Authors: Mike Echols
When Steven returned from breakfast, the reporters weren't the only ones waiting to see him: so were the "two investigators" from Merced Police, Juvenile Officer jerry Price and his Sergeant, Patrick Lunney, who had arrived after a red-eye trip up the middle of the state. They were the first Merced residents Steven had seen in more than seven years.
Secreting themselves from the press in Chief Johnson's office, they began a tape-recorded interview of Steven, asking about the details of his seven-year odyssey with Parnell. One of Lunney's first questions was, "Did he ever abuse you in any way?"
Without hesitation Steve replied, "Oh, no!"
Then Lunney asked, "Was he good to you?"
"Yes," Steve answered, "he kind of spoiled me, though."
Continued Lunney, "Did you ever think about your folks and brother and sisters back home?"
Responded Steve, "Oh, yes!"
Indeed, Steven's typed statement to the Ukiah Police contained the following: "Getting back to Ken Parnell. I call him Dad. He had never molested me, sexually, he had never been mean to me, and he never said why he stole me or why he stole Timmy. He has been like a father to me, and has always sent me to school." But it would be weeks before the truth about Parnell's sexual assaults on Steven would come out.
By the time the Merced officers had finished their interrogation of Steve, Mendocino County D.A. Investigator Richard "Dick" Finn had obtained his search warrant and, along with about twenty additional Men
docino and Ukiah peace officers, was ready to head for the cabin. In an attempt to elude reporters, photographers, and TV cameramen, the Ukiah police had the station custodian drive the Merced police car to the back, gas it up, and then, while the media people rushed to the back of the station, quickly drive it back around to the front, where Price, Lunney, and Steve dived into it and roared off, followed by the Ukiah and Mendocino County cars. But the ruse didn't work for long, and by the time the law enforcement caravan had cleared the city limits, a string of press cars brought up the rear of the convoy.
"It took an hour-and-a-half to two hours to drive to the cabin 'cause the road was crooked and there were mudslides," Price recalled. "Too, they had extremely bad weather up there . . . it was very, very, cloudy, rainy, very cold, and very dark. And, I mean, when we finally got there it was
You'd never look for somebody up there."
During the early morning hours the cabin had been secured on orders from Finn (who had flown in from Los Angeles very late the night before). Said Finn, "Our office was going to handle the investigation of those acts that took place in the county, and the Sheriff's Office didn't like that. They thought that
should be handling the investigation. So when we called them and asked them to secure the cabin for us with one of their people on the coast, at first they didn't want to do it. But they finally did."
Sergeant Daryl Dallegge, the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department's deputy in charge of the southwestern part of Mendocino County, got a cryptic call at 3
at his Point Arena home, advising him to go
to the Stornetta's Mountain View Ranch caretaker's cabin and secure it. Sleepily he climbed out of bed and did as told.
The cabin was deserted and apparently undisturbed when Dallegge arrived and parked his patrol car on the road's shoulder and dozed. At dawn he awoke and drove down to the Pipers', where his friend Billie put on the coffeepot and the two sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and shooting the bull until Dallegge's two-way radio crackled to life, signaling the convoy's approach from Ukiah.
When Dallegge returned to the cabin, TV news helicopters following the small armada of law-enforcement vehicles were circling overhead. Soon the peace officers and ground news units arrived to join in the whirlybirds' commotion and, as Chief Johnson irritably recalled, "It was a hell of a mess. There were reporters everywhere. It was like a goddamned Vietnam War up there." Calming down just a tad, he concluded, "I know that they've [the news media] got a job to do, but sometimes they just don't use good common sense."
"The place was open," Price recalled about the remote cabin. "None of the doors was locked or anything. It was very, very cold inside there . . . like a dungeon, really . . . It was that bad! There were dirty clothes everywhere, there was food that had been left out, and there were cooking utensils that hadn't been washed. They had an outdoor toilet, and the whole place was a mess . . . dirty. And Steve was dirty, too! That's the one thing that I remember most. He had a terrible stench about him. That was their lifestyle, you know. It was very sad. In fact, on the way back to
Merced, Price and Lunney were forced to stop at the local Foster Freeze ice-cream stand in Cloverdale to air out the car."
Once he had assembled the press, Finn led them and the assorted law enforcement officers through the cabin as he delivered a constant stream of comments for the reporters' benefit; as Lunney and Price commented later, Finn conducted a whirlwind, none-too-professional search. After less than an hour, Steven scooped up Queenie and everyone jumped back into their cars and helicopters for the return dash to Ukiah and the scheduled noon press conference.
At the news conference—covered by reporters representing media organizations from as far away as London and Tokyo—Steven sat holding his tiny, trembling dog and apologized for her very apparent fright. Still dressed in the grimy gray sweatshirt and jeans he had worn when he'd left the remote cabin the night before, Steven spoke in a shy, quiet voice as he told the assembled reporters, "I got to like Timmy. I knew what Parnell was doing was wrong. I just gave him a whole life ahead of him with his parents."
During the news conference Timmy alternately sat on his parents' and Steven's laps. Timmy said that the teenager had become his friend during the sixteen-day ordeal and that Steven had read comic books to him to while away the long hours in the tiny cabin.
At the close of the news conference, photographers were allowed a few minutes to capture the two boys on film. Then Patrick Lunney, Jerry Price, and Steven got into the Merced Police cruiser for Steven's long-awaited trip home. As they headed south on U.S. 101, the long-lost boy settled into the rear seat, snuggled
up to Queenie, and tried hard to remember what his father, mother, brother, and sisters looked like . . . and he prayed that they would still remember him, and love him, too.
The Boys Return Home
I always believed Stevie was alive. "
in Ukiah, Timmy was preparing to go home with his family, but first a few final police matters had to be dealt with. During the officers' questioning, Timmy had said that Parnell had told him that he, Parnell, knew Angela, and further, that it was okay for Timmy to stay with him. Therefore, Ukiah police officers had Angela look through the booking-room window at Parnell to see if she knew him; but of course she did not.
When confronted with this information, Timmy exclaimed to his mother, "He told me that you knew him, and you didn't! I didn't know big people lie!"
Before leaving the station, Angela went into the room where Steven was being held, kissed him on the cheek, and told him, "Thank you for bringing my son back home safe." Then it was off to the local hospital to have Timmy examined by a doctor for signs of physical or sexual abuse . . . and Jim and Angela were thankful to learn that there were none.
Even though it was nearly three in the morning when the White family arrived home, Angela asked Timmy what he wanted to do, and he responded that he wanted to eat some of her spaghetti and take a bath. Added Angela, "He wanted us to throw away the clothes that he was wearing because Parnell put them on him. He didn't want
left around that would remind him of Parnell." Also, Angela recalled that when she tried to wash the dye from her son's hair, it wouldn't come out right away: "It took a few months because first it got red and then it turned a really strange color before it finally grew out blond again."
Finished with his bath, Timmy was so excited that he never did eat the spaghetti his mother made for him. But the family reunion continued with the four of them sitting around the kitchen table drinking hot chocolate and playing Old Maid until dawn, when the phone began ringing off the wall. One of the first to contact them was Diane Crawford, who had been out having dinner with her husband when Steven and Timmy had come calling the night before.
"The longest day in my life," is the way sixteen-year-old Cindy recalls her wait for her brother's return. "We learned that it was Steve at three in the morning, and then he didn't get home until seven or eight that night. And we made banners that morning with butcher's paper. And there was a big one in front of our house that said, 'Welcome Home Steve.' "
Twenty miles north of Merced, as they passed through Turlock, Lunney and Price established two-
way radio contact with the Merced police dispatcher and Chief Kulbeth asked that they began relaying their location minute-by-minute. When they exited onto Yosemite Parkway, Lunney asked Steve if he recognized anything, and slowly it all began to come back to the nearly fifteen-year-old boy as he first identified a familiar drive-in grocery, then the route he had walked home from school, and finally the Red Ball Gas Station where he had been kidnapped as a seven-year-old in 1972.
Before he and Price left Ukiah, Lunney phoned Chief Kulbeth and filled him in on his and Price's interviews with Steve and their perceptions of him. "I told him, 'This kid is really almost self-sufficient, particularly because he was living up in the mountains.' And he carried his knife on him. In fact, he was wearing it when I first saw him, but then we took it into evidence."
When Kulbeth and Bailey arrived at the Stayner home, they took Del and Kay aside and counseled them, Kulbeth remembering: "In his parents' minds, he was this little child coming home, so I told them, 'Your son is a very grown-up young man, and he is somewhat independent. He's a fourteen-year-old near-adult, and you'll just have to recognize that.' " But even though Del and Kay acknowledged to Kulbeth that they understood, their relationship with Steven after his return clearly showed that they never, ever internalized what the chief had told them.
And Steve's impending homecoming caused then-twelve-year-old Jody to think back a few years, "I remembered when my Grandpa Tal [Del's father] died while Steve was gone. I prayed that God would take
good care of him and, if Steve was up there, take good care of him, too. And I remembered those puff balls that are like flowers . . . that when you blow on them they go everywhere? Well, we used to blow them and make a wish that Steve would come back home. You know, you'd blow them and then clap your hands and make a wish? We'd always do that. But now Steve was really coming home!"
Added Cindy, "One of the most emotional things to me was seeing Steve's signature on the side of the garage. In that way Steve was always still around in our mind, you know . . . even after five, six years. And that memory is why my dad would never move. He always thought that if Steve came home he would find us."
It was dark when Jerry Price finally turned the police car onto Bette and saw the hundreds of people crowding the street from curb to curb, so thick that he had to halt several houses from the Stayner home. Lights from television cameras illuminated the area in front of 1655 Bette as Chief Kulbeth escorted Del and Kay to the reunion with their son. And at a little after seven in the evening of March 2, 1980, clutching his beloved dog, Queenie, Steve slowly emerged from the cruiser's backseat and stood motionless, staring in bewilderment at the crowd and his approaching family . . . 2,645 days after that cold, drizzly December day in 1972 when as a seven-year-old he had set out for home from Charles Wright Elementary School.
Remembered Kulbeth about Steve's parents' first sight of their son: "There was no problems at all with their recognizing Steve or his recognizing his family. They were overjoyed, but Steve seemed a little bit shy. When we got them back into the house, you could
really see the emotion start to pour out. There were tears of joy everywhere, and if you have ever seen thoroughly happy people, then these people were just that happy! Everybody—the neighbors and friends—wanted to be in the house. And the press people wanted to be in there, too, and the family very graciously allowed some of these people to come in, especially close friends, and even a couple of local reporters from the
Then, after awhile, they wanted to be alone, so we asked all of the people to leave. And we left, too, but we did maintain surveillance of the home for a couple of weeks after that."
Grinning ear-to-ear at the memory, Cindy recalled, "My parents took Steve to Cary's room so we could talk to him. And at first he remembered Mom and Dad's names and his name, but he didn't know our names. And we wanted to ask him about what happened when he was kidnapped, but we didn't want to upset him, and so we didn't. And there was one thing that I just never did want to ask him about, and that was how he felt about Parnell. I just didn't . . . just didn't want to know
The initial excitement had hardly died down when an ecstatic Cary arrived home. He had first learned of his brother's return from a newscast on the radio in the family's pickup camper as he drove his buddies back to Merced from a weekend camping trip at Yosemite National Park. Exclaimed Cary, "I damn near drove off the highway when I heard that!"
That first night back at home, Steve chose to sleep on a pallet on the living room floor and Cary bedded down beside his long-lost brother. "I had a hard time trying to get to sleep that night," said Cary. "I stayed
up a long time just looking at Steve while he slept and listening to him breathe. I just couldn't believe that my brother was finally back home again." Then, with tears in his eyes, Steve's big brother added, "You know, I went outside that night and I walked several blocks away and then looked up at the stars and started to wish on one again . . . but then I remembered that Steve was back home, and so I thanked the star instead."