How Steven Stayner Escaped Captivity

Steven Stayner, then seven years old, was kidnapped by Kenneth Parnell, a pedophile, in Merced, California, in 1972. Stayner was then imprisoned until he was fourteen years old.

Steven Stayner’s life will change forever three weeks before Christmas in 1972. The 7-year-old, who was raised in the quiet suburbs of Merced, California, was walking home from school on a typical Monday when he was kidnapped and held captive for seven years by Texas-born wanderer Kenneth Parnell.

In the 1950s, Parnell was convicted of raping a child and impersonating a police officer. He’d get a job at a Yosemite National Park resort and persuade a coworker named Ervin Edward Murphy that he wanted to be a priest. In 1972, he was unnervingly successful in enlisting his assistance in the kidnapping of a small boy.

They enticed Stayner into Parnell’s car on December 4 under the pretence of transporting him home. Instead of being held captive and raped in an isolated cottage in Catheys Valley, Stayner went to local schools under a false identity, unable to risk escape. When he became too old for Parnell, he was instructed to assist in the kidnapping of a new victim.

According to the miniseries I Know My First Name Is Steven, a 15-year-old adolescent named Steven saved five-year-old Timothy White from a similar fate. After escaping Parnell’s cabin and hitchhiking to safety in 1980, Stayner was hailed as a hero — but one who would spend the rest of his life haunted by trauma.

Steven Stayner’s Kidnapping


Steven Gregory Stayner was born on April 18, 1965, in Merced, California, he had an elder brother named Cary and three sisters. Delbert and Kay Stayner reared their children among almond groves and peach orchards, but their life in the rural town of Merced were regrettably in the path of a monster.

Kenneth Eugene Parnell worked two hours away at the Yosemite Lodge. By 1972, he’d already started planning an abduction and persuaded Ervin Murphy to assist him in finding a boy to “raise in a religious-type situation.” They drove Parnell’s white Buick to Merced on Dec. 4, where Murphy distributed religious leaflets to children.

Murphy contacted Stayner, posing as a church employee, and asked if his family had any items they might contribute. They did, the lad said, and he promised to give me a ride home. Parnell pulled over to a payphone on Highway 140 and pretended to call Stayner’s parents, only to tell the boy that they didn’t want him back.

Meanwhile, his parents had already reported him missing from school to the Merced Police Department. They conducted a big search for Stayner but were unable to locate him. Stayner would be driven to Parnell’s cabin, where he would be subjected to the first of several sexual assaults on December 17.

Kenneth Parnell’s Criminal offenses

Parnell not only continued to bully Steven Stayner, but also informed him that his parents couldn’t afford to rear five children. He said that they had awarded him legal custody and that Stayner would now go by the name Dennis Gregory Parnell, with his middle name retained.

Although Catheys Valley, in Mariposa County, was only a few miles from Merced, detectives had no leads and had no idea where to go. Meanwhile, within weeks of his abduction, Parnell enrolled Stayner at Steele Lane Elementary and pretended to be the boy’s father.

Stayner was far too young and incapable of even thinking an escape despite being given increased freedom of movement. Parnell would transport him to cities such as Santa Rosa in Sonoma County and Comptche in Mendocino County, where Stayner would be held captive and assaulted by a variety of people, not just Parnell.

Kenneth and Steven

Stayner was given a Manchester Terrier named Queenie after being plied with drink and sadly developing acclimated to his new identity. Kenneth Parnell, on the other hand, had not experienced a change of heart and would invite Barbara Mathias to live with them — and torture 11-year-old Stayner as she wanted.

Parnell began seeking for a younger victim after Stayner reached puberty a few years later. Stayner was enlisted to help him find one, but the boy thwarted his efforts. However, Parnell was successful on Feb. 14, 1980, using Stayner and his classmate Randall Sean Poorman as pawns. His victim was a 5-year-old child.

Steven Stayner Escapes

Stayner was so moved by Timothy White’s impassioned pleas two weeks after he was abducted from the streets of Ukiah, Mendocino County, that he resolved to take action. After allowing Stayner to come and go freely for years — with Stayner never fleeing — Parnell had no idea that he would disobey him.

However, the abductor’s worst dread came true on March 1, 1980. Parnell’s two victims fled the cabin while working security overnight for work. Stayner found a way to get White back to Ukiah after he hitchhiked the entire 40 miles. He promised to tell the cops everything, but he struggled at first: “I know my first name is Steven,” he admitted.

Despite the fact that Stayner’s charges were found to be true, Parnell was never charged with sexually abusing him because of jurisdictional concerns and statutes of limitations. He was tried and found guilty in 1981 for the two kidnappings after his arrest on March 2. He was sentenced to seven years in prison but was released after five.

Steven Stayner with family

Stayner tragically reconnected with his family, with mixed outcomes. In the media, he had become a national hero, but he began medicating his pain with escalating alcohol usage and eventually dropped out. While he met and married Jody Edmonson in 1985, and became a father of two children, his happiness was short-lived.

Stayner, who lived in Merced and worked at a pizza business, had spent some of the $30,000 he received for the film rights to his narrative on a 1989 Kawasaki EX-500. On Sept. 16, 1989, while riding home, a 1976 Plymouth Volare collided with him and fled, killing Stayner from head wounds.

After 450 people attended his burial, which included 14-year-old Timothy White as one of the pallbearers, he would be buried between his grandparents in Merced District Cemetery. Cary Stayner, his older brother, would be convicted of murdering four women in Yosemite in 1999. After attempting to kidnap another child in 2004, Parnell was sentenced to 25 years to life in jail, where he died in 2008.

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