The Texas native spent most of his adolescence in and out of juvenile detention facilities. At 19, he was convicted of impersonating a police officer and sodomizing a young boy for which he spent three-and-a-half years in prison. An armed robbery charge in the 1960s briefly landed him back behind bars in Utah.
Then on Dec. 4, 1972, Parnell abducted 7-year-old Steven Gregory Stayner as the boy was walking to his Merced, Calif., home. The pedophile, who coaxed the child into his car by pretending to be a preacher, took him to a cabin in the woods and held him there for several hours. When the second-grader asked to be returned home, Parnell said Stayner’s family didn’t want him anymore. He gave Stayner a new name — Dennis Gregory Parnell — and spent the next seven years pretending to be his father. During that time, he also repeatedly molested the boy.
When Parnell snatched 5-year-old Timmy White in 1980, Stayner began to plan their escape. He knew he couldn’t let Parnell hurt White too. A month after White’s abduction, the boys snuck out in the middle of the night, hitchhiked to Ukiah, Calif., and told the police what happened. In his written statement, Stayner said: “My name is Steven Stainer (sic). I am fourteen years of age. I don’t know my true birthdate, but I use April 18, 1965. I know my first name is Steven, I’m pretty sure my last is Stainer, and if I have a middle name, I don’t know it.” The following day, the boys were reunited with their families.
Stayner’s story became the basis for a true crime book written by Mike Echols and a TV movie called “I Know My Name Is Steven,” which earned four nominations for Emmy Awards and one for a Golden Globe. Stayner received $30,000 for the film, and made a cameo appearance as one of the police officers who returns the boys to their families. He later married and had two children, a son and a daughter. In 1989, he was killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 24. Timmy White, then 14, served as one of the pallbearers at Stayner’s funeral.
Parnell was convicted of both kidnappings in 1981 and received a seven-year prison sentence; however, he was paroled five years later. Parnell spent the next decade living quietly in Berkeley, Calif., where he rented a modest studio, smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and received food from the Meals on Wheels program. Local police kept an eye on him, but many of his neighbors never knew they had a sexual predator in their midst.
In 2003, an informant told police that Parnell had sought her help in trying to buy a four-year-old boy for $500. Moments after the money changed hands, police arrested him. Parnell was sentenced to 25 years to life under California’s “three strikes law.” He died in the prison’s hospice unit of an undisclosed illness.