Good vs Evil: Steven and Cary Stayner

When Steven Stayner was kidnapped in 1972, the world watched as police and his family searched for him. Then he emerged a hero in 1980 when he rescued little Timmy White from suffering the same fate of torture, molestation and rape he'd endured for 7...

When Steven Stayner was kidnapped in 1972, the world watched as police and his family searched for him. Then he emerged a hero in 1980 when he rescued little Timmy White from suffering the same fate of torture, molestation and rape he'd endured for 7 years. Steven was hailed a hero. And then there was Cary, Steven's older brother...

Photo: ABC News


Welcome back to Kudzu Killers: Homicide and Sweet Tea. We had a busy, busy weekend at my house. Planted tomatoes and herbs and some flowers, Costco run, oil changes, tire rotations, hanging movie posters in our in our movie and game room… All that stuff you have to do on the weekends. I think we’ve lived in this house for nearly 9 years and are just now getting around to hanging pictures. We’re slow decorators.


Well, today I’m going to talk about two brothers. One a hero, and the other a villain. Of course I’m talking about the Stayner brothers, Steven and Cary.

I don’t know if you remember the story of Steven, Lark.

On December 4th, 1972, 7-year-old Steven Stayner was walking home from school in Merced, California, which at the time had a population of about 22,000 people. I think now it’s approaching 100,000, but anyway. Steven was walking home from his elementary school when a man named Ervin Murphy stopped him and claimed to be working for a church, and asked if Steven’s mother might have some donations she would be willing to give to the church. Steven said, yes, he thought she might, and started leading the man toward his house. Seconds later, a white Buick pulled up, stopped, and Murphy, along with a man named Kenneth Parnell, a convicted child rapist, led Steven into the car willingly. He thought he was being driven home to his mom.

Murphy and Parnell both worked at a resort in Yosemite National Park. Keep that in mind for later. Murphy was a simpleton, you could say. Mentally challenged, and he welcomed the friendship of Parnell. Parnell claimed to be a preacher, and he had told Murphy he wanted to kidnap a boy to raise him in a religious way. Murphy apparently didn’t know at the time what Parnell had planned for Steven.

Steven was confused when, instead of driving him home, they took him to Parnell’s cabin about 30 minutes away in Catheys Valley. Parnell molested Steven that first night. He started raping him less than two weeks later. Steven had begged to be taken home, but Parnell told him he’d been granted custody and was adopting Steven because his parents had too many children and needed to get rid of one.

Delbert and Kay Stayner had five children, and Steven was the middle child. He had an older sister named Cynthia and a brother named Cary, and two younger sisters named Cory and Jody


Parnell’s cabin was only a few hundred feet from Steven’s maternal grandfather’s house. So if he’d tried to run, his grandfather was right down the street. But Steven didn’t try to run. He was given ample opportunities over the years, as he and Parnell moved around the state. Parnell claimed to have adopted him, and changed his name to Dennis Parnell. He seemingly believed the lies he was told.

Steven was enrolled in school and attended for a few years. Parnell allowed him to start drinking at a very young age, 4th or 5th grade, and left him unsupervised for lengthy periods of time while he went off to work some odd job. Steven could have escaped, but he didn’t. He said later that he had no idea how to go about getting help. I’m not sure if that was true, or if he just didn’t feel like he was wanted by his parents, so he just never bothered to leave. At this point he’d been thoroughly convinced his family didn’t want him, so where was he to go?

When Steven was 9 years old, for a year and a half, Parnell had a woman named Barbara Matthias living with them, and they both participated in raping and molesting Steven. When Steven turned 10, he was getting too old for Parnell, and he sent Matthias to try to lure a much younger boy. The attempt didn’t succeed, though. It would be 4 more years, when Steven was 14, that Parnell enlisted his help in trying to snatch another little boy. Steven had started to become a little rebellious. He’d never had proper discipline or any sort of parenting, and he was tired of the abuse. He knew that whatever child was taken would suffer the way he had for the past 7 years. Would be raped over and over at the hands of Parnell and whoever else wanted to participate. So every time Parnell sent him to chat up a little boy and convince him to come along, Steven did something to thwart the plan.

Then finally, Parnell, figuring Steven just didn’t know how to lure the kids away, enlisted the help of one of Steven’s friends, Randall Poorman, to kidnap a 5-year-old boy by the name of Timothy White on Valentine’s Day, 1980. Steven didn’t want this distressed little boy to suffer what he had for the past 7 years, so on March 1st, when Parnell was at work, Steven took Timothy and hitchhiked to Ukiah, where Timothy was from. But the little boy was too young to remember where he lived, so after searching for Timothy’s home unsuccessfully for a while, Steve took the little boy to the police station, helped him inside, and then left. But police saw them, and took them both in for questioning.

It was there that he told police, “I know my name is Steven.” He went on to say he thought his last name might be Stayner, but he wasn’t sure if he had a middle name or not. He told police about the torture he endured. He told them his whole story, what he could remember.

“I couldn’t see Timmy suffer,” Stayner he said in a later interview. “I just didn’t think it was right for him to have to go through the same thing that I did. He really didn’t have to. There was someone there who could stop it.”

When Steven returned to his family, he had a lot of issues. Of course many were a result of the abuse he’d sustained at the hands of Parnell, but also at the new discipline and rules he wasn’t used to having. He’d grown used to having little or no supervision, few rules. Adjustment to coming home to his family was complicated by the constant media attention his story received.

Reporters came from all over the country, and all over the world. Steven only had a few counseling sessions with a psychologist, and nothing in the way of psychotherapy to deal with the years of mental and physical abuse he’d endured. He once joked that he didn’t see the need to spend $100 an hour on a therapist.  “I’ve been talking to reporters for nine years. It’s a good substitute,” he said.

But he really needed that counseling. He had difficulty fitting in back home, as I said. But also difficulty at school, passing his classes, discipline issues, until finally he dropped out. He was kicked out of his parents’ home on a couple of occasions during these years of adjustment. By the time he was 19, he’d amassed about $1100 in traffic tickets he had to work of chopping wood for the parks department, but he couldn’t stop the traffic violations, so eventually his license was taken away.

He worked at everything from pizza delivery guy to working in a meat-packing plant, all minimum wage jobs. Until he met and fell in love with Jody Edmondson. She seemed to help stabilize him, and even though they had their ups and downs, he was finally settling down and settling in.

Now, back to what I said earlier about Parnell and Murphey working at a resort in Yosemite. Well, Steven’s older brother, Cary, worked at Yosemite as well, at a motel just outside the park.

Cary was 11 when Steven disappeared. He felt a certain amount of resentment toward Steven both before and after his return. He said he felt neglected, like his parents grieved for the loss of Steven and didn’t have time for him. They didn’t pay enough attention to their other children. In 1991, at the age of 30, he attempted suicide. He was arrested in 1997 for drug possession, marijuana, meth… Charges were eventually dropped.

It was 1997 that he began working at that motel, Cedar Lodge, in El Portal, on Highway 140. He worked as a handyman there, fixing issues with rooms.

On February 15, 1999, three guests at the motel went missing: Carole Sund, 42, her daughter Juli, 15, and Juli’s friend and an exchange student and friend of Juli’s, Silvina Palosso, 16, and exchange student from Argentina. They questioned some people, including the motel handyman, Cary Stayner, but no one was arrested. Stayner had been laid off since January. He didn’t have a record of any kind, so they let him go.

On March 18th, Carole Sund’s rental car was found with Carole’s and Silvina’s charred bodies in the trunk. They didn’t find Juli until March 25th, when an anonymous letter came in, with a hand drawn map showing them where she was located, about an hour away, hidden in a thicket. Along with the map was a note that said “We had fun with this one.”

Then on July 22nd, the beheaded body of park naturalist, Joie Armstrong, was found inside the park, just outside her home. This time there were witnesses who saw a blue 1979 International Scout parked outside her cabin. Detectives traced the owner of that truck, and the owner turned out to be…Cary Stayner.

On July 24th, they tracked Cary Stayner down to Laguna del Sol nudist resort. Seems he was a part-time nudist. He was taking in for questioning, and to everyone’s surprise, including FBI agent Jeff Rinek who was questioning him, he confessed to four murders. That’s when they realized he’d also killed the three tourists back in February. At first he refused to give Rinek, and fellow FBI agent John Boles, a complete confession unless they brought him a big stack of child pornography, particularly little girls, pictures and videos. He also wanted his family to get the $250,000 reward Carole Sund’s parents had offered for information leading to the killer, but the agents told him that’s something out of their control. They also said they’d have to go to a higher authority for the kiddie porn, which they had no intention of giving him.

Instead, the agents ordered pizza, and they talked him into confessing. They were like, look, you’re probably going to get the death penalty for Joie’s death anyway, because there’s enough evidence to prove it, so why not come completely clean and get the others off your conscience. You’ll feel relieved if you do. So after he lamented about what he’d miss, having pizza, seeing Star Wars, which he’d never had the opportunity to see, he did confess to the murders.

Evidently Stayner had thought about doing this since he was a child. At 7 he had fantasies about putting a neighbor girl in a pit and keeping her there. When Steven went missing, he felt those thoughts were the reason why. That somehow Steven’s disappearance was linked to him imagining doing that.

He’d thought about killing his girlfriend and her two daughters, aged 8 and 10. Instead, it seems on February 14th, the day before Carole, Juli and Silvina were murdered, he’d followed another family around town. A family with 4 girls. But these girls were with a man, and that didn’t pan out. He wanted women alone. The next day, he saw Carole and the two girls peeping through a window at the motel. He went to their room under the guise of fixing the bathroom fan. Of course they let him in.

He immediately pulled a gun, told them he was desperate, and had them lay facedown on the beds. He bound them with duct tape and gagged them. He then took Juli and Silvina into the bathroom.

He strangled Carole with a 3 foot length of rope it took about 5 minutes. He stated he didn’t know it took that long to strangle a person. Then he put her body in the trunk of her rental car. He went back inside, brought the girls out of the bathroom and cut and tore their clothes off. He demanded they perform sex acts on each other, but Silvina was distressed and crying, which irritated him, so he took her back into the bathroom and strangled her as she knelt in the tub.

Then he returned to Juli, sexually assaulted her, then took her to another room at the motel and did it again, saying he didn’t want her to see Silvina’s dead body. He left her tied up on the bed, with the television on, while he cleaned up the crime scene and put Silvina’s body in the trunk with Carole’s. When they asked him where he’d learned how to clean up a crime scene, because evidently he did a very good job, he said he watched the Discovery Channel.

About 4 a.m., he took Juli, now wrapped in a pink blanket, and put her in the rental car. They talked as he drove around aimlessly. Then he told her he loved her, and that he wished he could keep her, then slit her throat. He watched her gesturing to him as she bled out, and left her body in the thicket.

He then drove the car with Carole and Silvina’s bodies back into the woods and set it on fire. Afterward, he took a cab back to Yosemite with $150 he stole from Carole’s purse.

Stayner pled not guilty by reason of insanity. It seems his family had a long history of mental illness, as well as pedophilia. He claimed an uncle had molested him when he was 11. He also claimed, and I don’t doubt this, that he felt a tremendous amount of guilt when Steven was kidnapped. Like he was the big brother and he should have protected him. I think that’s pretty common in situations like that.

His parents had sort of pulled away in the years after Steven’s disappearance. They were centered on finding their other son, his father even going so far as to say his real son was gone. Delbert has been in trouble for molesting his daughters, ordered to get counseling. Evidently this pedophilia went back 5 generations, so it’s kind of ironic that Steven was kidnapped by a pedophile.

Cary Stayner had peeped on his sisters and cousins, had touched one of his sisters inappropriately. But mostly it was the feeling that he wasn’t there, I think. That they concentrated everything on finding Steven and there was nothing left over for him.

He pled guilty to Joie’s murder and sentenced to life. To Joie’s family he said, “I wish I didn"t do this terrible thing. I gave into terrible dark dreams that I tried to subdue. I'm sorry. I wish I could tell you why... I don't even know myself. I wish Joie was here, but she isn't. I am so sorry."

Stayner pled innocent to Carole, Juli, and Silvina’s murders. His lawyer cited the family’s issues with molestation and mental illness. The fact that he asked for child pornography in return for his confession. They said he had OCD, mild autism, and paraphilia, which according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as a pattern of recurring sexually arousing mental imagery or behavior that involves unusual and especially socially unacceptable sexual practices (such as sadism or pedophilia).

But the jury didn’t buy it, and on August 22, 2002, he was convicted of 4 murders in a California court, and sentenced to death. He tried appeals, saying the jury members weren’t victims of molestation, so they wouldn’t understand, but that didn’t pan out either. So he’s sitting on death row for the past going on 19 years.

Steven Stayner as I said earlier, was married and had three children. His life was finally back on track. He held down two jobs, one as a janitor and another as a pizza delivery guy, and talked to kids at school about how to stay safe. He testified in front of the state Ways and Means committee on stiffer penalties for child abduction requiring fingerprints for children. He enjoyed the media attention at first, until it became too much, and he just wanted a normal life without people watching him all the time. He bought a motorcycle with some of the $30,000 he received for the rights to his story. A blue-and-white, 1989 Kawasaki EX-500

As he left work on a rainy day on September 16, 1989, his boss told him to take one of the delivery trucks instead of his bike, so he could stay dry. He reminded his boss he didn’t have a license at the time, and he didn’t want to cause any problems for the store if he got pulled over. Instead, he headed home to his wife and kids on his motorcycle. He was going less than the speed limit when a car pulled out in front of him, and Steven slammed into it. He was 24 years old when he died. Timothy White, the little boy he saved, was now around 14 years old, and served as a pallbearer at his funeral.

Timothy went on to become an LA County Sheriff’s Deputy. Unfortunately he passed away April 1, 2010, of a pulmonary embolism. He was only 35.