17 Years Later, a Tv Miniseries Forces Steven Stayner to Relive the Horror of His Childhood
05/22/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
On a gray December day in 1972, the stranger, a friendly man in dark-rimmed glasses, approached the little boy on his way home from school in Merced, Calif. "Hi, I'm Ervin," he said. "I'm collecting money for a church and I wonder if I could talk to your mom about making a contribution." The freckle-faced second-grader didn't hesitate. "Sure," said Steven Stayner—and thereby innocently left behind all he had known and loved before.
Instead of being taken home to his mother, the 7-year-old was shepherded to a car in which another stranger waited. And instead of spending his childhood playing and squabbling with his four brothers and sisters, he would for the next seven years be shuttled between a string of isolated California cabins and trailers, convinced that his parents no longer wanted him, sexually and psychologically abused by the man he was told to call Dad—Kenneth Eugene Parnell, a 40-year-old Texas-born drifter with a history of convictions for child molestation.
It would not be until March 1980 that Steven, then 14 and unsure even of his name, would find his way back to his old life by walking into a Ukiah, Calif., police station, escorting 5-year-old Timmy White, the most recent of Parnell's victims, kidnapped just two weeks before.
Today, as he sits at home in a plant-filled, toy-strewn apartment just six miles from the site of his abduction, Stayner, now 23, married and the father of 3-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, bears no outward scars. There is "no problem dealing with it now," he insists. "Parnell can't do nothing to me anymore." But this Monday and Tuesday (May 22 and 23), when NBC airs the miniseries based on his kidnapping, I Know My First Name Is Steven, it's hard to imagine he will be unaffected.
As Stayner now tells it, after being lured to the car by Ervin Murphy—a dim-witted accomplice of Parnell's—he was driven 26 miles to a one-room cabin in the desolate town of Cathey's Valley, outside Yosemite National Park. "Parnell had all these toys waiting for me," he recalls. "It wasn't until he told me he'd have to call my mom to see if I could spend the night that I got kind of scared."
His fears proved well founded. After telling Steven that his parents had relinquished custody of him, Parnell presented the boy with a puppy—the first of many insidious acts designed to manipulate Steven's emotions. Weeks later, in yet another isolated cabin in Yosemite Park, Parnell first sodomized the boy.
"I had no idea what was happening to me," says Stayner, still visibly uncomfortable at recounting the details of sexual abuse. "Parnell wasn't violent, but he wasn't gentle, either. It was kind of like I was there, and that was that. I cried a lot at first, but that upset him, so I stopped. I just went along with it and waited for my parents to find me."
Despite their frantic efforts, which included national media appeals, the Stayners were unable to locate their son. Kay Stayner, now 47, says that following her son's disappearance, "I more or less closed up. I didn't leave the house for a year, and if I had to, someone else had to be there in case Stevie came home. I chose to believe he was alive." Her husband grieved in a different manner. "I went berserk for a time," says Del Stayner, 57, a maintenance mechanic. "I'd ride around in my pickup with a sawed-off shotgun on the seat in case I saw someone with Stevie. I began to suspect everyone had something to do with it—friends, neighbors, even family members. If a child dies, you bury the child. With a missing child, you have a knot in your chest that never leaves."
On the move almost continually, Parnell called his victim Dennis and always enrolled him in small, remote schools. In time, Steven could not remember his phone number, or even the spelling of his own name. "Where would I have run to?" he says now. "How could I have found my way home? I was a child." He also worried that if he asked for help, his "father" would be told.
Parnell, a pedophile, lost interest in Steven as he matured. Finally, on Valentine's Day 1980, Parnell arrived home with new prey, 5-year-old Timmy White, a northern California boy he had forcibly abducted with the help of one of Steven's friends. On the night of March 1, pained by the little boy's plight, Stayner waited until Parnell left for his job as a motel clerk and hitched 40 miles to the Ukiah police station, Timmy in tow.
Local police quickly recognized Timmy and then, in astonishment, Steven. The following day, after seven years in captivity, he was reunited with his parents. "It was total chaos," says Steven. "As soon as I stepped out of the police car, reporters rushed up. All of a sudden my dad was hugging me. I didn't recognize him. It was all so strange."
And not nearly as happy an ending as one might have wished. After a wild adolescence in Parnell's "care," Steven's readjustment to his parents' house was rocky. "My father tended to treat me as if I were still 7," he says. "I was used to smoking and drinking and staying out late. He thought I should have the same morals as he had, as though he had raised me those seven years." Their relationship is still tenuous. "Stevie just doesn't act like a 23-year-old man," says the elder Stayner, who constantly prods his son to move on from his job delivering pizzas.
Except for brief counseling sessions when he reappeared, Steven has refused all therapy and has never fully discussed his abduction. Even the fact of his sexual abuse did not come to light until Parnell was tried and convicted of kidnapping him in 1982. "I never reached out to talk about it with my parents, and they never pushed to find out," says Steven. Even his wife of four years, Jody Edmondson, 21, has never heard the details. "My attitude is, if he wants to tell me, he will. And if he doesn't, I don't want to know. It's going to be interesting to see the movie," she adds, anticipating the miniseries with which Stayner cooperated, and for which he was paid $30,000 (he gave $10,000 to his parents). "For the first time, I'll get to know what happened."
For Stayner himself, the movie will be yet another confrontation with the unspeakable—and with the image of that paunchy, bald-headed stranger whose present whereabouts are unknown. Parnell was paroled in 1985 after serving five years of an eight-year sentence at Soledad prison. His three-year parole ended one year ago, and he no longer is required to report his whereabouts to authorities. That rankles Stayner: "I don't care where he is. But I do care that somebody knows."
Stayner gazes at a framed photograph of his own children. "They don't go out unless I go with them or there's someone outside watching," he says. "If they're just out on the porch, the door is always open. As long as I can see them, and hear their voices, I'm okay."
—Susan Schindehette, Suzanne Adelson in Los Angeles