The True Story Behind the Yosemite Murders (2024)

  • The compelling story of the Stayner brothers is at the center of ABC 20/20's upcoming episode "Evil in Eden," airing Friday, January 25.
  • Steven Stayner, who was kidnapped at the age of 7, became a national hero after helping another child escape from abuse.
  • Cary Stayner, Steven's older brother, was behind the Yosemite murders that rocked the small farming town of Merced, California in 1999.

Growing up, brothers Cary and Steven Stayner shared a home with their parents and three sisters in Merced, California — a small farming town near Yosemite National Park —according to the SFGate.

While there's not much information about what Steven was like as a child, there is some insight to Cary's early life. In the 20/20 special, Cary, the older of the two, is described as being a loving brother who enjoyed spending time with Steven. Their mother, Kay, knew Cary to be "artistic, seldom in trouble and quiet," according to The Berkeley Daily Planet.

The Story Behind Steven's Kidnapping

On December 4, 1972, at the age of seven, Steven was approached after school by Edward Ervin Murphy, who claimed he was collecting money for church. After Steven said his mother would be interested in donating, Murphy offered to take the boy home.

It was then that Steven's nightmare began as Murphy brought him to Kenneth Parnell, a known pedophile. Parnell, along with Murphy, took Steven to a cabin in Catheys Valley, where he was brainwashed to believe his parents no longer wanted him.

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Steven Stayner (R) with his kidnapper Kenneth Parnell.

Cary was 11 years old at time, and deeply upset about his brother's disappearance. "I remember going out one night after Steve disappeared and wishing on a star that my brother would come back home," Cary reportedly told Mike Echols, author of the book I Know My First Name Is Steven. "And I did that almost every clear night from then on until Steve finally came back home. I never did tell anybody about it, but I remember wishing on a star that my little brother would come back home."

Meanwhile, Steven was undergoing unthinkable sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse at the hands of Parnell.

Steven Becomes a Hero

Parnell continued to abuse Steven for years, telling the boy that his parents weren't looking for him. Shockingly, Parnell allowed Steven to go to school. Before starting his freshman year in high school, however, Steven was given a new name — Dennis Parnell. While at school, Steven never revealed to anyone that he had been kidnapped.

Despite his circ*mstances, he did well among his peers, and even became known as an all-around happy person.

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Timmy White and Steven Stayner during a press conference.

"He had a great personality," said Lori Duke, Steven's high school girlfriend, to ABC News. "He was spunky. You could see that he wanted to play and be with kids and be normal."

During this time, Parnell kidnapped another child, Timothy White, while he was on his way home from school, according to The Modesto Bee. Not wanting to see the 5-year-old go through the same pain he had experienced, Steven attempted to walk White back to his house on March 1, 1980. When he couldn't figure out the location, he told White to head to the police station, with plans to return to Parnell's alone. However, police officers spotted both of them, and that's when Steven's real identity was revealed.

White eventually became a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Deputy. He died on April 1, 2010 from a pulmonary embolism. He was 35 years old.

“I know my first name is Steven,” he told the police. At 14 years old, Steven was reunited with this parents, and became a national hero overnight.

Cary Stayner Becomes the Yosemite Murderer

During the years Steven was missing, Cary's life continued, but it was never the same. According to The Berkeley Daily Planet, the then 11-year-old felt responsible for his brother's disappearance and felt forgotten by his parents, who were consumed by their son's kidnapping.

In high school, Cary was known for being creative, but he couldn't escape Steven's story. Cary saw the attention that his brother received after returning home and their relationship was never the same, according to TIME.

"We never really got along that well after he came back ... All of a sudden Steve was getting all these gifts, getting all this clothing, getting all this attention. I guess I was jealous. I'm sure I was... I was the oldest and all that. Then all of a sudden it's gone. I got put on the back burner, you might say," Cary told J.P. Miller, a filmmaker who wrote a screenplay about Steven's abduction.

Cary would have trouble with the law well into his adult life. But it wasn't until the age of 37 that he would become a murderer.

In 1999, Carole Sund, her teenage daughter Juli, and Juli's friend Silvina Pelosso stayed at Cedar Lodge, where Cary worked as a handyman. Under false pretenses, Cary entered their room and sexually assaulted both girls. He then violently murdered all three, according to

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Mourners holding banner which reads VIGIL OF HOPE for Carole Sund, her daughter Juli, and Juli’s friend Silvina Pelosso.

A police investigation didn’t trace the deaths back to Cary, although he was interviewed. Five months later, he killed Joie Armstrong, a Yosemite Institute employee.

Initially wanted as an eyewitness, Cary was confronted by police in July of 1999, and ended up confessing to all four murders.

Where Are the Stayner Brothers Now?

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Steven with his wife and two children in 1988.

While adjusting to his new life at home, and being bullied in school for the abuse he experienced, Steven also had to deal with Parnell during his 1981 trial, a year after his return home.

Steven eventually married and had two children. In 1989, he tragically died in a motorcycle accident.

At the time, Parnell was convicted for kidnapping and false imprisonment. Although he was sentenced to seven years, he only served five. It wasn't until Parnell was charged with attempting to purchase a child and attempted child molestation in 2004, that he was sentenced to 25 to life. He died in jail in 2008 at the age of 76.

Cary was convicted with four counts of first-degree murder. In 2002, he was sentenced to death and is currently on death row at San Quentin Penitentiary in California.

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Cary Stayner after his arrest.

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Selena Barrientos

Entertainment & News Editor

Selena is the entertainment and news editor for Good Housekeeping, where she covers the latest on TV, movies and celebrities. In addition to writing and editing entertainment news, she also spotlights the Hispanic and Latinx community through her work. She is a graduate of CUNY Hunter College with a B.A. in journalism and creative writing.

The True Story Behind the Yosemite Murders (2024)
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