Authors: Mike Echols
Salt Lake City police charged Parnell with armed robbery and grand larceny and jailed him. Unable to post the $2,500 bail, he remained in the Salt Lake County Jail until his jury trial in February 1961. He was convicted on March 6. District Judge Stewart M. Hanson sentenced Parnell to five years-to-life for robbery and one-to-ten years for grand larceny, and the next day Kenneth Eugene Parnell was taken to the Utah State Prison at Draper, south of Salt Lake City.
While he was serving this sentence, Ken's second wife, Emma Naoma, divorced him. He represented himself in the divorce proceedings and tried to argue for his legal right to be present in court in Salt Lake City. Short of his desire to irritate prison officials and to get a trip into Salt Lake City, his actions gained him nothing. The divorce was summarily granted and authorities returned him to prison. But Ken did improve himself educationally while in prison by earning his G.E.D.—equivalent to a high school diploma—and by taking some college-level accounting courses.
In September 1967 Utah released Parnell from prison with the proviso that he never again enter the state of Utah. At that time this was a common practice which states used to reduce their prison populations; however, when neighboring states began reciprocating, the Utah State Legislature had the wisdom to repeal its law.
According to an employment application Ken completed in 1972, he then headed to Phoenix, Arizona, where he worked as a short-order cook at the greyhound racetrack. During an interview Ken stated that
following this two-month position he worked as a cook for the ABC Vending Company in the Adams Hotel in Phoenix before becoming the acting chef at the Phoenix Playboy Club. However, Ken gave the lie to that on the aforementioned employment application wherein he wrote that he was only a "broiler cook" at the "bunny club." Then, for a short time, Ken claims, he owned and operated the Haynes Café on West Van Buren Avenue in Phoenix. This venture lasted six months and, Ken admitted, ended in financial failure.
In 1968 Ken married for the third time. He would not say to whom but admitted only that the marriage lasted less than a year. However, no records could be found to substantiate this third marriage or the subsequent divorce.
At this point Ken left Arizona and went to several states before returning to his mother's home in Bakersfield in early 1972.
On March 7, 1972, Ken drove from Bakersfield to Yosemite National Park and applied for a job with the Curry Company, the park concessionaire. On the application he fudged a good deal about his past educational and employment history and mentioned absolutely nothing about his felony convictions and his years spent in mental hospitals and prisons. For a time the application languished in the personnel office, but in April the Curry Company notified him that they wished to hire him, and on May 1, 1972, ex-felon Kenneth Eugene Parnell began working as a night auditor for the Yosemite Lodge.
Born in Alcester, South Dakota, on July 11, 1941,
Ervin Edward Murphy remembers his mother as having been abusive to her ten children. "She would always fly off the handle too quick," he recalled. "I remember one time the kids were playing noisy outside, and she came out and stood there and started screaming and yelling at us to go in. And we said, 'Oh. Do we have to go in now?' And she went back in and got the strap—and she could really hit with a strap—and she came back out and started beating the hell out of me, and then she found out that I wasn't even the one who did it!"
The incident Murph recounted occurred when he was about three, and shortly thereafter his mother deserted the family and Murph's father had to assume the task of raising his ten children single-handedly. In order to support them, Mr. Murphy moved his brood to Sioux City, Iowa, thirty miles south of Alcester, where he went to work at Chilly's Ice Cream Factory. Murph went to public school there until the age of sixteen, when he dropped out and struck out for California on his own.
Shortly before his departure from Iowa, Murph's older brother, Arnold, was convicted of an attempted sexual assault on an eight-year-old girl in the Sioux City Public Library. Observed Murph, "He was way past the adult age, but they put him in the Glenwood State School for Boys."
In 1957 Murph arrived in the San Joaquin Valley, having hitchhiked and ridden freight trains from Sioux City to Fresno. From there, he said, "I walked all the way to Tulare, where I got a job in those fields chopping cotton." There followed half-a-dozen years of drifting from job to job, some as a field hand, some
washing dishes, and doing other menial work. At one point Murph lived with his sister and her husband, who themselves had moved to California, but for reasons which Murph still puzzles over, his brother-in-law threw Murph out and his life of wandering resumed.
In the mid sixties Murph joined the Job Corps and started learning "kitchen work," but one day he got into an argument with a black trainee and a shouting match ensued, complete with racial slurs from Murph. The Job Corps terminated the slow-witted South Dakotan. Murph headed back to Sioux City and tried to find "my poor parents," as he calls them, "but they were gone and I didn't know where they were." He hung around Sioux City for a week and then hitchhiked back west, settling in California.
Once back in Fresno, Murph took a position performing odd jobs at the Salvation Army, where he stayed for nine months. Next he pitched in with a group of farm laborers—most of them winos—headed by a crew boss whose wife treated Murph like her son. Then, in the summer of 1969, Murph heard that good jobs were to be had with the Curry Company in Yosemite National Park. "I went up to see about it," Murph said. He was hired on the spot and went to work immediately at the venerable Ahwahnee Hotel, transferring to the modern Yosemite Lodge in 1972.
It wasn't long after Ken and Murph met in the summer of 1972 that Parnell started telling the gullible Midwesterner about his desire to have a son. But instead of adopting one, Parnell told Murph, he wanted Murph to help him pick one up off the street.
Murph shockingly ruminated. Later that summer, when Parnell drove himself and Murph to Sac
ramento to visit a fellow employee's mother, Murph recalled that Parnell tried to talk him into helping "find some young kid for him." But Murph declined to help, and when they got to the woman's house, Murph stayed there while Parnell went off on his own for twenty-four hours.
During the drive back to Yosemite, Murph recalled, Parnell kept talking about being lonesome and "telling me that he would like to have a boy to be able to raise him up in a religious-type deal." Murph said he then steered the conversation to the subject of getting married to have kids, but Parnell ignored him and kept talking about kids and how he wanted a "son" to raise by himself. Murph also remembers a lot of other times that Parnell wanted his help in picking up a boy to be his son, but Murph said that he made up excuses not to help him. "I thought maybe he'd just get off the subject," recalls Murph.
Murph said that his and Ken's relationship "was a friendly type, 'cause he never did anything to me in the way that I could look at him twice. It was just a casual friendship. But I was warned about him, and this was way before the kidnapping. Buzz Colisimo, a friend of mine [in Yosemite] who shared my cabin with me, said, 'Murph, I don't trust that guy.' He was thinking maybe I would get the message, but I didn't."
Perhaps Murph's personality can be best understood through the impressions and remarks of his friends and fellow Yosemite Lodge employees which were gleaned by a private investigator, retired F.B.I. Agent Mel Shannon, in March 1980.
During the 1970s Charles Hudspeth was a second cook at Yosemite Lodge. He described Murph as a
person who liked people and wanted other people to like him in return. He said Murph was a lonesome type who was easily influenced by others and that there was practically nothing that Murph wouldn't do for his friends.
An employee of the Yosemite Lodge Bar and Restaurant, Ralph Lerkin, described Murph "as the kind of person that if you needed twenty-five dollars, and he only had twenty, he would give you the twenty that he had and then go out and borrow another five dollars to give to you."
Station cook Peter Gillespie noted that Murph was a good, willing worker who did much more than was required or expected of him, and that Murph was generous, always buying small gifts for his friends.
A very interesting story about Murph was told by Ahwahnee Hotel storeroom clerk Russell White. He related that several years earlier a fellow employee had stolen a brand new pair of shoes from Murph. When Murph found out that the man who had stolen the shoes was badly in need of a pair, Murph let the thief keep the shoes. White added that Murph had originally planned to stay in Yosemite only a short time, but he had stayed as long as he had because it was one of the few times in his life that he'd had any real friends.
Finally, Murph's roommate of many years, Myron "Buzz" Colisimo, described Murph as "a fantastic person who cannot do enough for other people." He also stated that a person with a strong personality could convince Murph to do something just on the basis of friendship, that he was easily misled, and that he had a tendency to believe everything he was told.
On several occasions Buzz had encouraged Murph to visit his mother in Arizona when he was on vacation, and, he said, Murph was a perfect gentleman . . . "I wouldn't send a nut to visit Mother!"
In Murph the image of a lonely, pathetic, naive man emerges. He believed his friend Kenneth Parnell—whom he did not know was an ex-con—when he told him that he was a minister and that he wanted to take in some poor, abused boy to help by raising as his son "in a religious-type deal."
Though Murph thought it odd, he did not question his friend when on December 4, 1972, Parnell asked him to pass out gospel tracts to the young boys walking home from Charles Wright Elementary School in Merced, and then to help him get Steven into his car, or even when Parnell then drove off with the little boy in the car. Murph believed in and trusted his good, loyal, generous, kind friend Kenneth Parnell. And he felt that Ken would never do anything to hurt him . . . and certainly nothing to hurt an abused little boy.
Dennis Gregory Parnell
"Parnell just ignored me and kept on doing it. "
At daybreak on Monday, December 11, 1972, Kenneth Parnell, his balding head bowed and lost in concentration, figured the Yosemite Lodge's guests' bills. A little before 8
Murph quietly shuffled into the lodge's lobby and peering over his thick horn-rimmed glasses, silently fixed a gaze on his friend. Moments later, Ken realized with a sudden start that he was being watched and sharply yet softly rebuked Murph before turning back to his work. A few minutes later Parnell finished his shift and the pair made their usual after-work trek to check on the little boy living in Parnell's third-floor room in dorm F . . . usual since Steven's kidnapping the previous week. As the twosome trudged under snow-laden redwoods, Parnell unctuously approached Murph to babysit Steven at his little red rented cabin in Cathy's Valley while he made a day trip out of town and Murph agreed, as always, happy to be needed.
When the pair reached his room, Parnell gently
shook Steven awake and then turned and quickly packed his and Steven's clothes and meager possessions, almost forgetting the comic books Murph had given the boy until he was reminded. While Murph stood watch in the hall, Parnell hustled Steven down the stairs, outside, and into his old white Buick, Murph quickly following. With their captive sitting between them in the front seat the kidnappers drove off and after a quick stop at Murph's cabin for him to dash inside to get some clothes, they headed out of the park to Cathy's Valley.
Remarked Steven's father, Del: "We could have met Parnell and them on the highway. We had so many people going up and down that road looking for Stevie . . . so
people looking. And that character just driving up and down the highway with Stevie sitting up front next to him . . . Stevie said they never made him get down . . . had him sit right up there between them!"
The trio arrived at the cabin in Judy's Trailer Park at 9:15. It was bewildering to Steven to be left in the charge of "Uncle" Murphy as Parnell hurriedly drove off for Bakersfield to pay a rare visit to his mother, Mary; but Steven and Murph got up on the cabin's sole bed and together read their beloved comic books. As Parnell smugly drove southwest, through Planada and straight into Merced, the little boy in Cathy's Valley occasionally played with his collection of worn flea market toys on the lonely cabin's bare floor.
In Merced the search for Steven continued as Parnell boldly stopped at a self-service gas station on Yosemite Parkway, barely a quarter mile from the Stayner home. After tanking up, Parnell self-assuredly strolled inside and just happened to spot one of Steven's "Missing Juvenile" flyers. While another customer paid the clerk, Parnell astutely made a quick mental note of Steven's middle name, date of birth, and physical description, all the better to make plans for his captive's new identity. Later Parnell particularly recalled that Steven
Stayner had been born on April 18, 1965, and was described as having "light brown, shaggy collar-length hair." Smiling conceitedly at his craftiness, Parnell got back into his car and drove off at a respectable speed, passing the Red Ball Service Station before entering the freeway, California 99, where he settled back for the 160-mile-drive to Bakersfield.
Mary Parnell was retired, in her seventies, and had silvery-gray hair. Even though she no longer worked, she still greeted each day well-groomed and wearing a fashionable though modest dress. Late that morning her son paid her a surprise visit. She welcomed her son Ken's visit, although as usual he needed money. . . but as usual she readily gave it to him. Ken visited her more often than her other children, sporadic though his visits were. Their conversation revolved around family news and Ken's work in Yosemite, but her son said nothing about the recent disappearance of a little boy from the streets of Merced.