7-year-old Steven Gregory Stayner was kidnapped on December 4th, 1972 in Merced, California, by Kenneth Parnell. He was able to escape when he was 14 years old and he saved another kidnapping victim, Timothy White.
Dennis’ dad left earlier than usual for his job, so he bundled up his younger brother and headed out with the intent of hitchhiking. This had become an almost nightly ritual, but it had rained the past 16 days, and on this night, it had finally stopped. Dennis was 14 years old, and he decided to carry 5-year-old Timmy, so he didn’t whine the whole time. He would carry him along Mountain View Road and away from the tiny cabin. Dennis was on a mission as he walked along the road in the dark. The boys were escaping from the person that everyone thought was Dennis’s father. The narrow, twisted road was scarecly used at night, so it was difficult to find a way to hitchhike, but that didn’t stop Dennis from trying.
On this night, Dennis had only walked a quarter mile up the hill when a vehicle stopped to get them. Dennis froze because he couldn’t believe that someone was actually stopping this time, but he rushed to the car. He spoke to the driver and learned that he was driving through Boonville and heading into Ukiah. The man spoke very little English, but Dennis could understand that he was following a friend’s vehicle and they were having some car trouble. The boys hopped in and sat mostly in silence. The car stopped at a restaurant in Boonville where the driver met up with a friend to check out his car. Dennis sat in the car, thinking about what would happen if his dad caught the two of them. He brought a knife with, just in case.
Once the man was done, he got back in and they continued their journey. Dennis told the man that he and his brother were just traveling to their new home in Ukiah. Timmy whispered to Dennis that they should go to his babysitter’s house, so they got out near the bottle shop. Sixteen days earlier, Timmy left his half day kindergarten class to walk to his babysitter’s house, but he never made it. His babysitter, Diane Crawford had waited for him, but he had been kidnapped from the sidewalk by Dennis’s dad. The boys walked to Diane’s house, but sadly, no one was there. Dennis told Timmy that he was going to bring him to the Ukiah police station instead, but Timmy refused. He said he knew where he lived and he just wanted to go home.
They started walking in the direction that Timmy pointed, but when they got to an intersection, he got confused. They were heading in the right direction, but they were about 5 miles from Timmy’s house and he insisted that they keep going. They continued walking south along the shoulder of the freeway until they reached the Boonville exit. Dennis was convinced that they were lost and Timmy finally gave in and they went to the police station. They had to head back nearly two miles up South State Street and they passed The Palace Hotel a little past 11 o’clock. This is where Dennis’s father was working his first shift as a security guard.
Dennis stopped at the corner of Main and East Standley. The Ukiah Police Station was three fourths of a block away and he told Timmy to go inside, tell them his name and the police would get him home. He watched Timmy open the front door, he started to cry, and ran back to his brother. Officer Bob Warner had been inside the station and he saw the little boy open the door, then run away. It was late and he was worried that the boys would get scared and run away if he tried to approach them, so he radioed for a patrol unit. Within 2 minutes Officer Russel VanVoorhis pulled up beside the boys and asked the oldest boy what the youngest child’s name was and he said “Timmy White”. The officer recognized that name, this child had been missing over two weeks.
Dennis spoke again to say, “My name is Steven Stayner, and I’ve been missing from Merced for seven years.” Dennis Gregory Parnell was actually Steven Gregory Stayner. He misspelled his last name as STAINER, but it should be STAYNER. He said, “I know my first name is Steven, I’m pretty sure my last name is Stayner.”
Del and Kay Stayner had five children, including Steven. As their family was growing, they decided to move in March of 1967. The home was on 20 acres of land and Del contiuned to work his full-time job at the CC&G Plant which was 20 miles away and he worked 18 hour days six days a week. Outside of his long hours, Del also worked many hours on his land during canning season. He always had help from his little boy who he affectionately called Stevie. They worked side by side to prune, spray, and harvest the almond crop. His son was trusting, respectful, and always wanted to help others. Del said, “When he was small, Stevie wanted to go everywhere I went. I wouldn’t let him ride on the tractor where I was going under the trees because the almond branches was so low I was afraid he was goin to get hit in the face. But he’d walk behind, and he’d just keep on walkin...he’d walk miles following me. Then, when I’d come in from work and lay on the couch and watch TV, Stevie would come and curl up with me on the couch and I would bite him on the ear and he’d laugh. He was always just like a puppy dog.”
Del did struggle to dry-farm the almonds by himself and work his full time job. One morning in 1970, he was shaving and fell to the floor and passed out due to the pain from a slipped disk. He had to get back surgery and Steven was so scared for years because he thought his dad had a heart attack. There was a second house on the property, so Dell asked his good friends and their children to move in. The adults all worked together to do the farming work and the kids all had others to play with. The summer of 1971 was exceptionally dry, so both families were forced to move and they sold the ranch and the Stayners moved back to Merced.
The move was extra hard on Steven, he really thrived when the family had a lot of land. By September of 1972, he made a few new friends and he was finally starting to feel better. In the mornings, the kids all walked to school together, but in the afternoon at 2PM, Steven got to walk home alone because he got out of school earlier than his siblings. He liked walking home alone, but he did go directly to his friend’s homes to play and that got him in some trouble. He was warned several times that he needed to ask permission first and he started getting punished when he didn’t come straight home.
On December 4th, 1972, 7 –year-old Steven had breakfast with his family before heading to school. Around this time, Kenneth Eugene Parnell and Murph decided to go to Merced Mall to do a little shopping. Ken got some gospel tracts and suggested that they go hand them out. He was studying gospel tracts and decided to become a minister. Ken said that they would hand out the tracts to kids that were walking home from school. He said he wanted to raise an underprivileged child because he could do better than his parents and he wanted to help one of the boys. There were a lot of battered children who needed a home. Ken asked his friend if he would help him pick out a child to be his son.
Murph had been abused as a child and this is something Ken knew about, so he was the perfect person to buy into this story, of course he wants to save someone else from living an abused life. Steven’s mom Kay was in line at the auto parts store, waiting to purchase the oil, filter and some nuts and bolts. It was a little past 2 PM, and it was raining and sleeting. Kay ran to her car and arrived at the school around 2:10. She hoped that Steven would be waiting for her, but unfortunately, he wasn’t there. She watched for him on her way home and she got back to the house at 2:20. Kay asked her husband if Steven was there, but he said no.
Steven had been known for stopping off at other kid’s houses on the way home, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to be late. Kay went inside to make some sandwiches and a little before 3 PM, Del, Kay and Cory went to the school to pick up Cindy and Jody and the girls said they hadn’t seen Steven since lunch. Del started to get upset. Did Steven disobey him again? Or did something happen? They started calling everyone they could think of and no one saw Steven. His classmate Royal Harris said he waved by to him as he got on the school bus, but he didn’t know where Steven went after that.
At 2PM when Steven would have been outside of his school, Kenneth Parnell was less than a quarter mile from Charles Wright Elementary. He pulled off Yosemite (Yo-sem-it-ee) Parkway onto Jean Streat and stopped just west of the Red Ball Gas Station. He handed a handful of the gospel tracts to his friend Murph and a few minutes later, when Steven’s mother didn’t arrive at the school to pick him up, he started walking home in the sleet. Murph says, “After Parnell let me out, he drives off and I didn’t know where he was going, and I’m just standing there in the sleet handing out these gospel tracts. And, you know, I gave a lot them tracts to them kids walking home from school. A lot would say, Hi, or I’ve got to get home, and pretty soon I had only a few left. And, see, I’m handin’ ‘em out and Steven shows up and I’m talking to him and I said, where are you goin’? And he said, I’m going home. And I said, the minister will give you a ride home. And then Parnell drives up and calls Steven over to the car. Then I opened up the door and Steven got in and Parnell says to me, let’s go. I’m going to take the kid home. And I got in the front and shut the doors and we drove off.”
When Steven thought about this day, he said,“I don’t remember too much about the school days-the usual, monotonous days-but that one stands out. The walk home was usual...at least the first part. I walked down the back way and then crossed Yosemite Parkway there by the gas station. At that age I usually walked with my head down, looking at my feet, so I really didn’t notice Murphy standing there until I was right on him. And then he came up to me and gave me some religious brochures. They had a little story in them in cartoon form that says something out of the Bible.”
“Murphy said he was from a church and was trying to gather donations. He asked me if maybe my mother would like to donate something to his cause. He asked me where I lived and I told him that I lived right around the corner about three blocks. Then he asked, Well do you think we could speak with your mother? And I hadn’t seen anybody else by then, but I said yeah, I’m sure she would love to give a donation. Then he goes, Well, could you take us there? And I agreed to. My impression was that he was a nice man, even though I later found out that he wasn’t too bright, but at that age that wasn’t important to me.”
“Then all of a sudden I noticed a white car pull around the corner and up beside us. Murphy opened the back door for me. I got in, he got in front. Then he shut the doors and introduced Parnell to me. They both used their real names, too. Then they drove off and they passed my street. I mentioned it to them, and Parnell said, Oh, well, we’re going to our place for a while and see if you can stay the night. We’re gonna call your mother from there. I go, well, why don’t we just go back and ask her? Then Parnell said, Well, we got some things to do down there. We’ll call her from there. Then they hit the highway for Cathy’s Valley.”
“They sure were sure of themselves. I mean, the way Parnell acted, as soon as he got me in the car, he acted like that was it. Then I just sort of sat back and enjoyed the ride. I’d never even been that way before, you know.”
Murphy said, “On the way out of Merced, I figured that there was something wrong, but then, I said to myself, the kid ain’t doing’ nothin’. I knowed there was somethin’ wrong, but aftyer we left Merced I never heard him cry, either. Even when we got him there he never cried.”
Ken says, “At Merced Mall we began looking for a likely prospect to be my son. During this incident Murphy talked to two other children in the shopping center. However, I thought them to be unsuitable. There was no force used on Steven by either Murphy or myself, and neither was any force necessary to keep him in our custody after leaving the area.”
Steven’s parents had been driving all over town looking for Steven and they finally went home a little before 5 PM and called the Merced Police. Officer Michael Hyde arrived about 15 minutes later and he radioed the dispatcher to say, “Responded to the area of 1655 Bette Street in response to a missing juvenile from that location. The subject was approximately four feet eight inches, sixty pounds, with shaggy brown hair and brown eyes, last seen wearing a light tan coat with blue jeans and a possible zip-up type T-shirt.”
The neighborhood, school playground, Yosemite Parkway and several other areas were searched and Steven’s mother called every one of his classmates. The police retraced every possible route he could have taken home and they went to all the homes and businesses along the way. A female attendant at the Red Ball Service Station said that she saw him walking eastbound, following his normal route home sometime before 3 PM.
By 6 PM reserve police officers and local Boy Scouts were called to search the area and Buzz Williamson from the local radio station KYOS started broadcasting Steven’s description to the public. Steven’s parents Del and Kay spent the night in the nearby junkyard, fearfully opening the doors on the abandoned refrigerators and calling his name.
By this time, Steven was a little more than a half-hour drive up California 140 and he was just sitting down for dinner with Ken and Murphy. They were in a little red cabin at Cathy’s Valley that Ken had rented as his private retreat, just 50 miles up the highway. In an odd twist of fate, Kay’s father, Bob Augustine, Steven’s grandfather, had just moved his trailer two weeks prior to the disappearance to Judy’s Trailer Park in Cathy’s Valley, so he was living 200 feet from the red cabins. Ken had recently asked Murph to buy some toys from a flea market, so there was a pile of them inside the cabin. When Steven saw this, he was so excited and wanted to pick something out for his siblings, but this made Ken mad and he said he could only pick out toys for himself, no one else.
The two men headed outside to chat while Steven played. Ken told Murph that if he said anything about this, he would end up getting the same charges. He apologized for getting him involved in this plan, but reminded him that he would lose everything if he told.
Ken tried talking to Steven while he played. He wanted to know about his mother, father, and siblings. What was his family like? What were his likes and dislikes? Had he ever been whipped? Steven actually lied and said he had never been whipped because he didn’t want to sound like a bad boy, but Ken already knew this was a lie. Ken knew about Steven, and this was not a chance encounter.
The Stayner family’s mailman had recently transferred to Yosemite National Park from Merced and he had mentioned to Ken that he had observed a family who lived on Bette Street down in Merced and they had strict discipline. Ken already knew which child he wanted to kidnap to be his son. Ken was a predator, so the things that took place are truly horrifying and I will warn you that sexual assault is involved. On the first night, Ken forced Steven to eat all of his food, including his vegetables, or he was going to get a spanking. He was scared and gobbled down all of his food. Afterwards, he took a shower and came out wrapped in a towel.
Ken made him remove the towel and crawl into bed with him naked. Murph slept outside of the room on a fold up couch. It was a cold night and the only heat in the cabin was coming from a tiny gas cookstove, which Murph had to tend to several times throughout the night. Murph says he didn’t hear anything that night, but Steven recalled years later that this was the first of many, many times that Ken forced him into oral copulation.
In Merced, the police were still canvassing the town, searching for Steven and it was past 11 PM and they couldn’t find him anywhere. A little before midnight, Police Captain Dave Knutson called up Steven’s father and he asked Del to come to the station. He gets there and Dave says, did you kill Steven? Del was shocked and he said no and agreed to a polygraph test once they were able to get an examiner there.
The next day, Del and his friend Mac Scoggins were on their way to speak with Kay’s father. They wanted to tell him in person that his grandson was missing. They headed to his trailer that was 200 feet from the cabin Steven had been taken to. Around this same exact time, Ken and Murph had to go to work, so they put Steven in the front seat of the vehicle and both vehicles were on the highway around the same time and could have even passed each other. Later, they dropped Murph off at the cabin and Ken forced Steven into fellatio. Steven cried and begged to go home. Ken showed him what he wanted him to do to him from then on and made it clear that they weren’t going to fight about it every time. Once it was over, he undressed Steven, put him to bed, and gave him Nytol sleeping pills so he could go to work.
He worked a quarter mile away at Yosemite Lodge with Murph and they both could easily slip away to check on Steven. Murph didn’t have any friends besides Ken and that’s how he got himself wrapped up in this whole thing. Steven has fond memories of him and says that Murph never assaulted him.
When Steven first disappeared, volunteers and peace officers searched Merced County and there was even a search of the home of a known pedophile and child pornographer just outside the county, but police couldn’t find any clues. Volunteers had detailed maps and carefully checked off each area that had been searched. Years later, Steven’s brother Cary said, “I don’t like to be around a lot of people, so I stayed outside as much as I could. And I remember going out one night after Steve disappeared and wishing on a star that my brother would come back home. And I did that almost every clear night from then until Steve finally came back home. I never did tell anybody about it, but I remember wishing on a star that my little brother would come back home.”
On the day before Steven’s disappearance, he went to Sharon Carr’s birthday party and he gave her a stuffed koala bear which she became extremely protective of. She had a difficult time when Steven went missing. The whole town had a difficult time after his disappearance, but his father Del, really struggled. The two of them had been so close, he was his little sidekick. Del also had a lot of guilt because he hadn’t gotten him baptized yet and they were a very religious family. The morning after he vanished, Del asked his Mormon bishop, Ben Walton, to call Stevie’s name into the prayer roll in Salt Lake City so that “if Stevie was still alive by the time his name got on the prayer roll, nothing bad would happen to him.”Steven was supposed to get baptized as soon as he turned 8 years old, but he disappeared before that could happen.
Del pulled away from his family when his son went missing, he said,“I had a lot to do with my kids before Stevie’s disappearance. But afterward, I was a hard guy to get along with. I just couldn’t stand to see my family broken up with Stevie’s bein’ missing.”The kids learned that they weren’t allowed to talk about the disappearance. They couldn’t ask any questions. Del says that he was very mean to his family when Steven disappeared, but the oldest child, Cary took the brunt of it. Cary said his father wasn’t necessarily mean, but he became a different person. He became very emotional and angry, then he turned his back on his religion because he lost his faith.
Kay had to step up to the plate and keep the family together. She had to give lessons to their other children about how they should never accept candy or rides from strangers and they must always come straight home from school. She continued to cook, clean, and care for the family. For the first 2-3 years, she wouldn’t leave the house unless someone could stay by the phone because she was scared she would miss a call from Steven.
Several tips did come in and many of them were from psychics that wanted to volunteer information. One of the psychics asked to be driven east on Highway 140, and as Merced Police drove her past a trio of little red cabins at Judy’s Trailer Park in Cathy’s Valley, she lost the trail. The police retraced the route with her several times, but every time they passed the cabins, she lost the trail AND THE CABINS WERE NEVER CHECKED.
The police did pull a list of all known sex offenders in Merced and surrounding counties, but Ken Parnell had never been registered as a convicted child molester, even though he was arrested, tried, and convicted of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a nine-year old boy when he was 19. After court ordered stays in two mental hospitals where he made 3 escapes, he was diagnosed as a sexual psycopath and was sentenced to prison.
FBI Agent Walsch contacted Lee Shackleton, Chief Park Ranger in charge of law enforcement in Yosemite National Park, to obtain a list of all Curry Company employees, but this was not requested until the following March and once it was received, the list only contained the names of half of the employees. The Curry Company paid their employees on alternating weeks, so they handed over the list that included the half that were paid on the week of December 4th, 1972, Ken Parnell was not on the list because he got paid on the alternating week. So, his name showed up on the FBI’s list of convicted sex offenders, but he was not on the list of employees that they were comparing it to.
FBI Agent Walsh felt that this was a huge failure later on and he said,“The boy was in the park for quite awhile, living with a park employee. Shackleton and his men couldn’t find him...a seven-year-old boy. That boy should have been found by them. The problem was we were dealing with the rangers. They were supposed to get that list for us, and they didn’t get us a good list. At that time, we were virtually persona non grata with the park rangers. Shackleton was uncooperative with the Merced office of the FBI. At the time the Yosemite Park Company (then known as the Curry Company) had more than forty percent of their employees that had a record of felony arrests and/or convictions.”
“We and the United States Attorney were sure grim to see the number of people with sex violations working in the park. I do know that they have a propensity for hiring perverts. But the best opportunity to solve the case was in Yosemite National Park. Didn’t somebody see a little seven-year-old boy nude around a dormitory?”
Chief Kulbeth agreed with this statement and added that, “One of the first theories concerning Steven’s disappearance centered around the park. We knew from past experience that there were a lot of criminals and sex offenders up there working not for the Park Service, but in other jobs up there, but due to the mere fact that Steven was last seen on the road leading up to Yosemite National Park, we asked for assistance from the Park Service in getting some of the flyers with his photograph on them distributed up there. We weren’t up there. The FBI didn’t have an office up there either. Lee Shackleton was the one in charge, but somehow Parnell just slipped through their fingers.”
Let’s go into the background of Kenneth Eugene Parnell. He was born on September 26th, 1931, in Amarillo, Texas. His mother, Mary was a very overbearing and controlling woman. By the time Ken was born, she was in her second marriage, and it was falling apart. When he was 5-years-old, his parents got a divorce and Mary and her children were heading to California to start over. Kenneth was so distraught by this that he spent several hours pulling out four of his teeth with a pair of pliers.
He later said, “My recollection of the day of the separation, just as any kid would obviously be, I was upset. I wanted to go with my dad, and of course I didn’t. I just simply did not want to leave where I was at. I didn’t want to come to California. Children tend not to want to have their world upset.”
Mary was deeply religious and she expected her family to be as well. Once they moved to Bakersfield, she began working as a nurse’s aide and she became a member of the Assemly of God Church. Her children went to services every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday evening. They also had family rituals where they would pray before school and Mary did daily Bible teachings.
After a few years in Bakersfield, Mary packed up the kids and they moved back to Texas and they stayed there for 3 years, then moved back to Bakersfield. This time, she invested her savings in a boardinghouse to take advantage of the war related oil boom. In the spring of 1945, when Kenneth was 13, he befriended one of his mother’s boarders and he coerced the young boy into fellatio. He was found out, taken into custody, and locked up in Bakersfield Juvenile Hall. A psychiatrist, Dr. Richard D. Lowenberg, recommended temporary placement for Kenneth in Juvenile Hall, “in the hope that his marked emotional immaturity mixed with his sophisticated disposition toward perversion might be overcome.”
He was in Juvenile Hall for several months until he was released in the early summer of 1945, but that fall, shortly after his 14th birthday, he stole a car, got arrested, and was sent to the California Youth Authority’s Fred Nelles School in Whittier which is a residential facility for juvenile male offenders. Kenneth stayed there from October of 1945 to February of 1947 and he later reported that he engaged in homosexual behavior.
Once he was released from this facility, he went back to live with his mother in Bakersfield and he started the 9th grade, but he was so far behind academically. In December of 1947, when he was 16, as the legal records put it, he was, “arrested as a homosexual” and this was for public sex acts. He was released to his mother’s custody and two months later, he stole another car and was sent to California Youth Authority’s Lancaster Facility. He escaped a few weeks later and went back to Bakersfield because he said there was a young boy there that he was sexually attracted to.
He was arrested and placed in the Kern County Jail in Bakersfield and he attempted to end his life by drinking disinfectant. He received emergency treatment at Kern General Hospital, then he was sent to the state mental hospital at Napa for 90 days. Before his time was up, he escaped and went to San Francisco, stole another car, and went back to Bakersfield to see the young boy that he couldn’t stop thinking about. He was arrested again and returned to the Lancaster facility and he stayed there until he was 17-years-old and he was released in May of 1949, and of course, moved back to Bakersfield.
He started working at several jobs, but they didn’t last long. He was a kitchen worker at Kern General Hospital, he worked at Smith’s Market, and a Sears store. He was living at home with his mother, got married to Patsy Jo Dorton and she also moved in with his mother. On March 20th, 1951, Kenneth was driving his mother’s car and he approached 3 young grade-school boys that were playing near Kern General Hospital. He flashed a fake deputy sheriff’s badge at them that he had bought at a Bakersfield Army-Navy surplus store that morning. He talked to the boys and convinced 9-year-old Bobby Green to get in the car with him and he drove to a remote area in the Kern River Canyon and he sexually assaulted him. Kenneth was 19 at this time and he thought about murdering the young boy so he couldn’t tell on him, but he decided to just drive him back to the hospital to drop him off.
Bobby went home and told his parents what happened and on March 26th, 1951, his father signed a complaint against Ken before Justice of the Peace Stewart Magee alleging that Ken had committed three felonies on his son: “First count, child stealing, second count, the infamous crime against nature, Parnell had anally sodomized the boy, third count, the act of copulating the sexual organ.” Kenneth was arrested at Sears (at that time it was called Sears Roebuck). Justice of the Peace Magee offered him the opportunity to retain an attorney, but he declined.
He was asked the following questions: Did you take Bobby Green? Did you commit the infamous crime against his nature? The complaint says there is a violation of Section 288a, did that occur in Kern County? Kenneth replied yes, sir to all three questions. He admitted to flashing a fake badge and coercing one of the boys into the car and he described the sexual assault on Bobby Green. Deputy D.A. Clayton Cochran asked what he did, and Ken said he told the boy to get out so he could stretch his legs. They walked up a hill, sat down to talk, he told him what he was going to do to him, and he did it. I won’t go into much detail about the assault, but Ken did confirm that Bobby cried and did not want to do these acts. He also admitted that he briefly considered strangling him afterwards.
He later admitted that the reason he freely admitted to everything at this time was because at that age, the fear of prison was greater than confessing to anything. He was told that if he confessed to everything and did what he was told, he could go to a hospital instead of prison, so that was the motivation.
Probable cause had been shown that Ken was guilty of all three counts, so he was sent to Kern County Jail. His mother hired private attorney Wiley C. Dorris to represent him. Since Ken had already testified that he was guilty, he felt that the only thing they could do was to have him agree to be bound over to Kern County Superior Court to plead guilty. He was bound over, but 9 days later, Mary bonded him out of jail by paying $50 to the National Automobile and Casualty Insurance Company to write his $5,000 bond.