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.
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.