Twice in his life, fate threw a hideous obstacle in Steven Stayner's path, and try as he might, he could not get out of the way. The first time he lost his childhood. The second time, just last week, he lost his life.
In 1972, when Stayner was 7, he was approached on his way home from school in Merced, Calif., by a friendly seeming man who said he wanted to talk to Steven's mother about making a contribution to a church. He was led to a car, where a 40-year-old Texas-born drifter named Kenneth Eugene Parnell was waiting. Telling Stayner his parents had abandoned him and ordering the boy to call him Dad, Parnell for the next seven years secreted Stayner in a series of remote California cabins and trailers and abused him psychologically and sexually. Finally, in 1980, when Parnell forcibly brought home another victim, 5-year-old Timmy White, Stayner, then 14, grabbed the boy and escaped, hitching 40 miles to the nearest police station. His story made news around the world and last May was the subject of an acclaimed NBC miniseries, I Know My First Name Is Steven.
Last week, back in Merced, 24-year-old Stayner was again heading home when a man in a car loomed in front of him. This time he was riding his motorcycle back from his job as a pizza deliveryman, returning to his wife, Jody, and their children, Ashley, 3, and Steven Jr., 2. Suddenly, just ahead of him, a car pulled out of the driveway of a migrant-labor camp along the highway. Stayner, who was not wearing a helmet, hit the driver's side of the car and suffered massive head injuries. He died less than an hour later at Merced Community Medical Center. According to police, witnesses identified the driver, who fled the scene, as Antonio Loera, 28, a worker at a local tomato-packing plant.
"I'm very, very, very angry. I've never been this angry," said Stayner's wife, Jody. "It would have been a lot different if this man who hit him had stayed. If it's the last thing I do I'll nail him," vowed Jody, who remembered Steven as evolving into "a very happy man living a normal life with two beautiful kids."
At the time of the accident Steven's parents, Kay and Delbert, were on a weekend camping trip outside Merced. Friends tracked them down to break the tragic news. "Kay is absolutely devastated," says another family friend, Sandra Hawkins, who is director of a child-care food program in Merced where Kay works. Hawkins was at Kay and Del's mobile home in Atwater when the shaken couple arrived late Saturday night. "When Kay walked into the house, she hesitated and then said, 'It seems like he has just been on loan to us,' " recalls Hawkins. "She was the one who stayed so strong and calm and collected through that seven-year-ordeal," says Hawkins. "But her strength is waning now. This is the hardest thing she has ever had to face, and she just can't talk to anybody. Del is devastated too. But this time he's the one who is staying strong for Kay."
Stayner's death came only one day before television's Emmy Awards show, in which I Know My First Name Is Steven was a candidate for four awards. The principals present at the ceremonies had prepared heartfelt tributes to Stayner but were denied the opportunity to deliver them when the miniseries failed to win. "It's amazing after all he went through that he came out so wonderfully," recalls Corin "Corky" Nemec, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a miniseries for playing Steven as a teenager. Remembers JP Miller, the Emmy-nominated co-screenwriter (who was not present at the awards): "He was kind of a reckless kid after he came back home—he wrecked a couple of cars—and I talked to him about being careful, because he could kill himself. He said, 'What's dying?'—like so much had already happened to him, what was dying compared to that?" But more recently, Miller says, "Steven was bravely going about reconstructing his life. He didn't complain. He didn't whine about lousy breaks. He was just a great kid with a good heart."
Even after the miniseries aired last spring, say friends and family, Steven remained humble, hoping his story, for which he was paid $30,000, would help other abused and missing children. "He gave his life a purpose by allowing his story to be told," says Andrew Adelson, executive producer of I Know My First Name Is Steven. Already a trust fund has been set up at the Merced branch of Bank of America to help Steven's two children. "People are pretty down around here," says Steven's aunt Anna Jones.
Loera, the alleged driver of the car, surrendered to police shortly before funeral services were held last Wednesday, Sept. 20, at Merced's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For his part, Eugene Parnell, who served five years for kidnapping and was paroled in 1985, is thought to be living somewhere in Northern California. There was no consolation for Stayner's bereaved family, only a grim ending to a life that seemed to be just getting started. "It's final this time," said his father. "I know where Stevie's at now."
—John Stark, Suzanne Adelson in Los Angeles