The Tragedy Of Steven Stayner's 1989 Death Explained

Steven Stayner was just 7 years old when he was kidnapped in California in 1972 (via the Los Angeles Times). Two men pulled up next to Stayner in a car one day, claiming to be ministers collecting money for their church. But they weren't religious leaders — Kenneth E. Parnell was a convicted pedophile. The men kidnapped Stayner, and he endured sexual and physical abuse for the next seven years at the hands of Parnell. Stayner and Parnell moved often, finally settling near Ukiah, California, where Steven Stayner became Dennis Parnell, according to The New York Times. Per the Spokesman-Review, Parnell told Stayner that his parents didn't want him anymore; he was beaten so viciously that he was afraid to run away.

Stayner and Parnell pretended to be a son and father (via the Lodi News-Sentinel). But things changed when the kidnapper brought in another child to live with them when Stayner was 14. Their new captive, Timmy White, was just 5 years old, and Stayner was heartbroken that White was always sad and crying. After White had been with Stayner and his captors for 16 days, Stayner realized he needed to save White from the same abuse he had endured (via the Los Angeles Times).

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

How did Stayner escape?

According to the Los Angeles Times, the 14-year-old and 5-year-old boys hitchhiked their way to a police station 40 miles away and told officers what had happened. Police first arrested convicted pedophile, Kenneth E. Parnel immediately and went to work tracking down Ervin Murphy according to Lodi News-Sentinel, who had only been involved in the kidnapping before going his own way. Both men were convicted. Stayner was considered a hero for saving White from years of sexual and physical abuse.

When Steven Stayner returned home, all he really knew about himself was his first name — he wasn't even sure how his last name was spelled. He briefly attended counseling but instead considered talking to reporters as his form of therapy. He reunited with his family and later attended college. But Stayner had issues with readjusting to family life, with a tumultuous teenagehood. His life with Parnell lacked discipline — he'd even been allowed to drink and smoke. His parents had different expectations. They kicked him out of their house twice.

According to the Los Angeles Times, by 1989 Stayner was married with two small children and was working at Pizza Hut. He'd bought a brand new white and blue Kawasaki EX-500 motorcycle with money from a miniseries based on his childhood kidnapping, called "I Know My First Name Is Steven." But tragedy would strike Stayner one last time.

Dead at 24

On September 16, 1989, Steven Stayner was driving home from work on a California highway after work one rainy evening and got into a deadly collision with a car that turned in front of him. He was not wearing a helmet because someone had stolen it from him two months prior (via the Los Angeles Times). Stayner died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 24.

The incident was declared a hit-and-run after the car sped away, leaving Stayner on the highway with severe injuries (via The Spokesman-Review). The driver was later caught (per LA Times). 

Stayner was buried at a family plot alongside his grandparents, at a funeral attended by 450 people. He was remembered at a service at his church, the Merced Stake Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, where his pastor and family members gathered to pay their respects. At his funeral, Timmy White was a pallbearer (via Press Democrat).

Stayner's wife, Jodi, who The Spokesman-Review reported married Steven when she was 16, said he was her first love and the couple met in high school. According to the Los Angeles Times, she said after his death, "But he's not hurting anymore. Nobody can hurt him now. He's free."