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Who Was Steven? : The Little Boy Who Had Been Kidnaped Never Found Himself

Times Staff Writer

He knew his first name was Steven.

But emotionally he never really came home and privately he couldn’t become whole because publicly he was always Steven Stayner, an abduction victim, someone in a miniseries, one missing kid among tens of thousands on flyers and milk cartons who, miraculously, a decade ago, did return alive and apparently well.

“When he came back he was a jolly kid, a jokester, happy-go-lucky,” said Sandy Hawkins, a friend with the seniority of any natural aunt. “But that was the exterior. What was going on inside . . . apparently an awful lot of turmoil.”

Inside, suggested Anna Jones, his true aunt, Steven Stayner may well have remained an identity jumbled with Dennis Parnell, the name he carried during seven years of abduction and sexual abuse as the “son” of kidnaper Kenneth Parnell.

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Child Inside the Man

“I think probably he was Dennis,” she said. “A child sitting inside a man who didn’t know how to talk about it.”

Steve’s wife, Jody Stayner, also saw her husband’s conflicts: “Steve hurt a lot. But he always seemed to get through it no matter what. He was a survivor. . . . “

Now it doesn’t really matter.

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Saturday, Steve Stayner, 24, died when his motorcycle collided with a car pulling from a migrant-worker’s center here onto rain-puddled Santa Fe Drive.

It was a sad, reckless, ironic end--with Stayner riding a powerful cycle he was not licensed to operate. Nor was he wearing a helmet. His had been stolen, said a friend, two months ago.

He had bought the blue-and-white, 1989 Kawasaki EX-500 with a piece of the $30,000 he received for rights to the story of his 1972 kidnaping and astounding return. It was shown in May as a television miniseries: “I Know My First Name is Steven.”

Yet if there could be any softening of his tragedy, noted a relative, it would be in knowing that Stayner died while following adult responsibilities--returning home from a small but steady job to continue his reconciliation with Jody after the latest of several short estrangements.

“I believe there were still some demons haunting him,” said Diane Booth. She is a reporter for the Merced Sun Star whose interviews with Stayner became a small friendship. “But he was trying to overcome them (demons). I believe that in time he would.”

Yet there wasn’t time.

Wednesday, Stayner was buried alongside his grandparents at Merced District Cemetery where 450 people formed around his powder blue steel casket and there were enough news crews to be kept behind ropes.

Earlier, at a funeral service at the Merced Stake Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, where Stayner had been converted in 1985, his church counselor, Steve Tucker, tried to explain the clashes that tore at a young man’s peace.

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“Before he was kidnaped he was just Steven Stayner, a kid growing up in Merced,” said Tucker in eulogy. “But seven years later, he became Steven Stayner, a national figure.

“When he came home, his family could not have him for themselves. He had to be shared.” With all this international attention, he said, Steven had “a hard time getting his feet on the ground.”

But, spoke a sister, Jody C. Stayner, he wouldn’t quit and continued to shove until the past did indeed begin to retreat. So even in his death, she told mourners who spilled from chapel pews to folding chairs in the center’s gymnasium, there is a satisfaction from seeing the fading of a past, dark life and an assumed identity. “I’m so glad that he went as Steven Gregory Stayner, our brother,” she said.

For seven grim years, however, the only traces of Steven Gregory Stayner were snapshots and a family’s memories. Of a quiet boy who tended a fallen owl and liked to ride dad’s tractor on their almond ranch near Snelling. Of the third of five children who wrote his name on an inside garage wall when nobody could know the scribble would one day become the most tender of family souvenirs.

On a December day in 1972, two drifters approached Stayner on a Merced street corner. Ervin Murphy said he was a minister and wanted to drive Stayner home to collect a church donation from his mother. Kenneth Parnell, a pedophile with previous convictions for child molestation, opened the car door for the freckled second-grader.

Stayner was sodomized by Parnell that first night. Up to the age of 14, he was shuttled from remote towns to isolated cabins in Northern California and registered for brief periods at several schools as Dennis Parnell. By the sixth grade he had been beaten, smoked marijuana, got drunk on cheap whiskey and been thoroughly manipulated into believing his parents didn’t want him.

A New Victim

On Valentine’s Day 1980, a fresh Parnell captive, 5-year-old Timmy White, was brought home. Timmy was crying. Steven was reminded of his own early tears, pain and loneliness.

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“I couldn’t see Timmy suffer,” Stayner explained later. “I just didn’t think it was right for him to have to go through the same thing that I did. He really didn’t have to. There was someone there who could stop it.”

Hand-in-hand, Steven and Timmy hitchhiked 40 miles to Ukiah. They found a police station and were free. Timmy, unharmed, after 16 days. Steven, by then unsure of even his real name, after seven years.

Ervin Murphy served two years of a five-year sentence for kidnaping. He was released in 1983.

Kenneth Parnell served five years of an eight-year sentence. He was released in 1985.

Steven Stayner served 10 years of a lifetime sentence of restlessness, doubts and rebellion against basic authority. He was released Saturday, say members of his family, when his motorcycle rammed the left-side front door of a 1976 Plymouth Volare squeezing onto Santa Fe Drive.

Belief in Healing

In retrospect, Stayner was lucky to survive his teens and the times he talked, claimed one close relative, of suicide.

For there were only a few counseling sessions for Stayner following his return and no psychotherapy. Stayner said he didn’t need it. His parents, noted relatives, believed there would be full healing from the abduction and its sexual abuse in the closeness and love of a family reunited.

“I never reached out to talk about it with my parents,” Stayner once said, “and they never pushed to find out.” Nor was the subject discussed with his wife.

Besides, he used to reason, why pay a psychologist $100 an hour to sit and talk out a problem when “I’ve been talking to reporters for nine years. It’s a good substitute.”

But reporters, said those close to Stayner, also were part of the problem. They came from New York and Germany, all the television networks and magazines, every wire service and most newspapers when Stayner came home to 1655 Bette St., the home his parents refused to sell because it could be the one place their missing son might search for. A book was promised. Of course there would be a television movie.

The story was regurgitated incessantly. On Stayner’s first fishing trip with his father to McClure Lake. On the family’s first picnic and Christmas. On all the anniversaries. When Parnell was tried and sentenced. When Parnell was released. When Stayner married.

Toll of Telling

Stayner--in the expressed belief that repeating his story would sustain awareness of child abductions--never refused an interview.

Yet telling took its toll.

He seemed to think, said Anna Jones, that one day the reporters “would get everything they wanted, finally, and go home and leave him alone. But that didn’t happen. They just kept hounding him.”

Or as a sister, Cindy Stayner, noted: “At first he ate up all the attention and was impressed by it. Then it got old and he tried to get out of the light.”

As a teen-ager, said reporter Booth, Stayner likely was hobbled by another chunk of his past. With Parnell he had led an undisciplined life style “with a single man, smoking and drinking . . . a life where he was running it.”

To return to a family circle, to its rules, curfews and responsibilities, she said, was bound to bring difficulties.

‘Everything Has Changed’

Stayner described those difficulties in a 1984 interview with Newsweek magazine: “I returned almost a grown man and yet my parents saw me at first as their seven-year-old. After they stopped trying to teach me the fundamentals all over again, it got better. But why doesn’t my dad hug me anymore? I guess seven years changed him, too.

“Everything has changed. Sometimes I blame myself. I don’t know sometimes if I should have come home. Would I have been better off if I didn’t?”

There were grade and discipline problems in high school. Stayner dropped out. There were quarrels at home. Twice he was ordered out of the house.

By the age of 19, he had piled up $1,100 in unpaid traffic tickets. He paid them off by raking leaves and splitting logs for the county parks service but couldn’t break the ways of a traffic scofflaw. In the end, his driver’s license was suspended.

He studied welding at Merced College but nothing came of that. He expressed an interest in law enforcement but did not apply for work with any police department. He sold fried chicken, delivered pizzas, worked as a security guard, labored in a meat-packing factory and worked for the city parks department--but never at any job paying higher than minimum wage.

Slowed the Wandering

Then Stayner seemed to slow his wandering. Some believe the pivot was pretty obvious. Jody Edmondson. They dated for a year, then married in 1985. He was 20. She was 17.

There were arguments, of course, and walkouts. Over bills. Over how pickles should be sliced for a hamburger. It happens when you live first with in-laws and then with cousins in their mobile home. It’s unavoidable when two people still young enough to be college juniors are holding down three adult jobs.

But clearly, remember friends, Stayner’s life in recent months was starting to work.

For now there were two children--3-year-old Ashley and 2-year-old Steven Jr.--to protect and with an unusual dedication rooted in his own past. Or as Stayner said in a May interview promoting the movie of his life: “They don’t go out unless I go with them or there’s someone outside watching. 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 OK.”

He had one job helping the janitorial service of his father-in-law, an apartment house manager. There was a second job as a trainee manager at a Pizza Hut and it was going well.

“He was getting a feeling of accomplishment,” said Lee Marano, owner of five Pizza Hut franchises in the Merced-Atwater area. “He was evolving, developing a more outgoing personality, giving direction to others.”

Role of Crusader

Stayner also was becoming a full crusader for the one thing in which he certainly was expert--child abduction.

He delivered warning lectures to youngsters at local schools. There were appearances for the Kevin Collins Foundation of San Francisco and other groups searching for missing children. Stayner, accompanied by Kay Stayner, his mother, testified before the Ways and Means Committee of the State Assembly on one bill that would increase penalties for kidnaping children, and another requiring parents to have their children fingerprinted.

“Steven became a representative of the fact that, hey, missing children can come home,” noted Hawkins. “He was something tangible, something for them (parents) to hang onto in this situation where thousands go missing and only two or three come home.”

The burdens of his earlier life, said his friends, seemed to become lighter as each door closed on the past.

Closing the Door

The heaviest, they believe, was the making of the miniseries.

“In one of my last interviews with him, right before the miniseries, he said that he was glad that was over,” Booth related. “He had known for years there would be a TV movie. So to him, it was one more of those doors closing.”

On Saturday, just before 5 p.m., Stayner was finished with his shift at Pizza Hut at 16th and G streets. It had been raining heavily. His manager, Todd Smith, suggested he drive the franchise’s pickup home and stay dry.

Stayner--after reminding the manager that his license had been suspended and that an accident in the truck might not be good for Pizza Hut business--declined the offer.

He rode off down Santa Fe Drive.

Rammed a Car

At 4:55 p.m., three miles later, and at less than the posted 55-m.p.h. limit, he rammed the car that, said California Highway Patrol investigators, pulled into the street ahead of his cycle.

At 5:35 p.m., at Merced Community Medical Center, Stayner was declared dead of a fracture at the back of the skull.

The driver of the car--identified by officers as Antonio Loera, an employee of a tomato-packing company--fled the scene. He later surrendered in Tijuana, was returned here and has been arraigned on felony hit-and-run and manslaughter charges.

One Last Reunion

The life and death of Steven Stayner has written touching footnotes.

A small family group attended his funeral service. They sat in rear seats and were able to avoid the media. It was James and Angie White and their son, Timmy, now 14, the boy that Stayner had walked to freedom.

There was one lonely statement by Cindy Stayner. She said she was waiting for the telephone to ring. “Someone will say it’s OK, Steve is here and he’s alive,” she said. “Because that’s what happened before.”

Jody Stayner, a widow at 20, tried to draw some calm from it all. She remembered her husband’s past, his pain and his strange sense of not quite belonging.

“But he’s not hurting any more,” she said. “Nobody can hurt him now.” He’s free, she said. That’s why she chose a very special inscription for the lid of her husband’s casket. “It says: ‘Going Home.’ ”


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