Authors: Mike Echols
By the time Hyde returned to the pea green house on Bette, Kay had phoned Steven's teacher, Mrs. Walsh, gotten a complete list of Steven's classmates and their phone numbers, and had called each one in her continuing futile efforts to locate her son.
As dark fell, Patrol Sergeant Jim Southerland arrived to help Officer Hyde in retracing Steven's possible routes home before the two began going door-to-door to the businesses along Yosemite Parkway. At the Red Ball Service Station, a female attendant told them that sometime before 3
she had seen Steven walking eastbound, his normal direction home from school, but that she had not noticed any suspicious persons in the area.
reserve police officers and local Boy Scouts were called out to help search an area which by now included construction sites along Yosemite Parkway. But the dark and soggy cold weather had driven all the children inside, and Steven was nowhere to be seen. At the same time local radio station KYOS's disc jockey Buzz Williamson began broadcasting news of
Steven's disappearance and his description, Merced's first public word about the incident. But as the dark blanketed Merced, a palpable gloom settled over the Stayners' normally boisterous home. Ignorant of Steven's disappearance, Del's close friend Mac Scoggins telephoned to invite Del and Kay to the Elks' Lodge Christmas Dance that weekend, but when he learned of Steven's disappearance, his invitation trailed off and Mac promised his friend that he and his wife Sandy would be right over.
When they arrived, Sandy's offer to take Cory, Jody, Cindy, and Cary to her home for the night was quickly accepted. Del and Mac departed for a nearby junkyard on Highway 140, where they slogged through high drenched weeds with flashlights, fearfully opened the doors on the abandoned refrigerators, and called Steven's name until they were soaked and hoarse.
At that moment, a little more than a half-hour drive up California 140, Parnell, Murph, and Steven were just sitting down to their supper. As they'd left Merced, the highway to Yosemite National Park had been almost deserted, and that had suited Parnell just fine. The trio had driven through the murky wintry weather straight to the little red cabin at Cathy's Valley that Parnell rented as his private retreat from his bookkeeping duties at Yosemite Lodge, just 50 miles on up the highway.
Parnell could hardly have picked a quieter yet still accessible getaway, for Cathy's Valley is a hamlet in the truest sense of the word. During the summer tourists occasionally stop and buy old-fashioned wood and ce
ramie Made-in-Japan-style curios right out of the 1950s in the combination general store, gas station, and whatnot shop, but the off-season rarely saw anyone stopping, and the handful of locals felt fortunate when they went to the store and found it open.
On a bare hill a few hundred feet to the east of the store is Judy's Trailer Park, a funky, run-down mobile-home park and none-too-popular summers-only overnight stop for tourists with campers and trailers. Perched on the dry, grass-covered hillside with a few stunted scrub oaks scattered about, just east of the camper and trailer spaces are two barn-red prewar one-room wood-frame tourist cabins. In 1972 there were three, but one has since burned down. Each has a tiny porch and a single room; the toilet sits beside the metal shower stall and is screened off with a shower curtain. Minimal flea market furnishings complete the sparse interiors, and since the cabins are not winterized, off-season rent was cheap enough to attract even a penny pincher like Parnell.
No one noticed Parnell's dirty old white Buick as it lurched and bounced up the rutted, steep dirt road, earlier that evening, finally wheezing to a stop in front of the middle of the three dreary cabins, the only one occupied. The two men and the little boy got out, but Parnell made Murph wait outside while he took Steven inside the cabin and showed his captive a pile of used toys Murph had recently purchased at Parnell's behest during a flea market auction.
There were dozens of colorful little plastic Indians, cowboys, and, Steven recalls, a toy canoe. At first Steven was greedy, asking to take this one to his brother and that one to his sister; but this angered
Parnell, and he told Steven that he could pick out toys for himself only, and none for his brothers or sisters. Not realizing the sinister implication of this, Steven hushed and contentedly picked out and played with Parnell's imposed limit of four toys.
Recalled Murph, "It was kinda' chilly outside, but I stayed outside, and after a little bit Parnell comes out and says, 'Murph, if you say anything about this you'll be right in the same fix as me and you'll get the same penalty I get.' And then he says he was sorry he got me involved in this with him. 'But you agreed with me a hundred percent, and if you tell anybody, you'll lose everything you have,' he told me." Then Parnell escorted the intimidated Murph inside.
Steven played with his toys as Parnell hunkered down beside him and began quizzing him about his mother, father, brother and sisters, family life, and likes and dislikes. Recalled Steven, "I told a few lies to him, trying to make myself look good. He asked me if I had ever been whipped. If I had said yes it would have made me sound like I was a bad boy, so I said, 'No, I've never been whipped.' "
Unknown to Steven, Parnell knew differently, for the scheming exconvict had had a chance encounter with the Stayners' former mailman—then recently transferred to Yosemite National Park from Merced—and on Parnell's seemingly favorite subject of abused children the postman had mentioned to the bookkeeper the strict discipline he had observed in a certain family who lived on Bette Street down in Merced. Years later Murph remarked about this and said that Parnell had known exactly which homeward-bound schoolboy he wanted to kidnap for his "son."
That first evening Parnell asked Steven what he liked to eat and Steven replied, "I eat anything," and so Parnell sent Murph down to the general store for ground beef, canned green beans, and light bread . . . their first meal together. Steven was quite surprised when the meal was set out. "I
green beans," he exclaimed years later, "but I didn't dare say anything. At first I just avoided them, but then he threatened to spank me if I didn't eat them."
With typically minimal observation Murph said, "Steven gobbled up his food like he was real hungry."
After supper Parnell had Steven take a shower, and when the boy came out wrapped in just a towel, Parnell had him remove it and crawl naked under the covers with him in the cabin's solitary bed, leaving the complacent Murph to sleep on a folding aluminum chaise lounge. It was very cold that night, the cabin's only heat coming from the tiny gas cookstove, which Murph complained he was obliged to get up and turn off and on several times during the night "so we wouldn't all be dead in the morning."
Also, Murph said that only once during the night did he hear any sound from Parnell or "the kid." This, he recalled, was in the early morning hours when he heard Steven say, "You're wrong." Apparently, Steven vaguely recalled many years later, this was when Parnell orally copulated with him for the first of many, many times.
In Merced the police department's evening shift had canvassed the south side of town, searching well past their 11
shift change, but they had not found
any clues to Steven's disappearance. A little before midnight, Police Captain Dave Knutsen telephoned Del and asked him to come down to the station. Although it was a typical question, Del was not prepared for what Knutsen asked him. "Did you kill Steven?"
Del answered with a forceful, irritated, "No!"
The captain then asked Del if he would submit to a polygraph examination, and Del responded with equal conviction, "I sure will!" Knutsen explained to Del that Merced Police didn't have a polygraph examiner or the equipment, but that a state examiner would travel from Sacramento and examine him in a few days.
About 1 A.M., still not comprehending the magnitude of what had happened, Del went home to Kay and the two of them sat up all night talking and drinking coffee with friends who had gathered, and, Del said, sadly shaking his head as he recalled it, "Trying to figure out where Stevie had gone to."
The next morning, December 5, veteran Merced Police Chief Harold Kulbeth called on Kay and Del. It was the first of many meetings the tall, balding, sincere chief had with the quiet, unassuming couple, and he was immediately struck with compassion, not only because of the bewildering circumstances of Steven's disappearance, but also because his parents were so candid and straightforward in answering his questions.
A warm yet thoroughly professional man, Kulbeth advised them not to handle or open any unusual mail they received, but to be careful to pick it up only by the corners of the envelope and to call him immediately. He had an additional telephone extension in
stalled in their home to record any possible ransom calls, and at his request Kay and Del provided him with a copy of Steven's recent school photograph to reproduce on some Missing Juvenile flyers he was having printed.
Later that day Tom Walsh, the F.B.I. agent in charge of the Merced field office, dropped by the Stayner home with Chief Kulbeth. Walsh told them that under the circumstances it couldn't be shown that Steven had been taken across a state line, and therefore the F.B.I. could not become actively involved in the case. However, he assured them, his office would cooperate fully with the local police, and, if needed, provide assistance from the F.B.I. laboratory in Washington, D.C. In short, Walsh recalled, "There was complete rapport between our office and the Merced Police, and we made ourselves readily available. The chief and I were in daily contact on the case."
That afternoon the local daily newspaper, the
carried Steven's photograph with the headline "Local Youngster Missing: Search Planned Today." The article detailed the previous day's search and quoted Captain Knutsen as saying that if Steven had not been found by late afternoon that day, the police would conduct "an extraordinary on-foot canvass of the city with as many patrolmen as possible."
At home Del reviewed the previous 24 hours over and over in his mind, especially upset that the day before, he had slept in and missed seeing Stevie. "It really hurt me that I didn't get to see him before he left for school that morning," Del recalled sadly. "He was really the little guy . . . I think he was so cute. He would go in the bathroom and comb his hair in the
mornings before he went to school. He would pat his hair into place . . . he was so sharp. Then Kay and me'd stand in the house and watch him leave for school. . . ." Del's voice trailed off emotionally.
Chief Kulbeth first learned of Steven's disappearance from Knutsen. "My captain came into my office and informed me that we had a missing child, which is not unusual. The thing is, most police officers fear having a missing child more than anything else. Fortunately, most of them turn up down the block, over at a friend's house, or playing in somebody's backyard. But nevertheless, it's something that I had strict orders to my department all of the years I was there, that when we had a missing child I wanted to know about it immediately.
"But in Steve's case, as time progressed, we became more and more concerned. As with most missing child cases, we did the routine things first. We put out the broadcast, had the juvenile officers check the neighborhood, the school, and with friends . . . that sort of thing. Of course, on into the first evening we suspected that we had something more than just the ordinary missing child, so we started throwing everything we had into the investigation. I told my juvenile sergeant, Jim Moore, to do everything he could to try and find the boy."
"The Stayners were pretty upset," Sergeant Jim Moore recalls. "I dealt mainly with Kay. Kay was kind of the spokesperson for the family . . . she kind of ran it. And she was very concerned about it, because she said that this hadn't really been a serious problem with Steven before. And we talked to the people along the route he took home from school over and over, and
we determined that, well, the last time he was seen by anybody was at the Red Ball Service Station on Yosemite Parkway, and nobody saw anything at all after that."
The next day Moore assembled virtually all off-duty law enforcement personnel in Merced County for as complete a county-wide search as possible. Additionally, Moore and his officers interviewed virtually everybody within a ten-block radius of Steven's school and the Stayners' home, put out an all-points bulletin on Steven over California's statewide law enforcement teletype, and requested that news bulletins on Steven's disappearance be broadcast on all area radio and television stations and printed in all area newspapers.
Lieutenant Bill Bailey, the evening shift's watch commander on the night Steven disappeared, said, "Nothing like that had ever happened to a citizen of this community before, and we on the police department were so frustrated about his disappearance that we became very involved in looking for him. You know, I was thinking that the little guy can't just disappear from Yosemite Parkway while he's on his way home from school."
That afternoon Cary and his sisters were collected at school and brought home briefly, very confused by the frantic activity: people coming and going, police officers talking with their parents, friends and strangers alike bringing in covered dishes. Said Cindy, "The first thing I asked was, 'Is Steve back?' And he wasn't. And after a little while we had to go back over to the Scoggins', where we stayed for about a week. And it was real quiet and strange when we did finally come back home."
That night Mac Scoggins drove Del to see Kay's father, Bob Augustine, at his trailer in Cathy's Valley so that Del could tell him in person about his grandson's disappearance. Unknown to Steven, Bob had moved his trailer to Judy's Trailer Park in Cathy's Valley just two weeks earlier and was then living just 200 feet from and in sight of the little red cabins. Del said he loaded his shotgun and took it along. "Just in case."
At about the same time that night, Parnell and Murph, with Steven sitting up between them in the front seat, pulled away from the cabin and drove back to Yosemite in Parnell's white Buick, joining the highway and heading east at exactly the same point where Del and Mac left it. Parnell and Murph had to return to work that night and Parnell had elected to take his new "son" to his third-floor private room in employee dorm F in Yosemite Valley and secrete him there.