Coda: September 16, 1989, Santa Fe Road

At about 5:30 PM, Steven Stayner was riding his motorcycle home from his job at Pizza Hut heading out of Merced towards Atwater on Santa Fe Road.

At this point Steven was 24, he was married, and had two children. He had also wrecked three cars and amassed over $1,000 in speeding tickets, and his driver’s license was suspended, for the third time. He liked to drive fast and he was now riding fast down Santa Fe Road without a helmet.

He was nearing Richwoods Meats (where he formerly worked) when a car pulled out of a side road and stalled. Steven slammed into the driver side door and was thrown 45 feet over the car causing major head injuries. The driver fled the scene.

The street with no name looking towards Santa Fe Road with a BNSF freight heading southeast towards Merced. Steven was heading towards Atwater, which is to the right. He was struck and killed at this intersection.

He was taken to a Merced County Medical Center where he was pronounced dead at 5:35 PM.

This was the end of Steven Stayner’s short but troubled life. He had spend 30% of his 24 years away from his family being sexually abused by Kenneth Parnell. When he returned to Merced in 1980, he had trouble readjusting to his new found fame and the structured Stayner household. The added stigma of having been a victim of a pedophile made him an easy target for bullies at Merced High School.

The Stayner home as it looks today. The garage that once held his name is on the left.

What I found astonishing was that after all that Steven had gone through, he did not receive any professional counseling, in fact his parents were against it.

Steven Gregory Stayner’s funeral was held in Merced at the Church of Latter Day Saints’ on September 20, 1989. Five hundred people attended the funeral, including the now fourteen year old Timothy White, who helped Steven Stayner along on his final journey, just as Steven had helped Timothy nine years before.

Timothy White was one of his pallbearers.

Steven Stayner rests in Merced, just across the highway and UP mainline from his childhood home on Bette Street.

Near the end of Steven’s life, a popular television miniseries was made about his life called I Know My Name is Steven. He made a cameo as a Merced police office in the scene when Steven returns to his home on Bette Street for the first time in over seven years. The series was nominated for four Emmys. Steven died the day before the Emmy ceremony.

A screen shot from the miniseries I Know My Name is Steven. In the center, behind the dog, is the actor Corin Nemec who plays the 14 year old Steven. The officer on the right is the real Steven Stayner.

In Merced’s Applegate Park there is a statue commemorating the moment that Steven left the one room cabin in rural Mendocino County and fled for freedom with five year old Timmy White. The statue, named the Steven Stayner Missing Children’s Memorial, was created by Paula Slater and dedicated on August 28, 2010.

Sometime in April 2020, the plaque attached to the base was stolen. Was this an act from a local who wanted to forget about the Stayner family or maybe just a treasure seeker?

What I think the statue represents is the light of courage and positivity in a deep dark experience that Stayner suffered for seven years. In the end he made the right decision that not only saved himself but another young life. I know that the label “hero” is often overused nowadays but this moniker fits the actions of fourteen year old Steven Stayner perfectly.


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.