Note: this story was originally published in the East Bay Express on September 15, 2000.
How do you prepare to meet a monster? This question came to me as I found myself crying in the grocery line, drinking more beer than necessary, and having more and more difficulty focusing my thoughts. I had begun to shut down, and I knew why: It was because I was going to meet the kind of person most of us only read about. His name is Kenneth Eugene Parnell, and he is a man who kidnaps children and molests them. In 1972, he abducted seven-year-old Steven Stayner and for seven years posed as the boy's father. In 1980, Parnell abducted another young boy, Timmy White. He's every parent's worst nightmare: a sadistic fuck, the bogeyman. He's also human: something I hadn't prepared for.
Steven Stayner's life changed irrevocably on December 4, 1972. It was a year for famous crooks, with The Godfather winning the Oscar for Best Picture and Richard Nixon en route to his downfall. Vietnam was just reaching fever pitch to the strains of "Crocodile Rock." Perhaps it was also a year for absences: Heinrich Boll, author of Missing Persons and Other Essays and What's to Become of the Boy? won the Nobel Prize for literature.
In the safe, working-class Central Valley town of Merced, young Steven Stayner was part of a large family, with two hard-working parents who were known for being strict disciplinarians. It was by most accounts a loving family. Steven adored his father and followed him around like a puppy.
On the day of his disappearance, he walked home from school alone, as he always did. I imagine him in flared pants, a button-down shirt, and, of course, a jacket to keep out December's chill. I can only think of myself around that same time; I was five. I can remember clunking home purposefully on small legs, a down coat like a teepee around me as I hummed to myself or stopped to grab something shiny from the gutter. I imagine that Steven was the same.
Every day he would trudge down the street alone, though lately he had been disobeying his parents and going to a friend's house instead of straight home. For this, he had gotten a whupping.
In late November, someone began watching Steven walk home; the watcher watched the boy walk right past his car every day. And thanks to a talkative and nosy postman, the stranger knew that Steven had been spanked recently. He knew that the little boy would be more likely to obey his elders as a result. The man watching Steven could not have been more dangerous, and one day Steven seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth.
Most people who lived in California at the time are familiar with the Stayner story, but as a Midwestern transplant, I learned about it through the made-for-TV movie I Know My First Name Is Steven. The movie (for which Stayner himself was consulted extensively), portrayed Parnell as an uncontrollable pedophile who kept and molested Steven for seven years. After kidnapping Steven, Parnell changed the boy's name to Dennis, enrolled him in school, and made "Dennis" call him "Dad."
"Your parents can't afford you no more," he told the boy. The sexual abuse was constant as the pair moved all over Mendocino County and other parts of Northern California. The TV movie shows Steven atrophying, slipping into drinking, smoking, and drugs, before he was even out of childhood. In one of the most affecting scenes, nine-year-old Steven sits miserably in front of the TV in a motel room, drinking beer and smoking, as Parnell walks in with a woman. The adults begin to make out in front of him, and soon demand that Steven join them in the bed.
Because the movie was made in 1989, it didn't include the rest: that Steven was killed in a motorcycle accident not long after its premiere, or that Steven's older brother Cary would be implicated eleven years later in the 1999 murders of four women in Yosemite. What the film's epilogue did say, however, was that Kenneth Parnell had only served five years in prison for his crimes, and he was out free and clear.
As I watched that epilogue, it reminded me of a piece I'd seen in Salon, something about one of Steven Stayner's friends driving by the house of Kenneth Parnell. That house, I now remembered, was in West Berkeley.
So I wanted to find Parnell. I didn't really know why, or what I would do if I did find him, but I thought I should make an effort to discover if the man who had kidnapped Steven Stayner lived in Berkeley. I decided to contact Mike Echols, the author of a sensationalistic book about the case with the same name as the TV movie: I Know My First Name Is Steven. After some digging, I found Echols, and through him I discovered something that made me gasp: Kenneth Parnell did indeed live in Berkeley, just six blocks from where I worked, and had for fifteen years. Parnell loves to talk to the press, Echols said, and will go on and on about all the disgusting things he likes to do with little boys. All he asks in return is a carton of Pall Malls. Did I want his phone number?
"Okay," I responded haltingly, knowing that I would be terrified to use it. I told Echols as much. "Oh, he's only a threat if you're a child," the author assured me.
After we hung up, I sat with my head in my hands. I decided to give myself more time to think things over, to sleep on it. What had I gotten myself into? What was I looking for? Then, in a matter of minutes, the phone rang again.
"Miss St. Clair?" an elderly voice on the other end said.
"Yes," I replied.
"This is Kenneth Parnell. Mike Echols said to call you."
"Wow. Uh, hi." I felt the top of my head detach and float away. "Hey, um, I have a carton of Pall Malls with your name on it if you'll talk to me."
"Sure," he replied pleasantly, even rather humbly. "That'll be fine. Thank you." We agreed to talk the following week and set up an appointment. I hung up.
That night, I bought the first of many six-packs.
Kenneth Parnell was born in Texas at the height of the Depression to a fundamentalist mother and an alcoholic father. His dad abandoned the family when Parnell was six. After moving with his mother to Bakersfield, he was in and out of juvenile hall for most of his adolescence. According to Echols' book, Parnell was disturbed from a very early age. He attempted to pull out all of his teeth with pliers as a child (something he now denies) and was diagnosed by more than one psychologist as needing a lot of help.
At nineteen, he was convicted of lewd and lascivious behavior with a young boy. For this he served three and a half years in prison. In the early '60s he went back behind bars for armed robbery in Utah. Then in 1980 he was arrested for kidnapping Stayner and White. He was never charged with any sexual misconduct with either of the boys, though Stayner maintained that he had been subjected to such abuse. He once discussed being repeatedly sodomized by Parnell with a People magazine reporter: "I had no idea what was happening to me. Parnell wasn't violent, but he wasn't gentle either. It was kind of like I was there, and that was that. I cried a lot at first, but that upset him, so I stopped. I just went along with it and waited for my parents to find me."
I still wasn't sure whether I really wanted to meet this man, so I decided to start simple. I drove by his house on a quiet street in West Berkeley. I pulled up to the curb across the street. I could see shadowy images beyond his screen door. He was home. I looked on with revulsion and curiosity, the two things that had led me there in the first place. Then, slowly, as I sat in the car waiting, I guess, for Parnell to come out and smoke so I could catch a glimpse of him. Neighborhood kids appeared. It was around 4 p.m., and they began riding their bikes up and down the driveways, across lawns, and to the corner. A toddler struggled up his front steps, where Mom was coaxing him lovingly. I felt such panic, such a need to run up the walk and tell this woman who lived across the street from her. I wanted to yell at the little boy with the ill-fitting bike helmet and training wheels who slowly pedaled past Parnell's front door, "Don't ever go near that house!"
Yes, I thought to myself, I will meet him. I needed to know if he was as big a threat as he seemed.
I began to read voraciously about the case, perhaps in an effort to distance myself from the reality of the meeting. I tried to contact everyone I could who had been involved: investigators, lawyers, judges. This proved difficult, especially after Stayner's brother Cary was charged with the Yosemite murders. Most anyone who had ever been involved with the Stayners had already been hounded by the press, and wasn't interested in talking after the Yosemite killings. "God, what a family!" my friends said to me, but I found myself rushing to Mr. and Mrs. Stayner's defense. They didn't ask to have Steven stolen, and Cary said in a jailhouse interview that he had been fantasizing about killing women since he was very small, well before Steven disappeared. Maybe, I was beginning to think, some people are wired wrong at birth. The Stayner family released a statement through the Merced police, asking for privacy: "Thank you all for your support since December 4, 1972, when you helped look for Steve, your help celebrating his return in 1980; you helped mourn his death in 1989. Now we must ask for your privacy during this terrible, terrible tragedy. The Cary we know is not capable of these crimes. We love you, Cary. You will always be loved by your family. There will be no interviews given. Thank you for your patience."
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