‘Captive Audience’ revisits 1972 Steven Stayner kidnapping and his tragic end


It was a homecoming seven years in the making.

Abducted at the age of 7, a teenage Steven Stayner was finally returning to his family in Merced, California. Neighbors, well-wishers, gawkers and the media crowded the street to witness the joyous reunion on March 2, 1980.

“Good news stories are not happening very often, even back then they didn’t,” his mother, Kay, recalls in a new three-part docuseries on Hulu, “Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story,” which premieres Thursday, April 21. “I wanted to share Steve’s homecoming with the world. I wanted to share the happiness that we had — the good outcome but then that had a bad side too.”

The series revisits Steven’s abduction in 1972, his daring escape with another kidnapping victim, and his struggles under an intense media glare after he returned home. There was even a hit TV miniseries based on his story called “I Know My First Name Is Steven,” which came out in 1989.  

When Steven returned home on March 2, 1980, the cameras were there to capture the moment he hugged his parents, Kay and Delbert Stayner.
Courtesy of Hulu

The relentless attention was difficult for Steven, 14, and it become even more intolerable for him as details about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his captor spilled out. “Having all of the information out, it was painful for Steve, which affected how he continued to grow,” Kay says in the documentary. “He drank heavy. A lot of alcohol and a lot of pot.”

Director Jessica Dimmock told The Post that she was surprised by what the teenager went through in the public eye. “Steven’s suffering was so on display.”

Stolen at 7

On December 4, 1972, Steven was walking home from school when a man stopped him. He asked if Steven’s mother would be interested in donating to a church. Steven said yes and Ervin Murphy offered him a ride home. In the car was another man, Kenneth Parnell.

“They passed the road that I lived on and they said that we’ll just call your parents to see if you can stay the night,” Steven says in an interview shown in the documentary.

Steven Stayner was 7-years-old and in the second grade when he was abducted in 1972.
Courtesy of Hulu

It was the start of Kenneth Parnell’s manipulation of the young boy. He then told Steven that he went to court and had “gotten possession” of him. A week after his abduction, Steven was told to call Parnell dad and that he had a new name, “Dennis Parnell.”

“At the beginning he sort of, like, brainwashed me to believe that my parents didn’t want me. So after a while, I was happy,” Steven says in an audio recording, sourced from a conversation between him and “I Know My First Name Is Steven” screenwriter JP Miller.

For seven years, Steven and Parnell presented themselves as father and son. As Dennis, Steven was enrolled in schools, including one in Point Arena, Calif., which was roughly a 5-hour drive from his hometown.

Meanwhile, his family tried to keep his disappearance in the news in the hopes of getting information.

Steven says that he was “always scared” of Parnell, which is why he never told anyone about the molestation and rape. “He told me one time not to tell. And he never had to tell me again,” he says.

In mid-February 1980, Parnell kidnapped another boy, Timmy White — and soon after Steven started to think about their escape.

On March 1, 1980, the two boys walked and hitched some 50 miles from Point Arena to a police station in Timmy’s hometown of Ukiah, California.

Timmy White, 5, sits on the lap of Steven Stayner, 14, and tries to blow a balloon up during press conference after they escaped from kidnapper Kenneth Parnell in March 1980.
Bettmann Archive
The Stayner family in an undated photo.
Courtesy of Hulu

Even after he was home safe, Steven kept quiet about Parnell’s abuse. “What happened was is I didn’t want to talk about,” Steven says. “And so when the police asked me if there was any abuse involved or anything, I denied that there was any.”

But the police then found pictures of Steven that indicated otherwise. As details of the sexual abuse came out in the media and at Parnell’s trial, Steven was called names, including a slur for gay men, at school.

Triumph, then tragedy

For a few years, Steven was, as his mom put it, a “rabble rouser.” But eventually he reformed.

Steven met his wife, Jody, while working at a butcher shop. “Steven was so much more grounded than the other kids. He was real calm,” Jody says in the series.

They married in 1985, when he was 20 and had two children: Ashley and Steven Jr.

“He was a good dad. He was a good family man. It came natural to him,” Jody recalls.

Steven, 23, with his wife Jody and their two children, Ashley and Steven Jr.
Getty Images
“He was a good dad. He was a good family man. It came natural to him,” Jody, his wife, recalls in the series..
Getty Images

Then, toward the end of the 1980s, Hollywood came calling. “I Know My First Name Is Steven” aired in two parts on May 22 and 23, 1989. Actor Corin Nemec starred as Steven and the real Steven had a cameo as a police officer. Jody says he was happy with the film, and audiences liked it, too — “nearly 40 million viewers tuned in, making it NBC’s highest rated miniseries in five years,” according to “Captive Audience.”

“That’s unheard of,” Nemec says in the series. “It really generated a lot of attention to such a touchy subject nobody wants to talk about.”

“I Know My First Name Is Steven” was nominated for four Emmy Awards. The night before the ceremony, Steven was riding his motorcycle home when he was fatally struck by a car. He was only 24.

The family was “devastated” to lose Steven again, his sister Cory says.

And it wasn’t the last tragedy the family would endure. In 1999, Steven’s older brother Cary killed four women near and in Yosemite National Park. In 2002, he was sentenced to the death penalty and is currently on death row at San Quentin.

About her brothers, Cory says: “How much more could happen in our lives, in one lifetime, in one family.”