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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

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.

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