In the Hulu documentary “Captive Audience,” two California brothers, one a kidnap hero and the other a Yosemite serial killer, are highlighted.
There’s nothing like it in genuine criminal history. A 7-year-old boy from California is abducted off the street. He emerges at a police station eight years later, damaged but alive. The boy’s sibling goes on a savage killing spree in Yosemite National Park over two decades later.
“Bad things happen to everyone,” Ashley Stayner says in the Hulu docuseries “Captive Audience,” but “it’s surreal for our family.”
There’s no short way to convey Steven and Cary Stayner’s story, and there’s no way to tell it without the two stories colliding.
Steven Stayner was born in Merced in 1965, the third of the Stayner family’s five children. Until his absence, their childhood was typical of the time. His parents instilled in him the ability to trust adults wholeheartedly and to obey their directions with respect. On his way home from school on December 4, 1972, a strange man approached Steven. The man told Steven that he could pick him up because Steven’s mother had granted him permission. Steven climbed into his car.
Kenneth Parnell, a convicted child rapist, was the man. He quickly informed the befuddled Steven that he had legal possession of him, claiming that the Stayners no longer wanted him. Steven started calling him dad a week after he was kidnapped.
Parnell changed his identity to Dennis Parnell and moved him around a lot, living in Santa Rosa and Comptche in Mendocino County, among other places in California. Steven went to school on and off, and his friends remembered him as quiet and nice, despite the fact that he never allowed anyone to drop him off at his house. He insisted on being dropped off at the bottom of the driveway.
On February 13, 1980, as Steven approached adolescence, Parnell kidnapped Timothy White, a 5-year-old boy, and began torturing him. Despite having complete freedom to flee at any time, Steven had frequently stayed with Parnell, unsure of how to get home or seek assistance. Steven, on the other hand, understood he had to act after witnessing Timmy.
When Parnell went to work as a night security guard a few weeks later, Steven grabbed Timmy and hit the road. The boys were picked up by a passing automobile and driven to Ukiah, Timmy’s hometown, where Steven discovered a police station.
Timmy’s face was on the news every day, and he was quickly identified as a kidnap victim. However, it took authorities some time to realise that Steven, who could only vaguely recall his real last name, was the city of Merced’s most famous missing child: Steven Stayner.
Steven’s bravery and his triumph over impossible circumstances made him a national hero. Every nightly news show included pictures of him with Timmy. A made-for-television film is in the works.
Steven’s 17-year-old brother Cary seemed to be the only one who wasn’t impressed. According to interviews featured in “Captive Audience,” Cary stated that the media exaggerated Steven’s actions and that anyone with a conscience would have done what Steven did. He confessed to being envious of his brother’s celebrity.
However, it was a trying time for everyone. Steven struggled to reintegrate into a family he barely knew and resented their rules, as Parnell had essentially abandoned him. Steven was followed by the media even at school, and his father was opposed to his son seeking help from mental health doctors. Steven, on the other hand, gained some sort of normalcy as he grew older. Ashley and Steven Jr., his two children, were born to him after he married.
Steven was riding his motorbike home from work on September 16, 1989, when he was struck by a vehicle who reportedly sped past a stop sign. He died as a result of his injuries, hurting the family once more. Steven was only 24 years old at the time.
If it was conceivable, the worst was yet to come.
In episode three, Steven’s now-adult daughter Ashley recalls witnessing the news of several Yosemite killings on television, which is one of the most dramatic moments of “Captive Audience.” She was horrified by the horrible slayings of visitors Carole Sund, 42, Juli Sund, 15, and Silvina Pelosso, 16, as a seventh grader in nearby Merced.
Carole Sund had visited Yosemite National Park with her daughter and friend Silvina before Silvina returned to Argentina. The trio shared a room at El Portal’s Cedar Lodge, when they vanished in February 1999.
Carole and Silvina’s charred bodies were discovered in their rented car after the three women had been missing for a month. Then police received a letter with a hand-drawn map pointing to Juli’s body, which had been left near the Don Pedro Reservoir. Her throat had been slashed with a slitting knife.
The decapitated body of Yosemite scientist Joie Ruth Armstrong was discovered in a creek near her cabin on July 22, 1999. A witness remembered seeing a light blue 1979 International Scout at the scene earlier, and informed police, who tracked the vehicle down to the Cedar Lodge’s handyman, Cary Stayner.
Stayner had been interrogated and freed in connection with the triple homicide, but the net had drawn in again. Stayner was apprehended at a nudist colony in Wilton two days after Armstrong’s body was discovered.
Stayner agreed to speak with Bay Area TV reporter Ted Rowlands while in jail. The confessions began to flow. He had fantasies about abusing women since he was a child. The girls in the motel room provided him with his chance; he claimed he entered their room under the guise of checking for a leak.
He pulled a revolver on them once inside and demanded their car and cash. Carole Sund was murdered while the teens were secluded in the bathroom. He sexually molested the girls before killing them. Joie Armstrong, on the other hand, he’d met by happenstance and discovered she lived alone in the park.
Armstrong fought him hard, leading him to leave sloppy footsteps and tyre tracks in his wake. Stayner asked that Rowlands help him get a TV movie made about his life as a condition of admitting, according to Rowlands in “Captive Audience.”
It was yet another inexplicable catastrophe for the Stayners. Ashley recalls her parents sitting her down to tell her that “Uncle Cary” had been arrested for the killings, since she had been following the story on the news every day. The news was heartbreaking, and most of the family members questioned for “Captive Audience” either refused to discuss about Cary at all or only spoke about it briefly.
In 2002, Cary Stayner was convicted and condemned to death. He is currently serving his sentence on death row at San Quentin.
It’s impossible to relate Steven and Cary Stayner’s stories separately. “Captive Audience” makes an attempt to separate Steven and his experiences from the horrors that occurred after he died. However, the docuseries will leave many unresolved issues for the majority of viewers.
Is it possible that the stress of Steven’s kidnapping shaped Cary into a murderer? Most multiple murderers are a mix of nature and nurture, having been born with a proclivity for violence that manifests itself when the incorrect set of environmental conditions collide during their childhood.
It’s possible that Cary would have always turned out to be a serial killer. However, with such a tragic experience in his youth, it’s difficult not to ponder what may have been different for each member of the Stayner family.
“I believe a lot of people have their ideas about my family and who we are as individuals,” Steven Stayner Jr. says early in “Captive Audience,” “and I believe they’re wrong.”
Without a question, they do. And “Captive Audience” is sure to fuel even more conjecture about the Stayners. But everyone who claims to comprehend their ordeal is mistaken; there will never be enough explanations for how one child survived a nightmare while the other created one.