Environmental factors

Two California brothers, one a kidnap hero and one a Yosemite serial killer, featured in Hulu documentary ‘Captive Audience’

There is no story like it in the annals of true crime. A 7-year-old California boy is kidnapped off the street. Eight years later, he reappears at a Ukiah police station, shattered but alive. And nearly two decades after that, the boy’s brother goes on a brutal killing spree in Yosemite National Park.

“Bad things happen to everybody,” Ashley Stayner says in the new Hulu docuseries “Captive Audience,” “but for our family, it’s unreal.”

There is no quick way to tell the history of Steven and Cary Stayner, and there is no way to tell it without the stories intertwining.

Steven was born in Merced in 1965, the third of five children in the Stayner family. Their childhood, until his disappearance, was typical of the era. His parents taught him to trust adults implicitly and to respectfully follow their instructions. On Dec 4, 1972, a strange man approached Steven on his walk home from school. The man told Steven that it was alright for him to pick him up, as Steven’s mother had given him the OK. Steven got in the car.

The man was Kenneth Parnell, a convicted child rapist. He soon told the confused Steven that he had legal custody of him; Parnell said the Stayners didn’t want him anymore. Within a week of being abducted, young Steven was calling him dad.

Parnell renamed him Dennis Parnell, and moved him around frequently, living for stretches in Santa Rosa and Comptche in Mendocino County, among other spots in California. Steven attended school intermittently, and classmates remembered him as shy and sweet, although he never let anyone drop him off directly at his home. He always asked to be let off at the bottom of the driveway.

On Feb. 13, 1980, with Steven quickly growing into adolescence, Parnell kidnapped another boy, 5-year-old Timothy White, and began abusing him. Although Steven had free rein to escape at any time, he’d repeatedly stayed with Parnell, unsure of how to return home or get help. But upon seeing Timmy, Steven knew he had to act. When Parnell left a few weeks later for his job as a night security guard, Steven grabbed Timmy and headed for the road. A passing car picked up the boys and drove them to Ukiah, Timmy’s hometown, where Steven found a police station.

Timmy, whose face was on the news every day, was immediately recognized as a kidnap victim. But it took the police a little while to put together that Steven, who could only partially remember his real last name, which was Merced’s most famous missing child: Steven Stayner.

Steven’s heroism — and his defeat of incredible odds — made him a national sensation. Images of him with Timmy were splashed across every nightly news broadcast. A made-for-TV movie went into production.

The only one who was seemingly unimpressed was Steven’s 17-year-old brother Cary. According to interviews revealed on “Captive Audience,” Cary stressed that Steven’s actions were blown out of proportion by the media and that anyone with a conscience would have done what Steven did. He admitted to being jealous of his brother’s stardom.

It was a hard period for everyone, though. Steven struggled to readjust to the family he barely knew and chafed against their rules, as Parnell had basically left him to his own devices. The media dogged Steven, even at school, and Steven’s father resisted the idea of ​​his son getting help from mental health professionals. But as Steven grew into adulthood, he found some semblance of normalcy. He married and had two kids, Ashley and Steven Jr.

Then, on Sept. 16, 1989, Steven was riding his motorcycle home from work when he was struck by a driver who allegedly blew through a stop. He died from his injuries, devastating the still-healing family once again. Steven was just 24.

The worst, if possible, lay ahead.

Some of the most gripping moments of “Captive Audience” come in episode three, when Steven’s now-adult daughter Ashley recalls watching the news of multiple Yosemite murders on television. As a seventh grader who lived in nearby Merced, she was gripped by the brutal slayings of tourists Carole Sund, 42, Juli Sund, 15, and Silvina Pelosso, 16. Carole Sund had taken her daughter and friend Silvina to see Yosemite National Park before Silvina returned to Argentina. The trio shared a room at the Cedar Lodge in El Portal, from which they vanished in February 1999.

The three women had been missing a month when the burned bodies of Carole and Silvina were discovered in their rental car. Then, a letter arrived for police with a hand-drawn map pointing to the location of Juli’s body, left near the Don Pedro Reservoir. Her throat had been slit.

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