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Remember Steven Stayner
Maybe you do or don’t remember the case of the kidnap victim, Steven Stayner, but I will never forget him. I was a teenager at the time living in the little sleepy town of Merced, California. Nothing really bad happened there. Sure I remember seeing stories of kidnappings on the nightly news but those kinds of things happened elsewhere, not in our little safe town.
My parents were rather strict and sagacious, even over-protective. We four had bicycles but were rarely allowed to ride them outside the driveway. I found this to be very restrictive. I was a teenager, after all. The switch came the day Mom needed some bread. She sent me to the store with a one-dollar bill on my bike and was told to bring back 4 loaves of bread and the change. I was free. The wind whipped through my hair as I peddled my way down the street to the corner store. Oh, for the freedom of those days, a bike and the open road. For several years I was sent on errands beyond the driveway and I was overjoyed.
“Childhood should be carefree, playing in the sun; not living a nightmare in the darkness of the soul.”
— Dave Pelzer, A Child Called "It"
That Day In December
It was on December 4, 1972, when at the age of 7 Steven Stayner was walking home from school and never arrived there. Right away my parents were alarmed. This abduction happened less than half a mile away and just one street over from us. My siblings and I were no longer allowed out on the streets on our bikes for any reason. We were driven where we needed to go or didn’t go at all. My mother didn’t allow any extra-curricular activities like football games or school club meetings that happened after dark. I’m a parent today, so I can really understand her precaution, but back then it felt very restrictive. I was a teen and Steven Stayner was 7. It isn’t like I knew him personally even though we had gone to the same school. It was the thought that a deviant got that close to our sleepy safe community that upturned everyone’s apple cart. Our little town was suddenly and permanently on the map.
The years went by and the furor died down for most of us, but not for the Stayner's. What made this case so very different was that Steven came back. On March 1st, 1980, Steven waited until his abductor was at his job and helped the 5-year-old abduction victim get back to his parents. They hitchhiked to the boy’s hometown but unable to find the address, they stopped at a police station and by dawn, the next day, Merced and Steven Stayner were back in the news again. He is actually the first abduction victim to be gone so long and returned home safely.
“The wounded recognized the wounded.”
— Nora Roberts, Rising Tides
Steven later told that his abductor was able to lure him into the car by claiming to be from a church looking for clothing and other donations. Later he told Steven that his parents couldn’t take care of so many children and they didn’t want him anymore so the abductor adopted him. He even had Steven calling him “dad.” But as Steven got older he wanted other younger boys. He tried to get Steven to help abduct other children but Steven thwarted those efforts until little Timothy White, age 5, was abducted. Later Steven joined an organization that sent him to schools and churches to tell his story and educate children on the ploys abductors use to lure children into their car.
The Tragedy of the Stayners
You would think that one family had enough tragedy for a lifetime with the loss of Steven. But it wasn’t to be. After Steven returned home, things weren’t rosy. The parents were caught in a time loop where they still thought of Steven as 7. When they finally started treating him his age things got better. Then the younger brother started showing signs of abnormal behavior. He was later convoked of killing 4 women in Yosemite National Park where he worked. Then on September 16th, 1989, only 9 years after he was freed, Steven sustained fatal head injuries on his way home from work, when his motorcycle collided with a car. This is too much tragedy for one family. At the funeral little Timothy White, not 16, was one of the pallbearers.
“A statue stands in a shaded place
An angel girl with an upturned face
A name is written on a polished rock
A broken heart that the world forgot”
— Martina Mcbride
The city of Merced council tried to honor Steven by naming a park after him but the majority voted against it because it was thought people would associate the name with the murderer brother instead of the young abduction hero. Finally, on August 28th, 2010 a statue of Steven and White was dedicated in Applegate Park in Merced. The people of Timothy’s town, Ukiah, raised money for the statue of a teen Steven holding the hand of a 5-year-old Timothy to honor Steven and give hope to all families of missing children.
Although not being able to ride my bike down the street cannot compare with the horror and trauma that Steven when through, I will never forget him and the case as it hit my community with a wake-up call.
I would love to read your thoughts and reactions in the comments below.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.