized as a hero for his rescue of Timothy White. But adjusting to a life of freedom was not always easy for Steven. After some turbulent years, he married and had two children. Just when his life seemed to be getting back on track, catastrophe struck. He was knocked off his motorcycle in 1989 and died from his injuries.
You might think that, by now, the Stayner family had seen much more than their fair share of tragedy. But in 1999 Steven’s older brother Cary was charged with the brutal murder of four women in California. At trial, Cary Stayner made a plea of insanity. But the court found him guilty of four first degree murders and he was sentenced to death. He remains on death row at San Quentin prison.
Sadly, Timothy White died prematurely of a pulmonary embolism in 2010 aged just 35 while serving as a deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Steven Stayner is commemorated by two statues, one in Merced and another in Ukiah. In both statues he is portrayed hand in hand with Timothy White, the boy he so bravely rescued from the evil Kenneth Parnell.