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Going home: The story of Steven Stayner

A traditional Californian house with picket fence
Image: Shutterstock - Gustavo Zambelli

Seven-year-old, Steven Stayner lived with his parents, Kay and Delbert and his three sisters and an older brother in the small Californian city of Merced. As he was walking home from school on December 4th 1972, he was approached by a man named Ervin Murphy claiming to be a representative of the church who was looking for donations. He asked Steven if he thought his mother would have anything to donate.

When Steven answered that she would, he naively climbed into the man’s car and didn’t come home for the next 7 years.

The driver of the car was Kenneth Parnell. He was a convicted sex offender. He had problems from an early age, psychologists had said that he needed help. He spent years in and out of juvenile detention centres before serving 3 and a half years in an adult prison for ‘lewd and lascivious behavior with a child’. He also had convictions for armed robbery and impersonating a police officer.

Parnell had convinced Ervin Murphy that he was planning on becoming a minister and needed to abduct a young boy to raise in a ‘religious type deal’. The two had met while working at Yosemite National Park. Murphy was described by those who knew him as a simple minded, naïve, and trusting man.

On Parnell's instruction, Murphy had been handing out religious flyers to young boys on their way home from school, and Steven Stayner happened to be the boy who agreed to help. Steven got into Parnell's car with Murphy thinking he was going home. Instead, Parnell drove Steven to a rented cabin, in Cathys Valley.

Parnell told Steven that he had spoken to his parents who said that it was okay with them that he stayed the night. Parnell committed the first of countless sexual assaults the very next morning.

The abuse escalated over the first few weeks and continued for years. As Steven cried for his parents Parnell told him that his parents didn’t want him anymore.

He told the young boy that the Stayner’s could not afford him and they had granted Parnell legal custody. From then on Steven would be known as ‘Dennis Parnell’.

Less than a month after his abduction, Steven was enrolled in school under the name Dennis, with Parnell pretending to be his father. Across the next few years Steven and Parnell moved around California. Fliers had been sent to all the schools in the district but they were never seen at Steele Lane Elementary where Steven had been enrolled.

Parnell had a series of menial jobs, and to anyone outside of the home he shared with Steven they were just a normal father and son. He even worked away at times, giving Steven a chance to escape but he never did. He believed he had nowhere else to go. He had been told that his parents didn’t want him.

Timmy cried for his parents every day.

Parnell would manipulate Steven, maintaining a fine line between complete control and total freedom. He gave Steven a dog, a gesture most 7 year old's would think was genuine care. Steven never told anyone of the horrors he was subjected to by the man pretending to be his father. Parnell allowed Steven to live without boundaries, convinced the boy would remain loyal.

As Steven aged and grew out of Parnell's sick preferential age, he was told to try and get another boy for Parnell. Steven would intentionally sabotage these kidnap attempts, to prevent another child from going through what he had.

He then bribed one of Stevens teenage friends, Sean Poorman to help him kidnap a little blonde boy he’d had his eye on in Ukiah, California. They planned to lure the boy to the car, pretending to need assistance but the boy said no. The boy ran towards his home as Parnell shouted at Poorman to ‘get him’.

Poorman chased the child until they reached a chain fence. Sean Poorman pried the boy's tiny fingers from the fence as he screamed in terror. He threw him into Parnell's car and they sped off. The little boy was 5 year old Timothy White. His parents were terrified, despite the frenzied abduction, no one saw a thing. Appeals were broadcast, fliers were distributed, and searches were launched, but Timmy was gone.

Just like he had done 7 years earlier, Parnell wasted no time in changing Timmys appearance, dyeing the boys hair brown and changing his clothes. He renamed Timmy and began telling him the same lies he had told Steven.

It was hearing Timmy being told the same things that made Steven realize just how bad things had been. He knew Timmy had a family missing him, and he thought maybe he did too. Timmy cried for his parents every day.

Steven made sure he was home early from school each day so that Parnell couldn’t abuse the little boy like he had done to him. 2 weeks after Timmy had been abducted, they left Parnell's home together while he was working a night shift as a security worker. They hitchhiked over 40 miles to Ukiah, California, to Timmy’s home. Steven often carried Timmy who was tired and crying, through the rain as they tried to find Timmys house.

Timmy couldn’t remember where he lived and no one was home at his babysitter's house so Steven looked up the address to the local police station and they walked there hand in hand.

As they got to the police station at midnight, Steven told Timmy to go inside and tell the policemen his name and that they would bring him home to his parents. Timmy was frightened and didn’t want Steven to leave, he ran back to him sobbing and at this point a police officer approached them.

Over the course of the separate trials Parnell's defense attorney stated that Steven could have left at any time but chose not to. They said that the kidnapping occurred before California’s three year statute of limitations and therefore he could not be prosecuted for that offence.Prosecutors argued that Steven was a psychological prisoner and the kidnapping was a continuous event for the entire 7 years.

A psychologist testified that Parnell would switch between violent sexual abuse and ‘extraordinary freedom’. Steven was effectively brainwashed into thinking he had no other option but to stay. He had come to believe that the life he had with his abuser was the only life he would ever have. He didn’t know his family were searching for him or even cared.Ervin Murphy, the vulnerable man Parnell had duped into assisting him was convicted of kidnapping.

Suspicious of the older boy, police brought them both inside where Steven eventually told his story. Early the next morning Kenneth Parnell was arrested on suspicion of abducting both children. Police realised he had previous convictions of sodomy but he had never been suspected of anything because he never registered as a sex offender. The following summer, Kenneth Parnell was convicted of kidnapping Steven Stayner and Timothy White.

Sean Poorman, who assisted in the kidnapping of Timothy White was also convicted and sentenced to time in a juvenile correction facility. Kenneth Parnell was not charged with the hundreds of sexual assaults he committed against Steven Stayner and other boys because they had occurred outside of the jurisdiction of the Merced County prosecutor and took place outside of 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.

Kenneth Parnell was sentenced to eight years and eight months in prison for one count of kidnap and one year and eight months for the other. He was sent to prison in February, 1982 and released on parole in April, 1985. The legislation surrounding kidnapping convictions changed after this case to ensure offenders serve consecutive sentences for each offence.

Steven managed to move forward with his life and supported other victims, he had a family of his own with his wife Jody. On September 16 1989, Steven was working at a pizza restaurant. He was eager to get home to his family. It was raining heavily and his boss offered him the company pickup truck to save him getting wet, but instead, fearing he would get in trouble for driving without a licence, Steven got onto his motorbike.

On his way home a car pulled out from a side road and he collided with it. Steven was driving below the speed limit but he wasn’t wearing a helmet. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital less than an hour later. He was just 24 years old.

500 people attended his funeral 4 days later in a church he had joined not long before his death. One of his pallbearers was a now 14 year old, Timmy White. The inscription on Steven’s casket read ‘Going Home’. Timothy had a relatively normal life, because of Steven’s bravery. He became a LA county Sherriff department Deputy. He also married and had two children. On April 1st 2010, he died, aged just 35, from a pulmonary embolism.

Two lives, brought together by horrific events, both ended too soon.After he got out of prison, Kenneth Parnell stayed under the radar. In January 2003, he tried to convince a nurse to kidnap a young boy for him for $500. He was sentenced to 25 years to life under California’s Three Strikes Law for solicitation to commit a felony. He was 72 years old. Timothy White testified at his trial and Steven’s earlier trial transcript was also read out to jurors.

Kenneth Parnell served less than four years of this sentence when he died in January 2008.

Steven’s family had asked for a park to be named Stayner park in his honour, but the council didn’t accept this in fear that the community would associate the park with another Stayner, Steven’s older brother and convicted serial killer, Cary Stayner.

In 2010, a statue commemorating Steven’s bravery was unveiled in his hometown of Merced. It depicts a teenage Steven, hand-in-hand with five-year-old Timothy White, just as they had been when they escaped their captor 30 years earlier. The statue is dedicated to Steven’s courage and to all of the children who are missing, in hope that one day they too can come home.

Read more:

4 abduction cases where the child came home safe