I arrived at SFO at 6 AM on a Sunday morning, plenty of time for my 8:42 flight to Phoenix Sky Harbor. Or so I thought.
I leisurely had breakfast having made it through security in about ten minutes, not bad for a Sunday morning. Plenty of time to catch my flight.
After breaking the fast, I passed by the departure board and my flight was rescheduled for 11:30 AM because of a “ Crew Connection”. I later found out that our crew was delayed in Reno, Nevada due to inclement weather.
Now I had three extra hours to spend (for a flight lasting an hour and a half!) at San Francisco International Airport!
I definitely got some steps in wandering in the terminal-mall that is SFO. I parked in a comfy swivel chair and people watched, which is first class at SFO. I attempted to add a story to those passing by, very much under the influence of Barbara Kingsolver. (My travel read was her first novel The Bean Trees, which is set in Tucson, Arizona.)
What to do? Sketch of course! Airplanes parked on the tarmac are very obliging sketch subjects. They sit still.
As I was sketching the tails of a line of United planes, an arriving flight pulled in front of my subjects. Good thing I had inked most of my sketch. Planes do move after all. Just not the ways a sketcher may want them to.
I got in two sketches at SFO until I finally boarded my United flight to PHX.
For my one week spring break I decided to keep it close and sketch, bird, and nature loaf in the Grand Canyon State (without visiting the Grand Canyon). And also see one of the best meteor crater strikes on planet earth along with the observatory where Pluto was discovered.
The Southwest is a landscape of red-rust rocks, olive greens, and blue skies. I would need a slightly different palette to capture the landscapes around Sedona, a different palette than I use in coastal California.
I added some more paints such as quinacridone burnt orange by Daniel Smith to add to the desert colors I would be using in attempting to render the Arizona landscapes before me.
The beginning of any adventure is creating a map. I may or may not stick to the route but it provides the framework for miracles and wonder (featured sketch).
From my digs in Sedona I would be heading north to the colder climes of Flagstaff and then 37 miles east to the Meteor Crater near Winslow. I want to field sketch the crater from its rim. It will be cold, with a high of 45 so I am bringing my October Yellowstone jacket beanie, and gloves.
Once I get the meteor crater in my sketchbook I will head back to Flagstaff to the Lowell Observatory, my sketching target: the Pluto Discovery Dome where the search for Planet X ended as Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto on February 18, 1930.
I return to Phoenix and chose to stay west of downtown. The location is near Skyharbor but also about 40 minutes to the famous “Thrasher Spot”. This legendary birding destination is the best place to see the elusive Le Conte’s thrasher (and three other thrasher species). Good thing I have this desert wraith on my life list already. This nemesis bird took a lot of time and legwork to see, but I finally saw a Le Conte’s on January 4, 2019 just west of the landfill at Borrego Springs. But I do not have Bendire’s thrasher and if I see this bird, I will close out all North American thrashers!
Red rocks are a big drawn for visitors to Sedona, Arizona. These are not small rocks but mammoths named Bell, Cathedral, Coffeepot, Chimney, Steamboat, and Castle. To name a few.
I wanted to sketch a few of these Sedona features with my desert watercolor palette attempting to capture the rufous rocks. The red is caused by dissolved iron that has drained through sandstone layers for millions of years.
High on my list was to sketch the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a Sedona must see since 1956. The chapel was build to fit into the red rocks like a jigsaw puzzle piece (featured sketch).
In the afternoon I visited Red Rock State Park and had good light to sketch the iconic Arizona landmark: Cathedral Rock.
Just 20 miles south of the Central Valley city of Merced is a wildlife refuge that hosts the largest concentration of lesser sandhill cranes on the Pacific Flyway.
On Sunday morning I headed out into the cold Central Valley morning to one of the jewels of California’s wildlife refuges.
Twenty minutes later, as I neared the Refuge entrance, the field to my left was covered with geese and cranes.
I entered the the Refuge and scoped the flocks from the observation platform. Thousands of Ross’s, snow, and greater white-fronted geese and lesser sandhill cranes. I headed back into my moveable birding blind and started on the five mile auto route.
The rules of the auto route is that you have to remain in your vehicle. Your car acts as a moving blind allowing you to get very close to wildlife without scaring them away.
It was not just about observing feathered creatures. I also spotted a coyote trotting across a levy path with a white goose in it’s mouth. It is the circle of life after all. I also observed a scaled creature in the glassland area of a refuge. It was a beautiful four-foot gopher snake hunting in the ground squirrel burrows.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On the evening of March 1, 1980, Steven Stayner made one of the biggest decisions of his 14 year old life.
He had to choose to turn his back on the former identity (a forced identity) he had been assuming over the last seven years and four months and help to save a young boy from going through the abuse he had gone through.
It is said that every journey begins with a single step, and their first step out of the one room cabin on Mountain View Road was monumental.
They headed east on Mountain View Road for a quarter of a mile when a car pulled over to give them a ride. The truck was driven by a Mexican laborer and he took the boys down the mountain into the Anderson Valley and then over the hill into the Mendocino County seat of Ukiah.
Timmy couldn’t remember where his parents lived so they went to his babysitter’s house instead. No one was home so the boys walked north on South State Street towards the Ukiah Police Station.
They passed within a block of the Palace Hotel, where Parnell was working as a night security guard. They turned right onto East Standley Street and walked the two blocks to the police station.
Steven sent Timmy to the police station alone. He opened the door to the station, got scared, and then turned back and recrossed the street to Steven. This caught the attention of the officer on duty (Offiicer Warner) and the police caught both boys and returned them to the station.
It was in one of the interrogation rooms at the Ukiah Police Station that Dennis Parnell became Steven Stayner. Uttering the now famous words: “I know my first name is Steven”.
While preparing for Parnell’s trial, a psychiatrist named Robert Wald wrote in his evaluation of Steven about the pivotal moment at the Ukiah Police Station : “It is my absolute belief that with the acknowledgement of his true identity, Steven Stayner freed himself from his state of being kidnapped . From a psychological point of view, he was still in a state of kidnap until he spoke his name, thus ending a psychic capture that lasted two thousand, six hundred forty-four days.”
Sketching notes: The featured spread is a field sketch from the shoulder of Mountain View Road of the one room cabin that was the last dwelling Steven shared with Parnell. While I was reading the account of Steven’s travails I thought that this cabin surely no longer existed and if it did, it must be so far off the road on private property making a sketch impossible. With a short search on Google maps, I found that, indeed the cabin still existed and in plain sight 15 yards from the road.
Before me was a bucolic country road and a rustic cabin surrounded by oaks and conifers. The morning was cold but a clear winter’s day. It seemed a perfect start to the day. The only ominous undercurrent was the presence of the cabin and the knowledge of what happen here in 1979 and 1980. It symbolized Steven’s prison as well as the start of his road to freedom.
Five year old Timmy White left Yokayo Elementary School in Ukiah, California, on Valentine’s Day, 1980 at about 11:30 AM.
The kindergartener walked south down South Dora Road with a classmate. His destination was his babysitter’s home on South Street. He parted ways with his classmate and crossed the street and turned left down Luce Street.
No one witnessed or heard Timmy White’s kidnapping on Luce Street. It was as if he had disappeared into thin air.
Timmy was the kidnap victim of sex offender Kenneth Parnell who enlisted the help of a teenager named Sean Poorman to assist with the kidnapping.
Timmy was taken to Parnell’s one room cabin at Mountain View Ranch, about an hour away from Ukiah. The cabin did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. Timmy’s first “home” away from home was very Spartan.
Luckily Timmy’s stay with his new “dad” was only two weeks. His savior was another boy that Parnell had kidnapped as he was walking home from school in Merced seven years previously. This was Timmy’s new “brother” Dennis. Dennis acted as Timmy’s protector and never left the five year old alone with Parnell. He was not going to allow what happened to him happen to his new purloined “brother”.
Coda: WhenTimothy White grew up, he relocated to Southern California where he gave presentations to students about the dangers of kidnapping. He became a sheriff with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He married and had two children. White died at the age of 35 on April 1, 2010 of a pulmonary embolism.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.