Authors: Mike Echols
It challenged our society to deal more effectively with the adult offender who preys on children. Research suggests that these offenders victimize large numbers of children, are serial offenders, are dangerous and often violent, seek legitimate access to children, are rarely apprehended, and are rarely convicted for the most serious charges. These offenders pose a major public policy challenge for the future. We must seek improved capabilities for state and national screening of child serving personnel and volunteers, as well as improved systems for monitoring and tracking habitual offenders.
It showed us the importance of communication with our children. As Steven reached out for help in his own way and in his own words, many failed to listen or at least to understand. The professional community must be willing to listen to children and try to hear the message. Similarly, parents must empower their children to talk to them. From a very early age children must be told that we love, trust, and believe them.
If there is something that they don't feel right about, we must tell them that we want them to tell us and we will help. Similarly, it is essential that busy, often preoccupied parents find the time to really listen to their children. We must listen for more than the words. We must strive to hear what they are really trying to tell us. There is nothing more important. We must find the time.
It vividly depicts the tremendous challenges for victims, even after the initial period of victimization. He taught us that the recovery of a missing child does not automatically produce "happy ever after." Victims often require years of help, counseling, and assistance. As a nation we must seek more treatment services for victims of crime, particularly children. Unfortunately, his story also helps to demonstrate the still too-frequent propensity of our society to "blame the victim."
The lessons of Steven Gregory Stayner are many and powerful, but perhaps there is none more important for our time than the lesson of hope and courage. Steven went to the police station at Ukiah to save Timmy White, and Steven told his story over and over in order to keep other children from going through what he experienced.
Steven became a symbol of hope for parents of other long-missing children, living proof that we must never stop looking, that we must never close a case until the child is found. Tirelessly, Steven told and retold his story, no matter how difficult. He helped missing children groups and cared about the fate of the many children who have not yet been recovered.
I Know My First Name is Steven
is a disturbing but vital commentary on our times. But most importantly, it is
a tribute to a courageous young man whose troubled life helped make a difference. Because of Steven, and Adam, and all the others, America has awakened to the victimization of its children. Progress has been made, but we have only just begun.
Ernest E. Allen, President
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Arlington, Virginia
That Saturday Dennis's dad left earlier than usual for his job at The Palace Hotel in Ukiah, California. Shortly after nightfall, Dennis swiftly bundled his new "little brother" into his arms for what had become an almost nightly ritual . . . attempting to hitchhike into Ukiah. But tonight would be different. The persistent heavy rains of the past sixteen days had ended, and because little Timmy had whined every time they had set out before, Dennis, fourteen, decided that this time he would carry Timmy—far enough along Mountain View Road and away from the tiny cabin that had been their home that the five-year-old wouldn't start in again with his plaintive "Ohhhh! I want to go inside!" Once again the two boys were out on the lonely, spooky country road trying to escape from their kidnapper, the man others thought to be Dennis's real father.
Besides the rain and Timmy's whining, Dennis had had to abort their few previous attempts to hitchhike to Mendocino's county seat because of the dearth of cars traveling the desolate road between Manchester and Boonville. All their efforts had been at night, and
even the hippies down the road at the Land of Oz commune seldom traveled this narrow, twisting road in the dark. But after walking just a scant quarter mile up the hill and away from the tiny Mountain View Ranch cabin and abandoned ranch headquarters, a Mexican national in an old dinged-up Volkswagen square-back stopped to give Dennis and Timmy a ride. In disbelief that someone was finally stopping for them, Dennis froze for a moment before rushing to the car. Once he had opened the door, he was surprised to learn that the driver was going through Boonville and all the way into Ukiah.
The man spoke very little English, but Dennis could understand that he was following a friend in another car who was having some sort of car trouble. Then, jumping into the front seat and lifting his little brother onto his lap, Dennis quickly closed the door and they drove off along the pitch-dark winding road and were suddenly swallowed up by the all-enveloping, brooding forest of two-hundred-foot redwood trees and patches of fog that wafted menacingly over their route.
An eerie, indescribable feeling gripped Dennis as they cleared the thickly forested rolling hills and descended into the clear-cut Anderson Valley. Partly because of the language barrier—but more because of Dennis's secret and his fear that it would be exposed before he had gotten Timmy safely home and himself on his way south to the San Joaquin Valley 200 miles away—Dennis told the driver as little as possible . . . and most of that was not the truth.
In silence the trio slid past the Boonville Airport (where Dennis had once wanted to attend Anderson Valley High School's popular pilot training program),
turned south onto California 128, and drove into Boonville, where the Mexican abruptly pulled up near The Horn of Zeese Restaurant and went to check out his friend's car. During this stop Dennis winced as he briefly considered the likelihood of his dad discovering him with Timmy. He had brought along his Bowie knife just in case, but the thought of actually having to use it sent shivers down his spine. Then, suddenly, they were moving again.
They went south to Highway 128's intersection with 253 where, as Dennis had anticipated, the driver turned north and left the Anderson Valley behind as they chugged over the coastal range's rolling hills before dropping down into "deep valley," or
as the Pomo Indians called it before it was Anglicized to "Ukiah."
As they came down the last hill into Ukiah, it hit Dennis hard for the first time: "It's me against the world. I'm alone now. There's no one to turn to and no one to help me make the decisions."
Dennis had told the Mexican that he and his little brother were traveling from Point Arena to their new home in Ukiah, and as they drove into town, Timmy whispered to Dennis that he wanted to go to his babysitter's house and that they should get out near The Bottle Shoppe . . . and that was where Dennis had the driver drop them off.
Sixteen days earlier Timmy had left his half-day kindergarten class at Yokayo Elementary School for the daily walk to his babysitter's house. But he never made it, and his babysitter, Diane Crawford, had waited in vain for her charge, not knowing that Dennis's dad, Ken Parnell, had snatched Timmy from the sidewalk.
Now, at nine o'clock Saturday night, Dennis and Timmy walked west from State Street to Diane's house on South Avenue, but no one was home. At this point Dennis told Timmy that he would escort him to the Ukiah Police Station, but Timmy refused, saying he knew where he lived and that that was where he wanted to go. The kindergartner pointed Dennis south along South State Street, but when they reached its intersection with freeway U.S. 101 out of San Francisco, Timmy became confused. Even though they were headed in the right direction, the boys were still five miles from Timmy's house.
But Timmy insisted that Dennis take him home, and so they continued a little farther south along the freeway's shoulder until they reached the Boonville exit, where Dennis became convinced that they were lost and finally talked Timmy into allowing him to take him to the police station. The weary pair turned around and trudged nearly two miles back up South State Street until they reached The Palace Hotel, where they turned down East Standley Street.
In taking this route, at a little past eleven o'clock that night, Dennis Parnell passed the hotel where his dad was working his first night as the security guard. Dennis had his dad's latest family addition with him, but fortunately, the three of them did not meet, and it would be early the next morning before Dennis would see his dad again . . . and then under very strained circumstances.
Dennis stopped at the corner of Main and East Standley, where he instructed and encouraged Timmy to continue alone to the Ukiah Police Station just three-fourths of a block away, tell them his name, and, Dennis
assured the frightened little boy, the police would see that he got home. Then the fourteen-year-old watched as his little brother slowly made his way to the station's front door, opened it a crack, began to cry, and then let go of the door and ran back to his big brother.
Inside the station, Officer Bob Warner had seen the little dark-haired boy come to the door, open it, and run away. This was suspicious for that hour of the night, and he went to the door and watched as the child ran up to a much older boy across the parking lot. Fearing that the boys would run away if he approached them on foot, Warner radioed for a patrol unit.
Within two minutes Officer Russel VanVoorhis pulled his cruiser up beside the two boys, stepped out, and asked the older of the two what the younger boy's name was. Replied Dennis, "Timmy White." Recognizing that as the name of a local five-year-old blond boy who had been missing for over two weeks, a surprised Officer VanVoorhis squatted next to the dark-haired little boy and asked his name again, just to be sure. "Timmy White!" came the crisp reply.
Two hundred miles south, in Merced, California, as they had for over seven years, Delbert and Kay Stayner went to bed knowing the whereabouts of only four of their five children. In another room of their home, eleven-year-old Cory cried herself to sleep over the long-ago disappearance of her brother, Steven, who would be fourteen now . . . if he was still alive. And, as she had done for most of her life, Cory prayed that Steven was safe and that he would come home soon.
In Ukiah, Officer VanVoorhis straightened himself
up to address the older boy, but before he could speak, Dennis said, "My name is Steven Stayner, and I've been missing from Merced for seven years."
Even though he misspelled his name in his initial written report for the Ukiah Police Department that night, Dennis Gregory Parnell was on the way to becoming Steven Gregory Stayner again for the first time in more than seven years. As he said at the beginning of that statement, "I know my first name is Steven, I'm pretty sure my last name is Stainer [sic]."
Steven Gregory Stayner
"He was always just like a puppy dog."
Just north of the monstrous urban sprawl of greater Los Angeles, after Interstate 5 climbs over Tejon Pass, California 99—a freeway in its own right—angles off to the right and begins its descent through sparsely covered arid hills into Bakersfield, the city that pins the southern end of the vast, flat, agricultural San Joaquin Valley. The boyhood home of New York Giants' football great Frank Gifford, Bakersfield was also the boyhood home of Kenneth Parnell. Mary Parnell, Ken's octogenarian mother, still lives in Bakersfield and attends the Assembly of God Church, where as teenagers these two dissimilar boys played basketball on the same church team in the late 1940s. But as a young man Parnell had interests other than sports, and at nineteen he was arrested, tried, and convicted of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a nine-year-old boy. After court-ordered stays in two state mental hospitals—from which he made three escapes—this diag
nosed sexual psychopath was sentenced to prison and effectively banished from the blue-collar community of hard-working, patriotic American families with young children.
Outside Bakersfield, semis with empty trailers rush northward to pick up their loads of carrots, cucumbers, peaches, watermelons, and other produce from the huge commercial farms that blanket the valley floor. So ubiquitous are these trucks that at harvest time they choke all four lanes north and south as they hurry to and from Delano, Earlimart, Visalia, Kingsburgh, and scores of other farming towns familiar across the United States as points-of-origin stamped on produce crates and boxes.
At 65 mph and more, the agricultural traffic rumbles up California 99 and slices through the southwest edge of Fresno, the largest city in the Valley, before rolling on north through Madera and Chowchilla—known since 1976 for its own infamous kidnapping, that of an entire schoolbus full of children. Another twenty miles north is Merced, a modest city of fifty-thousand middle-class citizens, much like those in Bakersfield, 160 miles to the south. During the summer many tourists exit onto California 140, Yosemite Parkway, and head east eighty miles to the cooler Yosemite National Park, thousands of feet higher in the ruggedly beautiful Sierra Nevadas.
On Yosemite Parkway, one block past the Red Ball Gas Station at Jean Street, is Shirley Street. Down Shirley a short block, left on Dawn a block, and then right onto Bette for a long block—in a neighborhood of older, lower-middle-class homes with small, well-tended front yards and young children—is number
1655, a pea green frame house shaded by a huge elm tree, its large root running just under the sidewalk and heaving it up several inches, thus providing a ramp of sorts for the tykes who furiously pedal their Big Wheels up and down the pavement.
In 1972 it was the home of Delbert and Kay Stayner and their five children, including their middle child, then seven-year-old Steven, an active, almost buck-toothed boy with a slight mask of freckles.
In a house barely a quarter mile from the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks, the Stayners and their brood escaped the dry, blast-furnace heat of San Joaquin Valley summers in their backyard swimming pool—one of the few luxuries they allowed themselves—where they could hear the railroads' vegetable and fruit expresses thundering through town headed to markets far and near.