Blood brothers

Cary and Steven Stayner were connected by violence. One is a murderer. The other, a victim, is remembered by a childhood friend.


Sarah Beach
July 30, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Cary Stayner has confessed to killing four women in Yosemite and may have committed many more murders, including that of his uncle.

Cary's brother, Steven Stayner, was abducted at the age of 7 by a stranger, Ken Parnell. Cary and Steven were very different -- they didn't even really grow up together. I doubt they knew each other very well.

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This is what happened to Steven: In 1972, he was walking in his Merced, Calif., neighborhood when a car rolled up, and Parnell abducted him. Parnell lied to Steven, telling him that the Stayners couldn't afford to keep him anymore and had given Steven to him. He told Steven that his new name was Dennis Parnell. He took Steven to a remote trailer home up a long dirt road in the middle of the woods in Mendocino County. Parnell beat Steven, manipulated him, brainwashed him and raped him over 3,000 times, by Parnell's own reckoning. Eventually he told Steven that the Stayners had died. Steven gave up hope, and the two of them lived alone out there in the woods.

This morning, when I went to a coffee shop in Marin County for a latte, people were discussing the Yosemite killings. "And you know," said the older woman behind the counter, "his brother was the one who got kidnapped by the guy who molested him for all those years. Something's wrong with that family, for sure, because you know that kid could have walked away from the molester any time he wanted. He must have enjoyed it." I was tempted to throw something at this woman. Instead I told her everything I know about Steven, and by the time I left she was offering to help pass out flyers.

Steven Stayner was a friend of mine, but I knew him as Dennis Parnell.

My family lived up behind the general store in Comptche, just a few miles from Ken Parnell's place. My brother and Steven and I were part of a loose-knit group of local kids who sometimes hung out together on weekends and after school.

I didn't know Steven too well, but we bonded the summer I was 10 years old, over a ski cap and a motorcycle. I remember him mostly as a shy kid with a goofy sense of humor and a big, toothy smile. Steven's best friend was a kid I'll call David, who habitually wore a navy-blue ski cap. Steven, David and my brother liked each other but used to get in typical boyish fistfights from time to time, mostly over stupid stuff like who owned which G.I. Joe or whether someone had cheated in a bike race.

Steven and I started hanging out together when one of the kids got a motorcycle and let us all take turns. Steven showed me how to ride it, but mostly I sat on the back while he drove. It was late summer. In the evenings after school, I'd hop on the springy black seat and put an arm around Steven, and we'd go buzzing around on the whiny little one-stroke bike. I think it maxed out at 35 miles per hour. Our goal was to snatch the ski cap off David's head and drive off with it. David ran with both arms clenched over his head, but he let his guard down eventually, and Steven cut the motor. We rolled up behind David in complete silence, one of my hands clutching Steven's corduroy jacket, the other poised in mid-air just about at the height of David's head. He heard us when we got close, but it was too late - I grabbed the cap, Steven stomped the bike into gear and roll-started it, and we tore off laughing, leaving the capless, swearing David in a cloud of dust.

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I went to the Parnell place twice, both times on the back of the little motorcycle. It was a dingy trailer, surrounded by a chain-link fence. Steven would run in to get his coat and run back out, and we'd patch out of there down the dirt road. He wouldn't let me come in.

People have asked me what Steven was like, especially now that his brother is in the news for killing the women in the Yosemite area. Many people think that there must be something wrong with the entire Stayner family -- somber newscasters have already started referring to the "family curse." Maybe there were things wrong with the family, but I would guess there are worse things wrong with other families that don't produce serial murderers.

The abduction and molestation of their brother certainly traumatized the Stayner children, but Cary Stayner, 37, admits that his fantasies about killing women started 30 years ago, so if he's telling the truth, these murder fantasies began in 1969, three years before Steven's abduction. How did he get that way? How are serial killers created? Nature or nurture? Sadistic parents or a genetic aberration? Nobody really knows. But I do know that the abduction of their brother was not enough to turn the other Stayner children into killers. I feel incredibly sorry for them, and for Steven's widow and children, for the scrutiny they will now undoubtedly have to undergo. I hope people leave them alone.

Ken Parnell served seven years in prison - less time than he held Steven captive. He is now a free man, and I heard from a friend that a local radio station even interviewed him recently for his insights into what turned his victim's brother into a psychopathic killer.

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For years after learning that Dennis was really Steven, I tried occasionally to find out what had happened to Ken Parnell. When the Internet came into being, I started doing searches on his name. I knew that he'd been released after serving only seven years, and I was afraid that he was living up in some other remote country area under an assumed name, abusing children again.

One of my searches led to the Web site of Mike Echols, who wrote a "true crime" style book on Steven's case, "I Know My First Name Is Steven." There I found Parnell's address. I was shocked to find out that Parnell lives in Berkeley, the same town as I. But I was even more chilled to read Parnell's words about his life with Steven. After he was released from prison, Parnell told Echols that the only thing he regretted about sexually assaulting Steven was that when he "had anal sex with [Steven] he would bleed and it got all messy and stuff and I didn't like that."

Ken Parnell lives about 10 blocks from my home. After work one day, I went looking for his house. I don't know what I wanted. Throwing rocks at his window or yelling obscenities seemed like ridiculous understatements, and I'm not a violent person.

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But then I saw him sitting out on his stoop, enjoying the warm summer evening. He looked older, with white thinning hair, and his roundish face and weak chin were covered up now with a graying beard. But I recognized him right away. He turned to look at me and our eyes locked. My head was crowded with thoughts, some of them bizarre in retrospect. I thought of my mom telling me that all she remembered about Ken Parnell was that he had the worst breath she'd ever smelled. I thought of my friend Steven going through his days like a regular kid and going home in the darkening evenings to that rancid breath on his neck and to brutal, humiliating pain. I stopped my car and we stared at each other, and then suddenly in my mind he was pinned onto his porch with a huge red tack. There you are, I thought. I see you.

I was shaken and angry but strangely relieved. At least he wasn't up in the woods somewhere. It was better to know where he was. I drove to the end of his street and turned toward home. Two blocks from Ken's house, I passed a park where children were playing in the fading light. The relief went away.

By the age of 14, Steven was getting too old to be sexually attractive to Parnell. He planned to kill Steven and he wanted a young replacement. One night in 1980, Parnell brought home a frightened little boy whom he had abducted from a street in Ukiah, about 50 miles from Comptche. As Parnell dyed the boy's blond hair dark brown, Steven began to think and remember. He realized that this is what had happened to him. Parnell was not his legal guardian, and it was likely that his real parents weren't dead, either. He knew what Parnell would do to the boy.

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Parnell went out for a while and told Steven to watch the kid. Steven waited until he was sure Parnell was gone, then took the boy and began the long walk toward Ukiah. When he saw headlights, he jumped off the road, in case it was Parnell looking for them. He turned himself in at the Ukiah police station and told the police that he thought his first name was Steven.

The little boy was reunited with his family, and Steven returned to the Stayners. He was never really able to escape from the demons that his years with Parnell had left him with, but eventually he settled down, got married and had kids. He died at age 24, nine years after he had reappeared, in a motorcycle accident.

Steven was both a victim and a hero. His brother is neither. Lumping them together is unfair to Steven's memory. Even worse, it gives Ken Parnell something to chuckle about on his porch as he watches the sunset
and listens to the distant sound of children playing.


Sarah Beach

Sarah Beach is a writer living in Berkeley, Calif.

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