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Note: The following article contains discussion of themes including sexual assault on minors that some readers may find upsetting.
Hulu's new crime drama Captive Audience really has to be seen to be believed. Even after watching, you're still trying to wrap your head around the utter devastation the Stayner family were put through.
The tragedy of this case is that, while it initially appeared to get a happy ending, ultimately the family were not allowed one. In what is a rarity in true-crime documentary cases, the long-term aftershocks for everyone involved are shown, and they're as brutal as they are devastating.
Steven, in a rarity for a kidnapped child, made his way back to his family after eight years of living under an assumed name and identity given by his groomer and attacker Kenneth Parnell.
Parnell made the-then seven-year-old Steven believe his parents had handed him over as they couldn't look after their five children, and renamed him Dennis. 'Dennis' was then forced to endure years of sexual assault before being put to work to steal other children.
In a show of resolve nothing short of heroic, he sabotaged every kidnap attempt he was told to make, and in 1980, when five-year-old Timmy White was taken, Steven got them both to a police station, to safety, and back to their families.
But, as it turns out, this proved to be the beginning of the story. After eight years of torment searching for what happened to Steven, his once tight-knit family – particularly brother Cary – had begun to unravel. Even Steven, whose return from the hands of Parnell proved a miracle, suffered a tragic ending.
Here's what happened to Steven, his brother Cary, his kidnapper Parnell, and the small boy he rescued, Timmy White.
What happened to Steven Stayner once he was found?
Steven Stayner's eight-year torment eventually came to an end on March 1, 1980. Under the assumed name of Dennis, Parnell had groomed Steven from the age of seven into an assimilated new life, which included a pet dog and learning to drive.
Steven was repeatedly sexually abused and was encouraged to kidnap other children for the paedophile once he hit puberty.
When Steven repeatedly "failed", Parnell roped in a local boy to kidnap Timmy White. Rather than see Timmy suffer the same fate he had, Steven waited until Parnell was at work, and hitchhiked them both to a police station.
Steven's efforts to save Timmy, the captor of his tormentor, plus the end of his own eight-year-mystery proved to be front-page news for media outlets across California. The Stayner family's reunion with their son was captured from every angle, and soon they were being bombarded with interview requests.
Despite what Steven had gone through, Steven's father declined to let him get therapy, saying that he "didn’t need any". At the time, the concept of therapy was taboo, even though Steven had clearly gone through unendurable physical and emotional distress.
The family also needed to make adjustments having a fully-grown teenager in the house who they barely knew, considering they hadn't seen Steven since he was seven.
The public attention over what he had endured ultimately resulted in him dropping out of school.
In 1985, he married Jody Edmondson and together they had two children – daughter Ashley and son Steven Jr – and he started working at a pizza shop in Merced, California.
In May 1989, a two-part miniseries based on his experience, I Know My First Name Is Steven (reflecting his first words to the police when he approached them), was released. By then, he was working with children about keeping safe, worked alongside child-abduction charities, and had made several public speeches about his experience with Parnell.
But in an unimaginably tragic turn of events, Steven died that September at the age of 24.
He was the victim of a hit-and-run while he was travelling home on his motorbike. Not wearing a helmet, Steven crashed into the side of a car that pulled out of a driveway without looking and sustained fatal head injuries.
What happened to Cary Stayner?
Cary Stayner is now better known as 'The Yosemite Park Killer' after being convicted of the serial murders of four women in the grounds of the national park.
The older brother of Steven, Cary was 11 when the kidnapping took place. In the years that followed, Cary was increasingly placed under pressure to look after the family. He eventually lived with his uncle Jesse, whom he claims molested him.
When Steven returned in 1989, he became jealous of the media circus that surrounded him. A year later, Uncle Jesse was murdered in his own home, with his own gun, but the culprit was never found.
In 1997, Cary started working as a handyman at the Cedar Lodge Motel just outside of California's Yosemite National Park and two years later, he went on a six-month murder spree, killing four women who were travelling around the park.
His victims were Carole Sund, 42, her daughter, Juli Sund, 15, Juli's friend and Argentinian exchange student Silvina Pelosso, 16, and Yosemite Institute employee Joie Ruth Armstrong, 26.
He would later taunt police by sending a map to where Juli Sund's body was buried.
The murder of Armstrong proved to be his undoing, with eyewitnesses near the scene of the crime spotting a blue 1979 International Scout, the same car Cary drove, near the vicinity at the approximate murder time. He confessed when he was taken into the station, confirming he killed Armstrong as well as the three other backpackers earlier that year.
In court, the defence pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but failed.
He currently remains on death row in California. However, changes in state law mean it's unlikely he will actually receive the lethal injection. There hasn't been an execution in the state since 2006.
In Captive Audience, it was implied that he committed the acts in order to get attention like Steven. In court, he cried and claimed he, "didn't know why" he did it, declaring his actions "senseless".
What happened to Timmy White?
The abduction of Timmy proved to be the catalyst Steven needed to break free from the hold Parnell had over him and get him to safety.
Timmy was kidnapped on February 14, 1980 by one of Steven's school friends, who was coerced by Parnell. He was returned home by March 1, thanks to Steven's plan to get them out of the house while Parnell was at work.
The pair hitch-hiked to Ukiah before finding a police station. Steven had initially intended to just hand in Timmy, but police noticed the young boy clinging on to the teen and pulled him in for questioning.
Their shared experience and the bond they formed during their two weeks together continued long after their rescue.
When Steven died in 1989, Timmy – then 14 – was one of his pallbearers.
Timmy spent the rest of his life dedicated to helping others, becoming a policeman and joining Steven in making speeches about child safety.
He was later forced to relive what happened to him when he testified against Parnell at his 2004 trial.
Timmy lived a somewhat normal life despite the kidnap, marrying wife Dena and having two children with her.
However, tragedy struck them in 2010, when Timmy died of a pulmonary embolism. He was just 35 years old.
What happened to Kenneth Parnell?
When Kenneth Parnell was finally caught, it was discovered that Steven and Timmy's kidnaps were far from his first attempt at stealing young boys.
In 1951, 20 years before he would take Steven, he was arrested for the kidnap and sexual assault of a young boy, who he had lured to him by pretending to be a police officer. He served just four years.
A decade later, he was arrested for armed robbery. In 1972, nine years after this, he kidnapped Steven.
However, Parnell was only ever put on trial for kidnapping Steven and Timmy, and not for any sexual assault either of them endured. As a result, he received a seven-year sentence, and he served five.
In 2004, at the age of 71, he was arrested again after he tried to coerce a care worker into trafficking a four-year-old boy for him. The care worker, aware of his past, led a sting operation with the police to ensure his conviction.
Thanks to California's "three strikes" law policy, he was given 25 years to life for his attempt to purchase a child and attempted child molestation.
He died behind bars in 2008 from natural causes.
Captive Audience is available now on Hulu in the US and will air in the UK later this year.
If you've been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can access more information from Rape Crisis England and Wales, who work towards the elimination of all forms of sexual violence and sexual misconduct, ontheir website or by calling the National Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999. Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline number is 08088 01 03 02.
Readers in the US are encouraged to contact RAINN, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline on 800-656-4673.
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