Steven Stayner spent seven years as the captive of a pedophile. But after he and a fellow victim escaped in 1980, he discovered another ordeal was just beginning.
ST. LOUIS — No one knew what happened to the boy, no one saw a thing. There were no cars or trucks to watch for, no sketches of possible kidnappers.
Just like that, he was gone, leaving his parents with little else to do than post photos of their boy, follow dead-end leads and desperately hope.
And then, stunningly, years later, he was back. And with him, another, younger boy who also had disappeared.
But it wasn’t what has been tagged the “Missouri Miracle.” It was 1980. California. It was the case of Steven Stayner, who escaped from his abductor after the man took another child. Steven had a difficult life after his escape and died at age 24 in a road accident.
Much is unknown about how Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby were treated during their abduction. And even if the two cases are similar, it’s impossible to make clear comparisons, given the differences in circumstances. But experts say no one should underestimate the ability of the human spirit to overcome adversity.
The nightmare in California began in December 1972, when Stayner, a freckle-faced second-grader, was walking home from school. A man approached him, told him he was collecting money for a church and asked if his mother might make a contribution. Steven, 7, got in the car, where another man waited.
It would be seven years before the boy would see his family again — years in which he was told his parents no longer wanted him. He was also told he had been adopted and that his name was now Dennis Parnell. He was beaten and given drugs and liquor. He was repeatedly sexually abused by convicted pedophile Kenneth Parnell, a man Steven was told to call “Dad.”
He was shuttled from place to place and enrolled in various schools as Dennis Parnell. It was later learned that Steven’s family had sent fliers about their missing son to some of the schools he attended. But no one ever recognized him.
As Steven aged and began to question what he’d been told about his parents, he would scan newspapers and television reports to see if they were looking for him, according to a 1984 article in Newsweek.
“I’d ask myself, ‘Mom and Dad, where the hell are you?’ It somehow reinforced the lie that Parnell told me they didn’t want me,” Stayner told the magazine.
In February 1980, when Steven was 14 and was being told by Parnell that he was growing too old, according to Newsweek, Parnell came home with a new victim.
Five-year-old Timmy White cried and asked to go home. Steven knew what would happen to Timmy if he didn’t act.
“I couldn’t see Timmy suffer,” Stayner said. “It was my do-or-die chance — and I also would be coming home for doing something positive.”
So 16 days after Timmy went missing, Steven bolted with Timmy, and the two hitchhiked 40 miles to a police station in Ukiah, Calif.
Ervin Murphy, the man who lured Steven into the car, went on to serve two years of a five-year sentence. Parnell served five years of an eight-year sentence. (Years later, in 2004, while in his 70s, Parnell was sentenced to 25 years to life for attempting to buy a 4-year-old boy for $500. Timmy White testified in that trial; the Stayner family still keeps in contact with White.)
Steven was reunited with his family and became a hero. But the transition back to normal life was tough.
“He got on with his life,” his sister, Cory Stayner, of Merced, Calif., said in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But he was pretty messed up and he never got any counseling. My dad said he didn’t need any.”
Steven, teased by other kids for having been molested, eventually dropped out of school. He also drank, suppressing any true feelings about what had occurred, his sister said.
He struggled with his family and was even ordered out of the house.
“I returned almost a grown man and yet my parents saw me at first as their 7-year-old,” he said in the Newsweek story. “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?”
At 20, he married and went on to have two children. By age 24, he still blamed himself in some ways for what had happened, but he seemed finally at peace with it, according to his wife, Jody Stayner.
Having a family helped, as did Stayner’s work to prevent the same thing from happening again, his wife said. He worked with groups that searched for missing children, talked to kids about “stranger danger” and helped with a 1989 TV movie based on his kidnapping, “I Know My First Name is Steven.” And he never said no to reporters.
Steven Stayner’s life ended not long after it seemed it was finally coming together.
While driving home from his job at a Pizza Hut on Sept. 16, 1989, his motorcycle collided with a car that pulled in front of him.
“You can say he had a rough life, but it didn’t even last long enough to see where it would have gone,” Cory Stayner said.
It’s too hard for Stayner’s parents, Kay and Delbert Stayner, to talk about anymore, Delbert Stayner said this week. Jody Stayner, who now lives in Montana, said she doesn’t like talking about the past either, but said it’s important that lessons are learned from the case.
The issue of psychological control versus the opportunity to flee will be a controversial aspect of the Missouri case, she predicted.
“It was a big part of my husband’s case, but it shouldn’t be that way,” she said. “It’s no one’s fault but the predator’s. And everybody needs to hear that.”