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.
RECAP: Ken Parnell and Murph kidnapped Steven Stayner and Ken raised him for several years as his son. He sexually assaulted him and his friends. As Steven got older, Ken decided that he needed a younger child, so he kidnapped Timmy White on Valentine’s Day. 14-year-old Steven and 5-year-old Timmy escaped together and went to the Ukiah police station and were returned to their families. Ken and Murph were arrested and that’s where we left off.
On April 6th, which was Easter, Del and Kay took Steven and his 3 sisters to Ukiah in their camper. It was their first trip to Mendocino County since he had returned home. The purpose of this was because Steven was going to receive the $15k reward for returning Timmy White. A ceremony was held at 2 PM in Ukiah’s City Park and Timmy was hoisted onto a chair and presented the check to Steven himself. The Stayner’s chose not to cut Steven off from his old life, instead they embraced it and wanted to learn about it. The fact is, he had friends and grew up around other people. They took him back to Comptche where he spent three years and they met some of his friends and Kay said that the Mountain View Ranch was “wild, desolate, and beautiful.”
After taking a month to get reacquainted with his family, Steven was enrolled in the freshman class at the East Campus of Merced High School and unfortunately, the kids were little assholes. They started calling him gay, punk, and all sorts of other things and everyone kept asking him questions about why he didn’t just run away from Ken in the beginning. He was also struggling at home. Now that he was back, there was some sibling rivalry going on. Steven and his older brother Cary were fighting a lot and he was having a hard time making friends.
Now that Steven was home, 17-year-old Cary felt neglected and jealous. He felt that Steven was just a normal kid that did the right thing by bringing Timmy White to the police, but he said the media blew it out of proportion by turning Steven into a hero. He saw him getting money, gifts, and attention and Cary didn’t like that.
Many of his old friends did show up to see him and even spent some time at the Stayners residence in the summer. His parents were perfectly fine with this, but I’ll tell you what they weren’t fine with. One day, Kay opened the door and standing on her damn porch was Ken’s old girlfriend, Barbara Matthias, the one who had also sexually assaulted Steven. She was standing there, with her son Lloyd and a TV crew. Barbara had been promised several hundred dollars if she arranged an exclusive interview with Steven and his family, so she just showed up and didn’t tell them. Kay slammed the door in her face.
In 1980, the Stayner family gave their approval for Steven’s story to be aired on TV on behalf of ABC-TV. Steven received $25k for this, but the Stayners had a bunch of problems with the script and the story wasn’t produced.
The Mendocino County District Attorney’s investigator Richard Finn was the one that took complete charge of the investigation of Ken Parnell’s kidnapping of Timmy White and he didn’t cooperate with lawmen from Merced. Finn primarily interviewed both Steven and Timmy and he handled the majority of the calls with both the Stayner and White families. Other officers found it very strange that he didn’t follow up on their discoveries that Ken Parnell had committed hundreds of sexual assaults on Steven’s young male friends during his 4-year residence in Mendocino County. They sent very detailed findings to him, and Finn seemed unconcerned.
Lunney and Price tried to piece together as much evidence as they could for their case against Ken. They stopped by all of the schools Steven attended to pick up his records and they had to search the Mountain View Ranch cabin again. The first time, when Finn was there, the search was disorganized and they didn’t find much. This time, the Merced officers were surprised when they arrived because Finn presented them with a broad search warrant to send them on their way. The two of them spent five hours scouring the cabin, barn, and outbuildings. Since it was so late in the game, there wasn’t much left to go through. Many reporters and other people had already been traipsing through there because Finn left the ranch unsecured.
The San Francisco Chronicle had been in there and they came across Ken’s nude photos of Steven and Jeff Norton. The photos were handed over to the property owner, Duke Stornetta and he brought them to the Ukiah police and the photos were later sent to Merced police. Since the police didn’t find the photos at the ranch on their own, it destroyed evidence. They could no longer prove that Ken was the one that took the photos.
Lunney and Price went to Point Arena and searched Ken’s town apartment at The Garcia Center and they went to Comptche where he had an old trailer set up as a storage shed. They found boxes of records, phone bill receipts and his old parole papers. They interviewed many people that had known Ken and Steven and that’s where they found that many of Steven’s friends had been sexually assaulted by Ken. By law, Lunney and Price were able to investigate anywhere and follow up on leads, but if they come across another criminal act in another county, all they can do, is turn that information over to the authorities in that county and that’s exactly what they did. Finn should have followed up on this information, but he chose not to. George McClure was the one who prosecuted Ken Parnell and he said not only did Finn never tell him anything about sexually assaulting other kids, but he downplayed the assaults on Steven and provided a recommendation not to prosecute Ken “so as to protect Steve”.
According to Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Dallegge, in the early 1980’s Mendocino County law enforcement had a strange attitude about prosecuting adults who were accused of sexually assaulting kids. He said, “Back then, the time I took over as investigator, you could catch a guy for sexual assault on a child aged 14 and if you could get him for first offense and put him in county jail and get him convicted, you were lucky. I worked sex crimes, and I couldn’t get the District Attorney to prosecute. You know, they wouldn’t even file the case!”
Lunney and Price took a third trip to Mendocino County and they found another round of boys who had been sexually assaulted by Ken and all of them had dark hair and were between the ages of 9 to 14 when it happened. They filled out detailed reports of every incident and handed them to Finn, but it was never investigated.
Finn had an evidence drawer that was a locked file cabinet with two drawers and it sat behind his desk and absolutely nobody else had access to it and it’s believed that he was putting the evidence in there. Joe Allen said that one day, he needed to get some evidence for a case of his that was in the file cabinet and he tried to find a key because Finn wasn’t there, but he couldn’t find it. He said, “It was one of those keyed file cabinets that would protect your papers in case of fire. I remember one time that George had to get some evidence for trial out of that cabinet. Finn was out of town and was the only one who had a key to it. So we had to get the charges against the defendant to be dropped. That was his file cabinet and what he did or didn’t have in there he kept fairly close to his chest.”
When Steven had first been interviewed, he adamantly denied any sexual abuse and he stuck to this story for awhile. After Lunney and Price had interviewed so many other boys that had been sexually assaulted, they knew Steven wasn’t telling the truth, so they finally confronted him with the nude photos and they told him they had someone that would get on the witness stand and testify that he was assaulted by Ken. Steven finally told the truth and admitted that it happened hundreds of times. In California, the statute of limitations for sexual assault on a child was three years and Ken had left Merced County with Steven seven years earlier, so the assaults could only be from 1977 to 1980 and that meant the charges would be filed in Mendocino County. Lunney and Price took Steven’s sworn statements about the assaults, and they brought Steven himself to Finn in Ukiah and requested that Finn take this seriously and investigate Ken Parnell for all 87 sexual assaults on Steven which the Merced officers had documented. The officers personally handed him additional copies of their reports on the several boys that had been sexually assaulted in the trailer at Comptche.
George McClure found out about these assaults and said he wanted to speak with Steven himself. His father Del got up and left as he was providing details and George figured, it wasn’t worth it to make Steven talk about it anymore. Steven told him he had no problems getting back to normal life and dealing with it, so Finn decided not to pursue the investigation.
Joe Allen says he accepts much of the responsibility for the decision not to prosecute Ken for sexually assaulting Steven. He explained that yes, it could have added many years to his sentence, but he decided that it wasn’t right to drag Steven through that. He acknowledged that it would have been beneficial to prosecute for the safety of the public, but he didn’t think Steven was strong enough to handle it.
Since they were choosing not to pursue the sexual assaults, all they had was the kidnapping and that was becoming a difficult issue as well. The kidnapping happened 7 years prior, but California also had a 3-year statute on this as well. Merced County District Attorney Pat Hallford was able to successfully argue that the kidnapping of Steven Stayner had been ongoing for as long as Ken kept him. Merced County’s kidnapping charges against Ken and the county’s conspiracy to kidnap against both ken and Murphy were solid.
A psychiatrist David Axelrad from the University of California was brought in to examine Ken Parnell and he wrote, “During the course of the examination, it became clear to me that Mr. Parnell is experiencing significant paranoid ideation and significant hostility toward the criminal justice system....In view of the above, I respectfully request that you arrange for an evaluation of Mr. Parnell with the Mental Health Institute of Sacramento.”
Ken was transferred to the California State Prison Medical Facility which cost a considerable amount of money and he underwent several truth serum sessions. He was injected with sodium pentothal (Pent-a-thol) and he was questioned. LeStrange was the one tasked with defending Ken and once he saw the videotaped confessions, he said it was so damaging to his client that he chose not to use the tapes, or any information derived from them in his defense. He said, “There is information in those tapes that, if known, would put Mr. Parnell behind bars for the rest of his natural life.”
On June 8th, 1981, the trial of Kenneth Eugene Parnell began where he was charged with the kidnapping of Timmy White. When he kidnapped him, Sean Poorman helped, so he had already been convicted in Mendocino County Juvenile Court on a charge of false imprisonment and he got two years at a northern California residential juvenile facility.
Steven, who Dick Finn had decided was so fragile that they couldn’t fully prosecute Ken, he was able to take the stand and he made a very good witness for the State and held his own during cross examination. The sexual assaults were never brought up during the trial. Ken had a very wild story about the day of Timmy’s kidnapping. He said that he left work and went to a Salvation Army to get a box spring and he stopped for lunch. When he got home, he was startled when Sean burst through the door and said, “We kidnapped a kid.” Sean and Hank wanted Ken to take care of Timmy until they could work something out.
Ken had owned some law books and he wrote notes in the margins for four different crimes: kidnapping, rape, robbery, and murder. He had been studying long before he was caught. Before the trial, Finn hypnotized Timmy, so it was unclear whether he could even properly testify about the kidnapping. The panel found that the hypnotic process carried out by Richard Finn wasn’t valid. LeStrange wanted to have Dr. Axelrad make an official statement to the court about this, but Judge Sabraw wouldn’t allow this and it became a big error which Ken’s attorney used later to appeal, though it was unsuccessful.
On June 29th at 2:15 PM Judge Sabraw spent 31 minutes providing detailed instructions to the jury and they were sent for deliberation. At 4:50 they found Kenneth Eugene Parnell guilty of kidnapping in the second degree. Since he had two prior felony convictions and served prison time for both, California law precluded the possibility of probation and he was sentenced to the maximum prison time allowed for second-degree kidnapping which was only 7 years.
On December 1st, 1981, Merced County’s case against Kenneth Eugene Parnell and Ervin Edward Murphy went to trial for Steven Stayner’s kidnapping. They attempted to show that Steven’s parents, Del and Kay were very harsh and he was an unhappy child with them. A Merced psychologist Dr. Phillip M. Hamm analyzed them and noted that Steven’s parents appeared to be close and supportive. Kay enjoyed her children, but she was more of a disciplinarian than her husband. They taught Steven to do as he was told by adults without question.
The Stayner's had some concerns about the way Steven was adjusting to their family, but they did not believe he needed counseling even though it was suggested many times. He was reluctant to talk about his experiences and they didn’t want to force him to talk about it. Del did mention that he was concerned about the fact that Steven only had one male friend, all of the others were females. He observed that his son had a pattern of attaching himself to one female, then moving to the next in a repetitive fashion. He had many girlfriends and couldn’t seem to commit. Del and Kay were experiencing confusion, fear and guilt which made it difficult to know if they should discipline Steven when he was out of line, or if they should be more patient.
Steven was presenting himself as a happy, easygoing kid that always had a smile on his face. The results from a psychological test showed that he was experiencing a great deal of emotional conflict and he had a tendency to either act out or live out his very intense internal and conflicted experience. On the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Steven obtained an extremely high score on the L Scale. This is used to specifially identify a persons attempt to give overly perfectionistic views of themselves or to present a positive picture.
Steven attempted to fend off his abductors, but he was overwhelmed by their persistence and persuasiveness. Most 7-year-olds would be, but Steven appeared to be especially vulnerable to this because he was such a trusting child and he had been raised to respect all adults. A San Francisco psychiatrist Robert A. Wald prepared an evalution on Steven that’s pretty interesting. I haven’t used it a lot, but when Ken kidnapped Steven, he renamed him Dennis. The evaluation by Robert A. Wald says,
“Steven was essentially trapped and bound within the unconscious mind of Dennis. When Dennis saw the active distress of the younger child, Timmy WHite, his satisfaction with the myth of being Dennis began to deteriorate. When he saw that Timmy was treated with kindness and concern by the officer, the mythic person was subordinated to the real person, and the young man spoke his true name. It is my absolute belief that with the acknowledgment of his true identity, Steven Stayner freed himself form his state of being kidnapped. From a psychological point of view, he was still in a state of kidnap until he spoke his name, thus ending a psychic capture that lasted two thousand, six hundred fourty-four days.”
At this trial, Ken did not take the stand and the testimonies ended two days before Christmas of 1981. Due to the holidays, Judge Sabraw dismissed the jury until January 4th of 1982. When the jury was back together, it was very difficult for them because you had two people on trial, Ken and Murph. They both played extremely different roles in the kidnapping of Steven and they deliberated for 14 hours. They finally reached a verdict and both Ken and Murph were found guilty of second-degree kidnapping and conspiracy-to-kidnap.
On February 3rd, the two men were brought to the Court for sentencing. Judge Sabraw had Ken Parnell stand with the attorney for his sentence and he said, “It is the judgement of this court and it’s hereby ordered, adjudged, and decreed that in punishment for said offense, that the defendant be imprisoned in the State Prison of the State of California for the term of 84 months. I note that by reason of the bizarre nature of the circumstances surrounding this crime, that a 7-year-old boy was taken from his home and lied to, told that his parents didn’t want him anymore, presumably didn’t love him anymore, told that he was separated legally from his parents by reason of obtaining a court order, thereafter permitting this boy for the next seven years to lead a loose and permissive and undisciplined life, depriving him of the training at a most critical period in his life, religious training, moral training. The resulting psychological impact, that this obviously had on this young boy, now sixteen years of age, is something that he’s struggling with now and will be struggling with...for the rest of his life. The impact that this had on his family is difficult to measure and difficult to perceive and to fully appreciate. All this conduct was callous, deceitful, insensitive, and as far as the Court is concerned, fully justifies the imposition of the maximum sentence that’s available to the Court.”
The Judge turned and said,“With respect to the defendant Ervin Edward Murphy, the record would refelect that I have read and considered the probation report that has been filed in this matter and have concluded, based on the circumstances of the crime, the serious nature of the crime, that the defendant’s application for probation should be denied.” The Judge did acknowledge that Ken was the primary person involved in this crime and Murph did not have a prior criminal record, but he didn’t protect Steven or go to the police to tell them what happened.
Murph received the average term allowed by law, 60 months, with an additional sentence of 60 months, to be served concurrently for his conspiracy conviction. Because of California law, for kidnapping Steven, Murph got a longer sentence than Ken.
Ken had received a 7 year sentence for kidnapping Timmy White, but since Steven Stayner was the second offense to be tried, he only got 20 months. He kept Steven for 7 whole years and he only got 20 months. This law was later changed, so you can also get 7 years for an additional kidnapping, but it didn’t help in this case.
After the trial was over, Hallford decided he wanted to try to get Ken prosecuted for the 87 sexual assaults on Steven. He called Mendocino County, Dick Finn, and the Stayners to get everyone together. Dick Finn wanted to let this whole thing go, so he put it all on Steven and asked if he really wanted to go through with this. They allowed a kid to make the decision and he had just gone through a trial, why would he want to do it again? Also, he was extremely embarassed about the sexual abuse, so he declined.
He was missing a ton of school for the interrogations and he was also making appearances on local TV shows and other national news stations. He had to be excused to testify at both trials. He was falling behind and wanted to live a normal life. Things were tough at home too. Del and Kay still wanted to treat him like the 7-year-old kid, but he was a teenager. The family wanted to act as if nothing happened, so they assumed Steven was fine and never talked about what happened to him.
Steven later explained to the author of the book that he was very conflicted about his feelings towards Ken Parnell. He said, “I told them straight out: ‘I spent seven years with him. He treated me well, he looked after me. I thank him for keeping me alive.’ And I am grateful to him for that.” He also mentioned during an interview that Ken brainwashed him right away and made him believe that his family didn’t want him anymore and he believed he would be sent to a boy’s home if he told, that’s why he didn’t run away. He was scared of Ken, but he was also awarded some freedom which was used as a form of manipulation to get Steven to trust him.
Steven said, “Then I went on to tell them that I hate him with a purple passion for stealing seven years of my life. The reason I said that is because when I got home my mom and dad, brother, and sisters, told me about all the things that they did while I was gone. It’s just that I hate him for stealing the time, the time that I would have been there, and I would have had the experiences.”
He said that he had a love/hate relationship with Ken and he wasn’t able to resolve this in his own mind and he wasn’t comfortable talking about this with his parents. He said that he actually tried to bring this up with them in 1984. He told his parents that he wanted to go to Soledad Prison to talk with Ken, but Del and Kay just stared off into space and didn’t say anything. When they did finally speak, they changed the subject and ignored him.
When Steven was 7, he was inseparable from his father. When he came back home, he didn’t want anyone to control him. He was smoking pot, drinking beer and Jack Daniels, driving cars fast and recklessly, and staying out all night. When he turned 18, he received $25k for the TV-movie deal and the $15k reward for returning Timmy White. He blew through the money really fast and withdrew large amounts at a time from his account and there were rumors that he had gotten into drugs. The money was gone in 3 months.
He bought 3 cars in less than a year because he wrecked two of them. Just two weeks after he got his license, he crashed into a parked car and got charged with making an illegal lefthand turn and he estimates that he got about 10 speeding tickets.
At 18, he finished his senior year in high school, but he didn’t graduate because he failed several classes and he moved into a rented house trailer with his cousin. In total, he had received $40k after returning home and it was all gone, so he got a job at a meat-packing plant and he did get his high school GED. He gave up alcohol because he suffered a potentially fatal reaction to drinking so much. He actually tore the stomach lining which caused severe internal bleeding and he was hospitalized for several days. This scared him away from alcohol, but he did continue to smoke pot and cigarettes.
In June of 1985, he married Jody Lynn Edmonson and in December of that year, she gave birth to their first child, Ashley and in May of 1987, she had their second child, Steven Gregory Stayner II and they called him Stevie.
Steven was a self-employed landscaper during this time, but he dreamed of becoming a deputy sheriff. In 1986, his parents, Del and Kay ended up getting a divorce due to personal problems related to Steven’s kidnapping, but two years later, they reconciled and moved together to Atwater.
Kenneth Eugene Parnell was paroled from Soledad Correctional Training Facility on April 5th, 1985, which was an early release due to good behavior. His parole was extended to two years and his parole officer checked on him 5 to 6 times a week, he attended regular counseling sessions, and he couldn’t be around children. On April 5th, 1987, he completed his supervised parole and was free.
In 2003, he was arrested again in connection with a kidnapping. He was sick at this time, and he tried to get his caretaker to buy a 4-year-old boy for him in Berkeley, California for $500. He was 71 at this point and he had diabetes and emphysema, along with other issues from a stroke he had previously. He required nursing care around the clock. The caretaker was well aware of Ken’s past and cooperated with the police in setting up a sting operation. He paid $100 for a birth certificate and $400 would be handed over once the kidnapping was completed and he wanted to receive the child on January 3rd, 2003, which is the day he was arrested. He was convicted on February 9th, 2004 on the charges of attempting to purchase a child and attempted child molestation, even though a child hadn’t technically been targeted. Sexual aids and pornography found in his apartment, along with the caretaker's testimony was enough to prove Ken’s intentions and he was sentenced to 25 years to life under California’s “three strikes” law because he was clearly a habitual offender.
He died on January 21st, 2008 at the age of 76 due to natural causes, he had been in hospice care for some time.
Lorimar-Telepictures produced a miniseries called “I Know My First Name Is Steven.” This aired in 2 parts on May 22nd of 1989 and nearly 40 million viewers tuned in which made it NBC’s highest rated miniseries in 5 years. Steven was an adviser for the film, and he appeared in the show as the policeman who reunited the actor portraying Steven with his parents. This put him back in the public eye, but he was grateful. He said he felt relieved because now people know what really happened to him.
On the afternoon of September 16th, 1989, Steven ended his shift at the Pizza Hut and he hung back with a friend to smoke pot. Shortly before 5 PM, he got on his new Kawasaki motorcycle to head home. The roads were slick from the rain, and he rode north along Santa Fe Drive which is directly in front of the meat packing plant he previously worked at. An employee of the plant, Antonio Loera, was driving a friend’s car and he pulled out in front of Steven and stalled. A car traveling alongside Steven was able to stop, but Steven kept going and crashed into the driver’s door and was thrown 45 feet from his motorcycle.
He was rushed to Merced County Medical Center and at 5:35 PM he was pronounced dead from massive head injuries. He normally wore a helmet on his motorcycle, but it had been stolen three days earlier. At the time of the crash, Steven didn’t have a driver’s license because it had been suspended for the third time because he had so many traffic tickets. The show about his story had been nominated for 4 Emmy awards and Steven passed away the night before the Emmy’s.
Steven’s funeral was held on September 20th, 1989. He became a symbol of hope for other families that were going through similar situations, waiting for their loved ones to return. Two of the pallbearers were Steven’s old friends from Mendocino County, along with Damon Carroll, and Timmy White who was now 14-years-old. Steven’s sister said he had, “brought our broken-hearted family back together again. Even though he has passed into another life, we’re so very grateful that he went as Steven Gregory Stayner, our brother. We will always remember you and will never forget you, but remember, this is not goodbye, this is until we meet again.”
Steven devoted much of his time telling his story, teaching parents, children and a whole nation how to protect themselves from what happened to him, and his story is told in the movie “I Know My First Name Is Steven.”
Timmy White grew up, got married and became a father of two. He got a job working as a sheriff’s deputy in Los Angeles County in 2005, but unfortunately, he passed away when he was only 35 years old after suffering a pulmonary embolism. Like Steven, he gave lectures to children about his experience and the dangers of kidnapping. On August 28th, 2010, a statue of Timmy and Steven was dedicated in Applegate Park in Merced, CA. The sculpture design was named, “Coming Home.” It’s used to remind families and friends of other missing children that their loved one may return someday. It is used to recognize other victims of stranger abductions and serves as a permanent reminder of our inherent duty to protect children. The Memorial Committee included a plaque that serves as a wake-up call for everyone to be vigilant in protecting children from abductions.
The bronze statue depicts Timmy looking up at Steven. Timmy takes his hand as they were heading out on the dark road, leaving the cabin where they had been held. The plaque says,
Kidnapped in 1972 as he was walking home from school and told his parents no longer wanted him, seven-year-old Steven Stayner was routinely violated through seven years of captivity. As Steven grew older, his captor’s preference for younger children drove him to abduct five-year-old Timothy White. Unaware of the fate now intended for him. Steven’s only thought was to save the new child from unspeakable abuse he had himself suffered. Steven summoned the courage to lead little Timmy on a desperate flight to safety.
Once returned to his parents, Steven took time to educate law enforcement, school and parent groups on the insidious methods of child sex predators. Steven died at age 24 in a motorcycle accident, leaving his wife and two small children. May this memorial to Steven Stayner’s heroism and to all child victims stand as a beacon of hope to families of children still missing.”
I Know My First Name Is Steven - Kindle edition by Echols, Mike. Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
Where Is Kenneth Parnell, Who Kidnapped Steven Stayner, Now? | True Crime Buzz (oxygen.com)
What Happened to Timmy White After His 1980 Abduction? (distractify.com)
Timothy White (abduction victim) - Wikipedia
“Steven Stayner Missing Children’s Memorial” - Paula Slater, M.A.
Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story EP 1 & 2 on HULU