The Sickening Crimes Of Kenneth Parnell, The ‘Sexual Psychopath’ Who Kidnapped Steven Stayner And Timmy White

Published April 3, 2024
Updated April 4, 2024

Kenneth Parnell abducted Steven Stayner in 1972 and Timmy White in 1980. Then, after serving just five years in prison for his crimes, he tried to buy another child for $500.

In 2003, police in Berkeley, California arrested a man named Kenneth Parnell for trying to purchase a four-year-old boy. But it wasn’t the first time he’d gotten in trouble with the law. The 71-year-old had previously been convicted of kidnapping two other boys. One prosecutor declared during Parnell’s 2004 trial: “He has been a danger to children his entire life.”

By that point, Parnell had already served time on a number of charges. He was found guilty of “child-stealing,” in the 1950s and for the 1972 kidnapping of Steven Stayner and the 1980 kidnapping of Timmy White.

Kenneth Parnell

Bettmann/Getty ImagesKenneth Parnell and one of his kidnapping victims, Steven Stayner.

Steven Stayner’s story was recently featured in the Hulu documentary Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story (2022). But who was the man who kidnapped him and abused him for seven years?

Kenneth Parnell’s Troubled Early Life

Born on Sept. 26, 1931, Kenneth Parnell had a troubled life from the very start. Author Mike Echols writes in I Know My First Name Is Steven (1999) that his father abandoned the family when Parnell was young. Parnell purportedly reacted by pulling out four of his own teeth with pliers.

As a teenager, Parnell allegedly had a coercive sexual encounter with one of his mother’s boarders, who forced him to perform oral sex. It was around this time in 1945 that he had his first brushes with crime, stealing vehicles and engaging in “public sex acts.”

Parnell spent the next several years going in and out of youth detention centers and mental institutions and, in 1951, was convicted of kidnapping and molesting a nine-year-old boy. For that, Parnell was sent to prison for about three years.

Though Parnell continued to add to his rap sheet — he was subsequently charged with parole violation and armed robbery — he also married his childhood sweetheart and had a child, a daughter. But the marriage fell apart when his wife left him for another man.

Then, in 1972, Kenneth Parnell kidnapped Steven Stayner.

The Kidnapping Of Steven Stayner

Steven Stayner

HuluSteven Stayner was seven years old when Kenneth Parnell kidnapped him in Merced, California.

On Dec. 4, 1972, seven-year-old Steven Stayner was walking home from school when he was approached by a man named Ervin Edward Murphy. Murphy told Steven he was collecting money for his church, and offered the boy a ride home. Steven agreed. But Kenneth Parnell was waiting in the car. (Murphy later stated that he thought Parnell was a minister; he was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to five years in prison.)

Parnell took Steven to a cabin in Catheys Valley, where Echols writes that Parnell molested him that night, and started raping him two weeks later. Parnell also told the seven-year-old that his family didn’t want him anymore and that he, Parnell, was adopting him.

Parnell reportedly pretended to take a phone call from Steven’s mother in front of him to complete the charade, and told the boy that a judge had awarded him custody. Parnell also changed Steven’s name to “Dennis Parnell” and enrolled him in school.

Though Steven Stayner appeared normal to many of his classmates, he was a psychological captive. Parnell alternated between sexually abusing him and treating him well, and Steven believed that Parnell would physically harm him if he tried to escape — and that his family, quickly fading from his memory, didn’t miss him anyway.

But that changed in 1980. Then, Kenneth Parnell told Steven Stayner that he was getting too old — and that Parnell planned on kidnapping a younger boy.

The Kidnapping And Escape Of Timmy White

Steven Stayner With Timothy White

Bettmann/Getty ImagesSteven Stayner and Timothy White at a press conference after their 1980 escape from Kenneth Parnell.

Kenneth Parnell put his plan into action on Feb. 14, 1980. Then, with the help of a teenager named Randall Sean Poorman — whom Parnell paid with $50, marijuana, and alcohol — he kidnapped five-year-old Timmy White.

Parnell brought Timmy to the one-room cabin where he was living with Steven and dyed the younger boy’s hair brown. But Steven, who was then 14 years old, decided that he couldn’t stand by and let Parnell hurt another boy.

“I couldn’t see Timmy suffer,” Steven later explained to Newsweek, according to the Seattle Times. “It was my do-or-die chance — and I also would be coming home for doing something positive.”

On March 1, 1980, Steven snuck out of Parnell’s cabin with Timmy and hitchhiked 40 miles to a police station. He’d rescued Timmy — but Steven wasn’t quite ready to rescue himself. He left Timmy at the police station and tried to walk away. But the younger boy ran after him. Even when speaking to the police, Steven vacillated between defending his kidnapper and stating that he never wanted to see Kenneth Parnell again.

The police promptly arrested Parnell. However, he was not charged with any sex crimes because — at the time — they would not have added any time to his sentence. He was subsequently convicted of kidnapping both Steven and Timmy, and sentenced to seven years in prison.

But in 1985, Kenneth Parnell was paroled.

Kenneth Parnell’s Final Crime

Much changed after Kenneth Parnell’s arrest in 1980. Steven Stayner’s family suffered multiple tragedies, first with Steven’s death in a motorcycle accident in 1989, and then with the conviction of his brother, Cary, who was found guilty in 2002 of killing four women.

Parnell, however, stayed out of the news. Until 2003.

Kenneth Parnell

ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock PhotoKenneth Parnell after his final arrest in 2003.

Then, the 71-year-old was arrested for trying to purchase a four-year-old boy for $500. SF Gate reports that though Parnell tried to make the case that he wanted the boy to experience the “love and respect” of a father-son relationship and that he had no intention of harming the child, damning recorded phone calls made it difficult for his lawyer to defend him in court.

“It was a difficult case to defend, because you actually hear him asking about the kid,” his defense lawyer told the publication.

Under California’s “three strikes” law, Kenneth Parnell was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. He died there in 2008 at the age of 76.

After reading about the life and death of Kenneth Parnell, discover the disturbing story of Nathaniel Kibby, the man who kidnapped 14-year-old Abby Hernandez and held her for nine months. Or see how Natascha Kampusch survived more than 3,000 days with her kidnapper, Wolfgang Přiklopil.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.