The Tale of the Two Stayner Brothers: A Hero & a Villain

The tragic story of Steven Stayner is hard to forget. The helpless boy was just seven years old when he was kidnapped by a man with very disturbing intentions. He held the child captive for seven dreadful years. After his abductor took another little boy, Steven finally escaped in order to save the boy from the same horrors he had gone through. The innocent child endured the unimaginable.

Steven Stayner / Yosemite Park / Kenneth Parnell / Cary Stayner.
Source: Getty Images

When he got away, all he could say to his rescuers was, “I know my first name is Steven.” In a terrible twist of fate, after recovering from years of captivity, 24-year-old Steven lost his life in a terrible motorcycle accident. That’s not where this roller coaster of a story ends.

Stranger Danger

In 2002, thirteen years later, Steven’s brother, Cary Stayner, became a serial killer and was convicted of murdering multiple women. The case has no connection to his younger brother’s kidnapping, but this devastating situation just adds more pain and heartache to the Stayner family.

A photo of Steven Stayer and Cary Stayner.
Cary Stayner, Steven Stayner. Source: Pinterest

Over 2,000 children are reported missing in the United States daily. On that fateful day in 1972, when Steven Stayner was abducted in Merced, California, he was approached by a man named Ervin Murphy. The seemingly ordinary man pretended he was looking for donations for the church. He offered little Steven a ride home to get a donation from his mother.

A Trusting Little Boy

The trusting seven-year-old had no reason to fear this seemingly kind stranger; he didn’t know this man was dangerous. Murphy was working for Kenneth Parnell, an evil person who had committed crimes against children in the past; he was much more cunning and manipulative than his accomplice Murphy.

A picture of Kenneth Parnell and Steven Stayner.
Kenneth Parnell, Steven Stayner. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Once Steven innocently agreed to show the stranger to his home, Parnell showed up in a car. However, Steven’s drive home was actually a drive away from his home and the life he knew. He didn’t know it would be seven years before he would get to see his family again.

This Isn’t the Way Home…

Parnell drove about 20 miles away and took Steven to a cabin in a secluded area where he could be left alone and undisturbed with the little boy. Parnell convinced Steven that his parents didn’t want him anymore and that he was going to be his guardian from now on.

A photo of Kenneth in court.
Kenneth Parnell. Photo by Michael Maloney

So, Steven Stayner started his new life, under the name Dennis Gregory Parnell. Over the years, Steven believed his abductor. He thought his parents really didn’t care about him or want him back.

I’m Your Daddy Now

Steven was trapped in this new situation with Kenneth Parnell; the helpless seven-year-old had no say in the situation, nor did he fully understand it. For the next few years, Steven went to school as Parnell’s son. The fake father-son bounced around California, and Steven had the freedom to smoke and drink.

A portrait of Steven at the time of his kidnapping.
Steven Stayner. Source: Facebook

Everyone who encountered the pair assumed that Steven was Parnell’s son and had no idea what was really going on. The way Parnell treated Steven simply didn’t raise any red flags to outsiders. Unfortunately, what went on behind closed doors was much darker. By day, Kenneth Parnell was his father; by night, he was his abuser.

Searching for His Next Victim

As Steven grew up, Parnell began trying to lure in other young boys, usually using Steven to befriend them. Parnell finally got his wish in 1980, when he successfully kidnapped Timothy James White from Ukiah, a small town about 200 miles away from Merced, where Steven was abducted.

An exterior shot of Parnell’s house.
Kidnapper’s cabin. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Timothy was just five years old when an older school friend walked him most of the way home. Timothy just had to walk the last section alone, but it was a long enough distance that he got snatched from the street.

He Did It for Timothy

Steven was terrified by this new kidnapping and feared for Timothy’s safety. Steven was well-aware that Parnell wanted another young child because he was getting older, but he didn’t want what happened to him to happen to another little boy.

A picture of Timothy sitting on the lap of Steven Stayner.
Timothy White, Steven Stayner. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

While Parnell worked the night shift in a local hotel, Steven escaped, taking the terrified five-year-old with him. They hitchhiked straight to the police station, where Steven uttered the chilling words, “I know my first name is Steven.” That sentence inspired books and shows about the shocking case.

Finally Found

When they took Steven’s statement, police initially spelled his last name incorrectly, not realizing he was that Steven Stayner, who had disappeared in 1972 and would be 14 years old now. The statement read:

A still of Steven speaking on a televised interview.
Source: YouTube

“My name is Steven Stainer; I am fourteen years of age. I don’t know my true birthdate, but I use April 18, 1965. I know my first name is Steven, I’m pretty sure my last name is Stainer, and if I have a middle name, I don’t know it.” Police confirmed both of the missing boys’ true identities.

He Got Off Easy…

By this point, Parnell was 50 years old and was arrested with a kidnapping charge the following morning along with his accomplice, 40-year-old Ervin Murphy. In January 1982, both Kenneth Parnell and Ervin Murphy were convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy to kidnap.

A photo of Parnell testifying in court.
Kenneth Parnell. Photo by Bromberger Hoover Photo/Getty Images

Parnell was given a seven-year sentence while Murphy only had to serve five years behind bars. Obviously, this sentence is completely unfair. Given the fact that he took away a person’s childhood, literally snatched him away from his family, and then tried to do it again to another kid, Parnell deserves to be locked up forever.

No Sexual Assault Charges

It sounds like Parnell was given one year in jail for each year he held Steven captive. Unfortunately, the kidnapper was never charged with the sexual assaults connected to Steven for various reasons. These included state jurisdictions, considerations to protect Steven, the stigma surrounding male sexual abuse, and reluctance from Steven’s parents, who finally got their child back.

A portrait of Steven and Timothy.
Source: YouTube

This was back in the early 1980s where female victims barely opened up about their experiences. You can only imagine that male sexual abuse wasn’t talked about nearly as much as it is today.

It Just Wasn’t Talked About

Even today, many people still have difficulties understanding this kind of behavior, but back then, people really just didn’t know how to deal with such a disturbing situation and didn’t know how to help victims who had gone through such abuse. I guess it was easier not to talk about it.

A photo of Steven’s parents.
Steven’s parents. Source: ABC News

Luckily, times have certainly changed. In today’s world, people like Parnell would probably be tried for these heinous actions. In light of the MeToo movement, if there is one thing people almost never get away with anymore, it’s sexual assault.

Psychopathic Tendencies

It’s important to understand that women tend to deal with sexual harassment (in any form of the word) pretty often – certainly more often than men. However, that doesn’t mean that male sexual assault is any less terrifying, humiliating, degrading, and traumatizing. Male victims might have a harder time speaking out, but it’s extremely important. Usually, these things don’t happen once.

A picture of Timothy White.
Timothy White. Source: Pinterest

Parnell had a history of anti-social behavior (psychopathic tendencies) and spent much of his teenage years in juvenile detention. His first known inappropriate incident involving a child happened when he was 19, and Parnell was sentenced to three years for his assault. He later served more time for armed robbery.

Making Headlines

When he got home, Steven was plunged into the spotlight. He was the kid who was kidnapped and presumed dead but returned to his family after being held captive for seven agonizing years. Naturally, everyone wanted to hear his story.

A newspaper clipping on Steven’s comeback.
Source: ABC News

There are movies, documentaries, and books written about Steven’s unbelievable ordeal, and he was involved in many of them – earning money for his headline-making story. He appeared to be an amazingly well-adjusted young man considering what he had experienced. He wanted to open up n order to show other victims that there is a way home.

Getting Out Early

Kenneth Parnell, the evil man who snatched Steven, served only five years of his seven-year sentence; he was released in 1985 – which is terrifying. Unsurprisingly, he appeared in court once again in 2004, this time for trying to buy a 4-year-old boy in Berkeley, California, for $500.

A still of Parnell in court.
Source: ABC News

By that point, the 72-year-old predator needed daily care and gave his caregiver’s sister the money to bring him a child. Fully aware of his sinister past, the sister contacted police immediately, who set up a ploy of a four-year-old to capture Kenneth Parnell.

He Tried to Buy a Child

Child molesters don’t change. These people need to be locked up and treated with severe therapy. This man spent his whole life hurting children and kept getting the opportunity to do so again every time he was let out of prison. What did they think? That he would suddenly stop assaulting children?

Parnell in a mugshot.
Kenneth Parnell. Source: ABC News

This time, Parnell was told in court that he was a “danger to children his entire life” and would spend the rest of his natural life rotting in prison. It took a long time and a lot of innocent children being hurt, but justice was finally served. Parnell died behind bars in 2008.

Tragedy Strikes Again

Following his escape from Parnell, Steven tried to live a relatively normal life. You know, as normal as could be after such a traumatizing experience. Steven got married and had two children. He finally put the pain of his past behind him and seemed to be doing well.

A portrait of Steven with his daughter.
Steven Stayner. Source: ABC News

Sadly, when 24-year-old Steven was on his way home from his job at a pizza parlor, he got in a motorcycle accident. The poor guy was uninsured and not wearing a helmet when a car pulled out of the driveway in front of him.

Steven’s Life Cut Even Shorter

Steven passed away shortly after the tragic accident. The driver of the van initially fled the scene but was identified after he turned himself in to the police station. His death was a tragic end to his short life, filled with trauma and pain.

A portrait of Steven at home.
Steven Stayner. Source: ABC News

After everything he’s been through, he finally saw a bright future. He was excited to flourish with the love and support of his family, the one he returned to and the one he was building. His mother, Kay Stayner, said, “It seems like he has just been a loan to us,” which is absolutely heartbreaking.

The Story of Steven Stayner

The horrifying tale of Steven Stayner is about a terrified young boy who found the strength and courage to escape after seven years of pretending to be the son of the stranger who took him. He found the bravery to escape his abductor in order to save little Timothy from the same fate.

A still of Steven Stayner reuniting with his family.
Steven Stayner. Source: ABC News

The disturbing details and abuse Steven endured have been documented, but he chose to keep some of the information to himself because he didn’t feel comfortable talking about it, and we definitely respect his wishes.

He Went Down as a Hero

For Steven to lose his young life just a decade after he returned to his family and reclaimed his freedom makes this story even more heartbreaking. A memorial statue for Steven and Timothy was placed at Applegate Park in Merced, California. The statue honors the boys and is meant to give hope to families who are waiting for their loved ones to return home one day.

A picture of the memorial statue.
Source: Pinterest

As a fourteen-year-old, it was the distress of the younger child that was too much for Steven to handle; he was determined to run away with Timothy and take him back to safety. After his heroic actions, Steven has been commended for his bravery. That selfless act of rescue would be remembered for years to come.

The Yosemite Park Killer

Although Steven Stayner is remembered as a hero, the same can not be said about his brother. The Cary Stayner murders took place in 1999 and eventually became known as the Yosemite Park Murders, a series of killings in a four-month span. The man behind the murders was a 37-year-old motel handyman named Cary Stayner.

A general view of the Yosemite Valley.
Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

There are quite a few creepy stories about Yosemite Park, but Stayner’s crimes definitely added to the spook factor. There are countless stories of people getting murdered while hiking and people going missing from national parks, but the crimes committed by Stayner were so gruesome that they have continued to haunt the residents of that town.

Meet Cary Stayner

Cary Stayner was born and raised in Merced, CA, and when he was about 12 years old, tragedy struck his family. His seven-year-old brother Steven was abducted. We can’t even imagine how devastated the family was. Although he was held captive for seven years, Steven came home safely, and the family thought their most heartbreaking tragedy was in the past.

A mugshot of Cary Stayner.
Cary Stayner. Source: ABC News

Unfortunately, the only thing harder than seeing your child being hurt, is seeing your child being responsible for hurting others – in this case, murdering others. He took the lives of four innocent people and blamed the voices in his head, claiming they told him to do it.

Repairing a Leak

Eureka California native 42-year-old Carole Sund, her 15-year-old daughter Juli Sund, and her 16-year-old friend Silvina Pelosso visiting from Argentina, all went on vacation together. The girls were staying at Cedar Lodge motel in El Portal, CA, close to Yosemite National Park.

A photo of Cary in Yosemite Park.
Cary Stayner. Source: ABC News

Cary Stayner was working at this hotel back in February 1999. Carole answered when the handyman knocked on the door, telling her he was there to fix a leak. However, once he got inside, he pulled a gun out and said he was there to rob them.

He Killed Them

All three girls were bound and gagged. Carole was taken into the bathroom and was strangled to death immediately and then put into the trunk of her rental car. Then, Stayner set his sights on the two teenagers. He forced them to take off their clothes and sexually assaulted them. He then took Pelosso into the bathroom and strangled her.

A picture of Carole and Pelosso in their room.
Carole, Pelosso. Source: ABC News

Then, he carried her body out to the car and placed it in the trunk as well. Juli was still alive when she was put in the car, but not for long. After driving a short distance, he cut Juli’s throat, nearly decapitating her. He left her corpse near a lake, left the rental car in the woods, and called a taxi. A few days later, he returned and set the car on fire.

Getting Away With It…

Four months after murdering three innocent women and seemingly getting away with it, Stayner decided to push his luck and kill again. In July 1999, Stayner made his way into Joie Armstrong’s cabin, a 26-year-old woman who worked as a nature guide at Yosemite State Park.

A picture of Stayner’s arrest.
Source: ABC News

She tried to get away from him, but he eventually overpowered and retrained the poor woman. He used a knife to decapitate the helpless girl and later threw her headless corpse in the stream. As if these murders couldn’t get any more heinous.

He Didn’t Cover His Tracks

Since Joie Armstrong fought against her attacker, this murder wasn’t a quiet one. People heard noises, and Stayner left the crime scene in a hurry, leaving behind several clues, like tire tracks from the car and footprints that could be traced.

A photo of the lodge’s parking lot where victims were last seen.
Source: ABC News

Luckily, a witness was able to describe the vehicle he saw parked outside Armstrong’s home – and it just happened to match the description of Stayner’s car. It was clear that the killer didn’t think this one through, and cops were ready to arrest the man responsible.

Finding the Bodies

A few days after the three girls disappeared from the motel, Carole Sund’s wallet, driving license, and credit cards were recovered. However, there was no sign of the three women or their Pontiac Grand Prix rental car. It took a month before a hiker finally found a vehicle in the mountains, which ended up being the one that Carole rented.

An aerial view of the area where Carol was found.
Source: ABC News

The car was torched, and as soon as police opened up the trunk, they found the remains of Carole Sund and Silvina Pelosso. Jodi Sund wasn’t there. Police were praying that they would find her alive.

A Taunting Letter to the FBI

The same exact week that the two bodies were discovered, the FBI received an anonymous Zodiac killer styled letter of a hand-drawn map. The eerie note disturbingly read, “We had fun with this one.” The letter was eventually confirmed to have been written by Cary Stayner.

A picture of the letter.
Source: YouTube

Unlike the Zodiac letter, there were no hidden codes to decipher in Cary Stayner’s taunting note. The map simply led the police straight to Juli Sund’s body. She died as a result of her throat being cut. All hopes of finding the teenager alive were shattered.

Following the Tracks

After the detectives investigated the tire tracks that were left outside Joie Ruth Armstrong’s cabin and spoke to the two witnesses who gave a description of the car they saw, police were able to finally make a match on the vehicle.

A photo of the car where the bodies were found.
Source: YouTube

The SUV belonged to Carly Stayner, the motel handyman who spoke to the police on several occasions after the murders. However, Stayner hadn’t raised any red flags, and investigators never considered him as a possible suspect.

Caught Red-Handed

But once they figured it out, police were ready to bring in the vicious serial killer. Stayner was located in what was reportedly one of his favorite hangout spots, the Laguna Sol nudist colony. Police found him there fully clothed, eating breakfast. So, investigators asked if they could talk to him.

Stayner poses for his mugshot.
Cary Stayner. Source: ABC News

It didn’t take long for police to get a full confession out of the 37-year-old handyman. Stayner admitted to murdering four women and was arrested on the spot. He was in a whole lot of trouble.

Let the Trial Begin

It comes as no surprise that Cary Stayner went with the insanity defense. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity due to multiple psychological problems. During the trial, a doctor testified that Stayner had autism as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Needless to say, autism and OCD don’t make people commit murder.

A mugshot of Cary Stayner.
Cary Stayner. Source: Pinterest

Stayner’s lawyers also argued that the motel handyman had allegedly dealt with sexual abuse in his past, which possibly played a role in him becoming a murderer later in life. Again, not a good reason. Many victims use their experience to help others, not use it as an excuse to kill.

Found Sane and Guilty

After all that, Stayner was found sane. In 2002, he got the death penalty for his heartless crimes. It’s difficult to call anyone who is capable of murder “sane.” But in a court-of-law, as long as the person was aware of what they were doing and had control over their actions, they are legally considered sane.

A picture of the young girls he killed.
Source: YouTube

In Stayner’s case, he knew exactly what he was doing and made a choice to go through with it. He made the decision to take the lives of four women.

Sentenced to Death

He is currently at San Quentin State Prison in California, where he sits on death row. Although the State of California has the death penalty, it’s extremely rare for the executions to be carried out. Chances are that Stayner will die of old age before he gets executed.

Cary Stayner in a mugshot.
Cary Stayner. Source: YouTube

What triggered Cary Stayner? It’s hard to say if his brother’s seven-year captivity had anything to do with Cary’s mental stability. Perhaps his parents were preoccupied with their missing child, or the fear and trauma really took a toll on Cary… but nobody noticed how severe it was.

Not a Suspect

Since Cary Stayner worked at the motel near Yosemite National Park, he was questioned and interviewed by police on more than one occasion after the disappearance of the three women and the eventual death of four women.

A portrait of Cary Stayner.
Source: ABC News

Cary didn’t get in any trouble with the law before. He only had one previous minor drug charge on his record. Almost immediately, police ruled him out as a suspect. They believed the person responsible for committing such gruesome murders would have had prior run-ins with the law.

Looking for Someone With a Violent Past

But police saw no red flags when it came to Stayner. As a matter of fact, the police were more focused on the men with lengthy criminal records. It only makes sense that they thought their killer would have a violent past.

A portrait of a young Cary Stayner in high school.
Cary Stayner. Source: YouTube

It was only when the fourth victim, Joie Ruth Armstrong, was found that police realized their killer was still on the loose. That’s when detectives started reinvestigating people they had previously ruled out, including Cary Stayner.

His Disturbing Childhood Fantasies

Nobody wants to imagine a little kid fantasizing about murder, but that is exactly what Cary Stayner told the FBI. He confessed to investigators (and news reporters) that he remembered fantasizing about murdering women since he was as young as seven.

A still of Cary during an interview.
Source: YouTube

He remembered a specific incident while shopping with his mother; he imagined shooting all the employees in the store. His cousin, Ronnie Jones, remembers Cary being anti-social around girls as a kid. When he got older, he began dating women, but his relationships were always short.

The Voices Told Me to Do It

It just seemed as though Cary Stayner wasn’t capable of maintaining a long-lasting connection, which is not uncommon with psychopaths (or people with an anti-social personality disorder). While in jail, Cary Stayner revealed that the voices in his head told him to murder.

A still of Cary Stayner during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Do you think maybe he had some mental problems? Like I said, nobody who is capable of murder has a “normal” state of mind, but did he have control over his actions? Based on his childhood fantasies, it seemed like a get-out-of-jail-free card-defense. Luckily, the jury didn’t buy it and gave him the highest possible sentence.

He Might Have Killed Uncle Jesse

Don’t worry, not that Uncle Jesse (John Stamos). Cary was staying with his uncle, Jesse Stayner, back in 1990. Jesse was found shot to death in his home while his nephew was crashing there. Unfortunately, the police had no leads and didn’t arrest anyone in connection with the shooting.

A picture of Cary in court.
Source: YouTube

After Cary Stayner was arrested, police began looking into the possibility of Cary murdering his uncle Jesse. Stayner would later claim that his uncle sexually molested him when he was 11 years old. If that’s true, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. But it’s not an excuse to murder four women who had nothing to do with his traumatic experiences.

Red Flags and Psychological Issues

By the time he was three years old, Cary Stayner was already showing signs of psychological issues. He began nervously pulling his hair out of his head on a regular basis. Little Cary was diagnosed with trichotillomania, an impulse control disorder that causes people to pull their own hair out.

A photo of Cary’s mom.
Cary Stayner’s Mother. Source: ABC News

By the time he was 38, a doctor had testified that Cary had “more than 20 signs of mental illness.” The doctor reported various disorders he believed Stayner had, including narcissistic personality disorder and schizophrenia. But, as we mentioned, the jury didn’t buy it.

Was He Destined for Violence?

It’s really difficult to wrap your head around this story. What triggered Cary Stayner? He didn’t have a violent criminal record. He also didn’t have the easiest childhood, so people are quick to wonder how he would have turned out if his brother Steven hadn’t been abducted. Did the trauma affect him in ways that nobody could have imagined?

A still from Cary’s facial expression during Steven’s welcoming celebration.
Steven Stayner, Cary Stayner. Source: YouTube

But another possibility is that there is simply no correlation between the two. Maybe Steven could have had an ordinary life, a happy childhood, and Cary would still have grown up to become a serial killer. What do you think?