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

September 22, 1989|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

MERCED — 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.

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.

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.

"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.

"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."

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