Authors: Mike Echols
After dropping Murph off at his cabin, what Steven later said he had considered "an adventure" came to a frighteningly brutal, abrupt end. Parnell drove to a remote, deserted parking lot on the valley floor and forced the seven-year-old boy to fellate him. Whereas Steven may not have understood what Parnell had done in bed the night before, the lad was now scared to death. He tried to pull away from his captor's grip. Brusquely, though, the kidnapper shoved the little boy's head down over his exposed, erect penis, Steven's copious tears and entreaties to Parnell to take him home not deterring the aroused pedophile as he repeatedly ejaculated inside the trembling child's mouth.
Years later Steven bitterly recalled, "I told him I didn't like it when he ejaculated in my mouth, but Parnell didn't really care. The fellatio was uncomfortable but not painful . . . but it never,
"And the next time he told me, 'This is what I want you to do from now on,' and he pulled me over and held me down and put me through the motions. I'm with him, and at that age I didn't think I should be fighting him every night or have to be forced every night, so I just did what he wanted me to do."
After that first traumatizing sexual assault, Parnell drove back to employee dorm F, parked, and in the late-night stillness spirited Steven up the stairs and into his private third-floor room. Once there he gently undressed the boy, tucked him in bed, and, telling Steven that he was going to work and would see him in the morning, gave the boy a couple of Nytol sleeping pills before leaving. As soon as his new son was asleep, Parnell slipped out the door, locked it, and strode the quarter mile through the snow to his accounting job at Yosemite Lodge.
Before dawn the next morning Murph had routinely finished cleaning the lodge kitchen's ovens. A little past 5
he showed up at the front desk, where a solitary Ken was still busy figuring the guests' bills. Parnell gave Murph his room key and told him to check on Steven. Dutifully, Murph went to Parnell's room and, finding the little boy still asleep, sat and waited for him to wake up. When Steven did wake a couple of hours later he was hungry, and Murph left him and went to the snack bar and got both of them
a breakfast of junk food which, as with all of his meals in Yosemite, Steven ate in Parnell's room.
Shortly after 8
Parnell arrived and Murph left for his cabin. With Murph gone Parnell again performed fellatio on Steven. Stated Steven matter-of-factly, "Parnell wouldn't do anything to me while Murphy was around. Murphy was a sort of friendless person, and Parnell had drawn him into the whole thing because of the friendship. Murphy wasn't a kidnapper or pedophile. He didn't have any sexual interest in me. Murphy was just basically there to help Parnell with the kidnapping and that was it. He was a strange little man, but I grew to like him. I called Murphy 'Uncle Murphy' . . . and I still do." Steven smiled. Murph concurred with Steven's story, claiming that he never knew anything about Parnell sexually assaulting or molesting Steven until many years later.
About his relationship with Murphy, Steven fondly recalled, "He was always real nice to me. He got a bunch of comic books for me from a friend of his and brought them to Parnell's room. He came in with this big bundle in his arms, and when he took off the wrapping paper there were two stacks of comic books about six inches high. So we sat there together and started reading them, and I think he enjoyed them as much or more than I did."
Since the room didn't have a private bathroom, Parnell required Steven to relieve himself in a bucket in his closet, but Murph never took such precautions, and when he watched Steven he would just send the boy by himself to use the communal toilet down the hall.
Early the next Sunday, December 10, just as soon as
he got off work, Parnell hustled Murph and Steven into his car and drove to the cabin at Cathy's Valley. Parnell had seen and heard a few newspaper and broadcast reports of Steven's disappearance, yet he was smugly satisfied that his villainy was going unnoticed in Yosemite National Park and Cathy's Valley. So confident was Parnell that he felt he could casually plan his future with his new young son.
During the first week after Steven disappeared, volunteers and peace officers searched Merced County north to south and east to west but turned up no leads. Some minimal searching was done in neighboring Mariposa County, including a search of the home of a known homosexual pedophile and child pornographer just outside the county seat, but the man's treasure trove of nude photographs of young boys held no clues to Steven's disappearance.
Much of the search of Merced County was conducted by the male members of the local Mormon Stake, who carefully covered specific areas on detailed county maps in four-wheel-drive vehicles and on horseback while their wives brought a steady supply of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, jello and fruit salads, and pies to the unofficial search headquarters at the Stayners' house. Years later Cary tearfully recounted this episode: "I don't like to be around a lot of people, so I stayed outside as much as I could. And I remember going out one night after Steve disappeared and wishing on a star that my brother would come back home. And I did that almost every clear night from then until Steve finally came back home.
I never did tell anybody about it, but I remember wishing on a star that my little brother would come back home." He finished his tale with tears in his eyes.
Sharon Carr, whose birthday party Steven had attended the day before he disappeared, was very much affected. Steven had given her a stuffed koala bear, and after his disappearance she became very protective of it. Referring to Sharon, Kay said, "If you even mentioned Steve five or six years after he had disappeared, this little gal would break into tears. We had to do a lot of whispering when she was around. I could talk about Steve when he was gone without really being upset, but Sharon just came unglued if you even mentioned Steve."
Del was by far the most upset by Stevie's disappearance. The morning after Stevie vanished, Del asked his Mormon bishop, Ben Walton, to call Stevie's name in to the prayer roll in Salt Lake City so that "if Stevie was still alive by the time his name got on the prayer roll, nothing bad would happen to him. It bothered me that Stevie had disappeared and he hadn't been baptized. He would have been baptized when he was eight years old, but he disappeared before that. And that always bothered me." Then, in awe, Del added, "And every person in this valley prayed for my Stevie . . . I just couldn't believe that."
Chief Kulbeth recalled that by the third day psychics were volunteering information. "We never did go to them. It's something that I certainly did not have any confidence in, yet at the same time, when you have a serious case like this, you're not going to ignore anything."
One of the psychics whose information Kulbeth
checked asked to be driven east on Highway 140, and as Merced Police drove her past a trio of little red cabins at Judy's Trailer Park in Cathy's Valley, she "lost the trail." The police retraced the route with her several times, but each time the trail ended for her just past the cabins, Kulbeth said. Almost unbelievably, during the seven years that Steven was missing, the cabins were never checked out.
By the end of that first week, Sergeant Moore had requested and received from Sacramento a list of all known sex offenders in Merced and the surrounding counties; however, since Parnell had never been registered as a convicted child molester as required by California law, his name was not on the list. Next, Moore asked F.B.I. Agent Walsh to contact Lee Shackleton, Chief Park Ranger in charge of law enforcement in Yosemite National Park, to obtain a list of all Curry Company employees, but this was not done until the following March, and when received, the list contained the names of only half of the employees, that half paid the week of December 4, 1972; the Curry Company then paying half of its employees on alternating weeks with Parnell's pay period ending on the alternating week. Therefore Parnell's name was not available for checking against the F.B.I.'s list of convicted sex offenders and child molesters, where his name did appear. Also, copies of the Missing Juvenile flyers were given to Shackleton, but for whatever reason, neither he nor his men developed any leads, and no one then in Yosemite National Park recalls ever having seen one of the flyers.
Outspoken F.B.I. Agent Walsh has his own feelings about these failures. "The boy was in the park for quite
awhile, living with a park employee. Shackleton and his men couldn't find him . . . a seven-year-old boy. That boy should have been found by them.
"The problem was we were dealing with the rangers.
were supposed to get that list for us, and they didn't get us a good list. At that time we were virtually persona non grata [with the park rangers]. Shackleton was uncooperative with the Merced office of the F.B.I. At the time the Yosemite Park Company [then known as the Curry Company] had more than forty percent of their employees that had a record of felony arrests and/or convictions.
"We and the United States Attorney were sure grim to see the number of people with sex violations working in the park. I do know that they [the Curry Company] have a propensity for hiring perverts. But the best opportunity to solve the case was in Yosemite National Park. Didn't somebody see a little seven-year-old boy nude around a dormitory?"
Chief Kulbeth agreed, though his reply was muted in comparison with his friend Walsh's. "One of the first theories concerning Steven's disappearance centered around the park. We knew from past experience that there were a lot of criminals and sex offenders up there working not for the Park Service, but in other jobs up there . . . [but] due to the mere fact that
Steven was last seen on the road leading up to Yosemite National Park, we asked [for] assistance from the Park Service in getting some of the flyers with his photograph on them distributed up there. We weren't up there. The F.B.I. didn't have an office up there either. Lee Shackleton was the one in charge, but somehow Parnell just slipped through their fingers."
After Steven's disappearance Kay reinstructed her four remaining children not to accept candy or rides from strangers and always to come straight home from school. But she kept a stiff upper lip as she continued to cook, clean, and care for her family. She was truly a rock for the family during this time, when Del was so deeply affected by the loss of his beloved Stevie. Said he, "I had a lot to do with my kids before Stevie's disappearance. But afterward, I was a hard guy to get along with. I just couldn't stand to see my family broken up with Stevie's bein' missing."
Parnell and Murphy
"My track record is that I don't tell the truth."
Kenneth Eugene Parnell was born the son of Mary O. and Cecil Frederick Parnell in Amarillo, Texas, September 26, 1931, just at the beginning of the Texas panhandle's infamous dust-bowl days. It was his mother's second marriage, and one that proved unhappy. Kenneth was the only child of this union, but Mary had custody of her children from her first marriage to "a Mr. Costner," as she referred to him when the author interviewed her—one boy and two girls.
Ken's father became increasingly unhappy with his wife's overbearing, dictatorial, pious control of other people's lives, including his own. Among other maxims Mary Parnell insisted that everyone in her family fall toe-and-heel with her rigid fundamentalist Christian beliefs, and woe unto the child or husband who did not. Cecil Parnell did not, and in 1937 he was history.
Shortly thereafter Mary took her brood west on the Santa Fe Railroad and settled in Bakersfield, in Cali
fornia, the state at that time revered as the land of milk and honey by hundreds of thousands of escapees from the dust and unemployment of Texas and the Midwest. Once there she struggled mightily to start a new life.
But shortly before the family had departed for California the absence of his father so upset five-year-old Kenneth that he spent several hours pulling out four of his teeth with a pair of pliers. "My recollection of the day of separation—just as any kid would obviously be, I was upset. I wanted to go with my dad, and of course I didn't. I just simply did not want to leave where I was at. I didn't want to come to California. Children tend not to want to have their world upset," he convincingly concluded.
Once in Bakersfield, Mary began working as a nurse's aide and joined and quickly became one of the staunchest members of the Assembly of God Church. She required her children to accompany her to services every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday evening, rain or shine. This was in addition to the compulsory weekday ritual of making her children get down on their knees with her and pray just before they left for school. Said she, "My children never did go to school without prayers. They wouldn't go to school without having their prayers any more than they would go without their books or clothes. They all expected that." And daily she taught the Bible to Kenneth and his half-brother and half-sisters.
After a few years in Bakersfield, Mary felt she could better provide for her family back in Texas and so packed her brood up and returned, this time to Waxa
hatchie, just south of Fort Worth. For three years she worked hard and saved her money, but in early 1944 she returned with her children to Bakersfield, this time for good. She immediately invested her savings in a boardinghouse—housing and feeding the oil field roughnecks—so as to take advantage of the war-related oil boom then in progress in Bakersfield and nearby Oildale. This was not, however, a happy time for Kenneth.
In the spring of 1945 one of his mother's boarders befriended the slender, troubled thirteen-year-old and, after establishing a degree of trust in the fatherless boy, coerced the lad to engage in fellatio. This—young Kenneth's first-known homosexual encounter—was the apparent catalyst for his setting fire to a pasture very soon thereafter. He was found out, taken into custody, and locked up in Bakersfield Juvenile Hall. A psychiatrist who examined him at the time, Dr. Richard D. Lowenberg, recommended temporary placement for Parnell in the Juvenile Hall "in the hope that his marked emotional immaturity mixed with his sophisticated disposition toward perversion might be overcome."