The Schooling of Dennis Parnell

As an educator I am fascinated by the seven years and four months that Steven Stayner spent as the abducted “son” of Kenneth Eugene Parnell, answering to the name “Dennis Parnell”.

For years I was under the assumption that his kidnapper keep Steven locked up in a closet, never allowing the boy to see the light of day, but Parnell was keeping Steven hidden in plain sight.

In the seven years of his captivity, Stayner was enrolled in eight different schools in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Steven attended 2nd grade through 9th grade as the “adopted” son of Parnell.

Parnell keep his captive in Yosemite and in a cabin in Catheys Valley but In 1973, they moved northwest to Sonoma County to a trailer park in Santa Rosa and Parnell enrolled Steven (now “Dennis”) at Steele Lane Elementary.

How on earth can you enroll a student without any previous school records? Well this was back in 1973 and I assume things were a bit looser then. But it still begs the question: why weren’t more questions asked about Steele Lane’s newest student and his strange father?

Moreover, the Stayner family had sent missing child posters to many of the districts and schools Steven ended up attending but somehow these posters never found their way onto bulletin boards in school offices or teacher’s lounges.

The former Doyle Park Elementary school, in Santa Rosa, where Steven attended 3rd grade. It is now a French-American charter school.

I try to put myself in his teacher’s shoes. Would I have seen the signs? Would I have seen the red flags waving? Often times there are things happening at home that we never know about which can affect their behavior and performance in the classroom. Sometimes it feels like you are just seeing the proverbial tip of the iceberg. As a State Mandated Reporter, teachers are required by law to report any signs of abuse or neglect. But did young “Dennis” show those signs?

Sketching notes: for the featured sketch I could have sketched a few different schools that Steven attended in Sonoma County but I chose Kawana Springs Elementary ( Kawana Elementary in the 1970s) because this is where Steven Stayner attended fourth grade.

Being a fourth grade teacher, Kawana Springs Elementary has a personal connection for me. What would have I thought of my new fourth grade student? Would I have seen the evil lurking below?

Many different teachers looked and didn’t see it.

Would I?


Steven Stayner: Merced

Steven Stayner was the middle child and youngest son to Del and Kay Stayner. He was born April 18, 1965 in Merced, California.

Del worked as a mechanic at a local cannery and Kay was a homemaker. Steven had three sisters and one older brother, Cary.

The first home Steven loved was a farmhouse in an almond orchard just 20 miles north of Merced but after his father’s attempt at farming and holding down his job at the cannery failed, the Stayner family moved into a smaller home on Bette Street in the southeastern part of Merced. (The featured sketch is the Stayner family home at 1655 Bette Street).

Young Steven attended Charles Wright Elementary School just northwest across the Central Yosemite Highway (Highway 140) from the family home. Mrs. Walsh was his second grade teacher in the fall of 1972.

The day before his kidnapping, Steven had gotten in trouble for writing his name on the side of the garage at Bette Street. This was later to have a much deeper meaning as Steven was to change his identity and leave the Steven Stayner, the second grader of Merced, far behind. (His father never erased or painted over the signature hoping it would help identify the house should Steven ever return).

On December 4, 1972, Steven made his last walk home as a student of Charles Wright Elementary. He crossed highway 140 at Highlands Drive and at the Red Ball Gas Station at Jean Street, he was approached by a man handing out religious pamphlets.

Steven Stayner was a mere four blocks from home.

The stranger asked if his mother would help with donations for the church. This must have made sense to young Steven because there was a church a quarter of a block west from the gas station. He was then asked if he wanted a ride to his house so he could collect donations. That’s when the white Buick pulled up.

The driver was Kenneth Parnell, a night bookkeeper at the Yosemite Lodge and a convicted sexual offender. Steven got into the wrong car. A decision that would change Steven and the Stayner family forever.

This gas station on the corner of Yosemite Parkway and Jean Street was once the Red Ball Gas Station where Steven was abducted. Where I’m standing is the appropriate spot where seven year old Steven got into Parnell’s Buick. In the lower left of the photo is the Merced First Assembly of God church.

Parnell turned right onto Highway 140 and passed Shirley Street, the street that Steven would have walked down to return to his home.

He would not return to 1655 Bette Street for another seven years and four months.

Sketching notes: the feature sketch of the Stayner house is based on a photograph I took. While the Stayners have not lived in this house for over 40 years I wanted to respect the neighborhood’s privacy and not become one of the Stayner gawkers that must visit this house on a somewhat regular basis.

I tried to paint the house in the way it might have looked when Steven returned here for the first time in seven years, on the evening of March 2, 1980. The house was painted pea green. I included the “Welcome Home Steve!” sign that was hung across the front window and I added the Steven’s signature on the side of the garage.

I looked at the specs of the 1955 three bedroom, two bath, 1,220 square foot house on a real estate website. The house on Bette Street is currently valued at $ 321,882 and it’s noted that it is a “home with loads of potential”, which is code for a “real fixer upper”. What is not noted on the website is fact that the Stayner family ever lived here.


The Brothers Stayner

The story of the Steven and Cary Stayner is a story of abduction and return, of the loss of innocence and the loss of life. About the temporal limelight and the deep dark shadows and about the best and the worst in humanity.

The setting of this story is the small to mid-sized Central Valley city of Merced, California (the population in the 1970s was 22, 670). The city is named “Gateway to Yosemite” and our story spans over three decades.

The kidnapping of seven year old Steven Stayner and his return, seven years later, became a huge international news story, propelling the young 14 year old into the limelight. Steven’s story became a popular book and a two part television miniseries called I Know My First Name is Steven (1989). More about Steven’s story in other posts.

A map of that fateful afternoon journey on December 4, 1972 of Steven Stayner. Blue is good, red is life-altering.

It is almost beyond imagination the impact that Steven’s kidnapping and seven year absence had on the Stayner family. The family grappling with the unknown; would they ever see there son/brother again? Would be every return to the small home on Bette Street?

Well on March 2, 1980 the answer was yes. Steven returned home for the first time in seven years.

Looking back on the news footage of Steven’s return on the front lawn of the Stayner house on Bette Street, there were many hugs and tears, the unbound joy as Steven returned home, holding his dog “Queenie”. There is one face, in the background, that does not seem to show joy or happiness. That is the face of Steven’s older brother Cary.

Cary shared a room with Steven and while he wished on a star, on clear evenings, for seven years, for return of his brother. He also felt ignored by his parents. They were focused on the missing boy and on his return, Steven became a media superstar. Cary stepped into the limelight twenty years later, for much different reasons.

Meanwhile, Steven settled back into life in Merced. He returned to high school and later got married and had two children. On September 16, 1989, Steven was struck and killed by a motorist as he was riding his motorcycle home from work at a pizza parlor. He was only 24 years old.

By the late 1990s, Cary was working as a handyman at the Cedar Lodge. This hotel is on Highway 140 in El Portal, a short drive to Yosemite National Park.

Three events shaped the arc of Cary Stayner’s life: his brother’s kidnapping and return, his brother’s death, and the unsolved murder of his uncle Jesse (who he was living with at the time). Cary had some sort of break and it a mystery what drives a man to kill another human being. What causes a man to become a serial killer?

Cary’s first victims were a mother, her daughter, and a family friend staying at the Cedar Lodge. Later in July 1999, Stayner murdered a naturalist near Yosemite. This murder was his undoing as he left physical evidence that led authorities arrest him at a nudist resort just east of Sacramento.

To tell the story of the Brothers Stayner, I created a series of thumbnail sketches linked to two maps (featured sketch). The two maps are of Merced and Yosemite. The thumbnail sketches are (from left to right): the Stayner family home on Bette Street, Charles Wright Elementary School (where Steven walking home from), the Red Ball Gas Station (where Steven was kidnapped), the 2010 Steven Stayner and Timothy White Statue in Applegate Park, Steven’s grave maker at Merced Cemetery, the green cabin where Joie Armstong lived in Foresta, the Cedar Lodge, and Cary Stayner’s current home: Death Row at San Quentin State Prison.


Stanford Statuary

On a Saturday morning I headed south, with Grasshopper, to the campus of Stanford University to sketch one of my favorite subjects: statues.

We parked near the main quad and walked amongst the oaks and eucalyptus to the Stanford Mausoleum to see if there where any sketch opportunities.

In this location the Stanfords planned to build a mansion but their only son died at the age of 15. So the Stanfords built a university instead.

The mausoleum now contains the remains of all three members of the Stanford family. The entrance is flanked by two sphinxes. I thought about sketching them but they didn’t speak to me but some griffins sure did.

Two griffins now flank the path that leads to the mausoleum. The pair where sculpted in 1863 by Eugene-Louis Lequesne and then cast in iron in the 1870s. The statues once graced the entrance to an estate on El Camino Real and were later moved to the campus.

In 1978, an attempt was made to make the griffins the mascot of the university (to replace the Indians) but the University went with Cardinal, the color not the bird. The Stanford Tree is the official mascot of the marching band and it is routinely voted “the worst mascot” of any university.

We came upon the griffins while looking for the Angel of Grief statue. After sketching the left griffin, we continued our search for the monument to Jane Stanford’s brother, Henry Clay Lathrop. This statue is a copy of a copy, originally sculpted by William Wetmore Story in 1894 for a grave for his wife. The original sculpture is in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. The original Stanford replica (built in 1901) was damaged in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. the second replica was created in 1908 and then refurbished in 2001.

I sketched the statue with my TWSBI Diamond 580 with Carbon black ink. To paint in the shadows I used a pen brush filled with an ink and water mix. The ink I used was a pencil gray called Viharfelho by the Hungarian company Pennonia. I picked this ink up in Japantown and so far I like the result (sketched the griffin in this ink).

We headed back towards the Main Quad because Grasshopper wanted to sketch some sandstone pillars, of which there are many at Stanford. I found some more statues to sketch.

These are the group of Auguste Rodin statues called The Burghers of Calais. I found a pillar to lean on and sketched one of the statues from behind. I love to sketch Rodin hands. It sometimes feels like I’m drawing a wild animal.