Heroism and Horror: One Brother Was Kidnapped, The Other Became A Serial Killer
Steven Stayner and another child escaped their captor in 1980; Cary Stayner murdered four females 19 years later.
Nearly 50 years ago, Steven Stayner was abducted and lived for seven years with his captor before he escaped with a second young kidnapping victim. Decades later, Steven’s older brother, Cary Stayner, made headlines when he was arrested and convicted of the serial slayings of four females.
On Dec. 4, 1972, Steven, 7, was walking alone to his family’s home in Merced, California, when he was coaxed into the car of convicted child rapist Kenneth Parnell, who was posing as a minister.
Parnell drove Steven to a cabin near Catheys Valley and eventually told his young victim the court had granted him legal custody of him. The man then changed Steven’s name to Dennis Gregory Parnell and began publicly raising him as his son while sexually abusing him behind closed doors.
Through the years, the two lived in multiple locations in California and Steven attended school — but the kidnapped boy never said a word to anyone about the assaults he was suffering.
That changed soon after Steven reached puberty and Parnell began looking for a new victim. Steven later told authorities that Parnell tried to enlist his help in the scheme to lure another young boy, but the teenager always managed to secretly sabotage his plans.
Despite 14-year-old Steven’s cunning, Parnell succeeded in abducting Timothy White, 5, in February 1980. He brought him to live at his home and presented the child to Steven as his new brother.
Steven, however, was determined not to let Parnell hurt Timothy, and on the evening of March 1, 1980, he escaped with him while their captor was away at work.
“It was my do-or-die chance — and I also would be coming home for doing something positive,” Steven told Newsweek in a 1984 interview.
Together the two boys hitchhiked around 40 miles to Ukiah, where Timothy lived with his parents, and they went to a police department. In a statement at the station, the teenager wrote: “I know my first name is Steven.”
Parnell was arrested, and he was found guilty in two separate trials of kidnapping the children. He received a total sentence of seven years — the maximum allowed under California law at the time — and was released after serving five.
Parnell died of natural causes at a state prison hospital in Vacaville in January 2008. At the time, he was serving 25 years to life after he was convicted in 2004 of attempting to buy a 4-year-old boy, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
On Sept. 16, 1989, Steven, then 24, was killed in a motorcycle accident while on his way home from work.
Tragically, the Stayner family would be in for another shock a decade later.
In February 1999, Carole Sund, 42, was on vacation with her daughter Juli, 15, and Silvina Pelosso, a 16-year-old Argentinian exchange student. The three were staying near Yosemite National Park at the Cedar Lodge in El Portal when they suddenly went missing.
The following month, their torched rental car was found in a remote area located hours from their motel with Carole Sund and Pelosso’s charred remains in the trunk.
A short time later, police received a note reading, “We had fun with this one,” along with directions to Juli Sund’s body at a site around an hour away from the burnt-out rental car.
Police spoke with multiple people while investigating the case, including Steven Stayner’s older brother, Cary Stayner, then a handyman at Cedar Lodge. He was never named a person of interest in the case and officers, focused on other leads, were unable to make any arrests.
Then, on July 22, 1999, Yosemite naturalist Joie Armstrong, 26, was found decapitated near the cabin she was living in. Police learned about an International Scout that was spotted at the cabin around the time Armstrong died, and detectives eventually traced the vehicle to Cary.
During questioning, Cary confessed to killing Armstrong as well as the Sunds and Pelosso months earlier.
He pleaded guilty to multiple charges in connection to Armstrong’s death, including premeditated first-degree murder, kidnapping, and attempted aggravated sexual abuse and was sentenced to a term of life without the possibility of parole.
At a second trial, he was found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder and one count of kidnapping and sentenced to die in connection to the slayings of the Sunds and Pelosso.
Cary, now 60, remains on death row at San Quentin State Penitentiary in California.
In the Hulu docuseries Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story, the convicted killer’s sister, Cory Stayner, noted he was always a little “off.”
“Anybody and everybody who met him will tell you that,” she said. “Cary was unwell … since he was a toddler, as far as I know.”