Ashley Stayner's grin couldn't have been more radiant Saturday as an indigo blanket was pulled from a luminous bronze sculpture of her father, Steven Stayner, immortalizing his heroic legacy for generations to come.
Meanwhile, a musician played a somber bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace," while a large crowd of family members and admirers stood captivated by the more than 8-foot-tall memorial, as others laid a colorful assortment of flowers at its stone base.
It was the first time Ashley Stayner, who is currently serving in the U.S. Air Force, had seen the sculpture depicting her father and Timothy "Timmy" James White, the 5-year-old boy Steven Stayner rescued from a pedophile in 1980. "He really inspires me every day," said Stayner, 24, looking up toward her father's sculpture. "I really aspire to be like him."
Saturday's unveiling of the Steven Stayner and Missing Children's Memorial at the 26th and M streets entrance of Merced's Applegate Park was the momentous culmination of seven years of efforts by residents to create a special monument recognizing Steven Stayner, dedicated to all missing children.
"I am just happy that this day has arrived," said Elaine Freeze, the 92-year-old chairwoman of the memorial committee that spearheaded the project. "And I think it's long past due. But it's here, and I am so happy."
Most Mercedians are familiar with the heroic story of Steven Stayner, who at age 7 in 1972 was kidnapped in Merced while walking home from school by a child molester named Kenneth Parnell. Robbed of his childhood, Stayner's life with Parnell was a nightmarish existence, held captive for seven years and sexually abused.
Parnell's abominable yearnings for young children led him to abduct another boy, Timothy White, from Ukiah in February 1980. Rather than stand by and let another child suffer the same abuse, Stayner left with White while their captor was away.
Steven led White to safety, and law enforcement officers were able to return both boys home. Unfortunately, his life was cut short in 1989 by a motorcycle accident, leaving a wife and two children. White died at age 35 earlier this year of a pulmonary embolism. He was a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff with a wife and two children.
White's mother, Angela Gitlin, 61, traveled from Santa Clarita to be at Saturday's unveiling. Gitlin said she could feel her son's presence at the event. "What Steven did was bring my son home. And I am sure that was huge for him at that time of his life, because he considered (Parnell) his family," Gitlin said. "I think it's wonderful that they are honoring him this way."
Steven's mother, Kay Stayner, stood at the sculpture after it was unveiled, saying she was simply amazed. Kay Stayner said she believed the statue would be small, and tucked away in a corner of the park. "But this is phenomenal. It really is," Kay Stayner said. "It really just looks like both of them."
Kay Stayner added she hopes the sculpture prompts more awareness by parents about missing children, and the dangers of children talking to strangers. "That's was Steve's goal, was to help missing children and to stop it from happening."
The life-size sculpture was created by Paula B. Slater, a renowned Hidden Valley Lake sculptor, who said she felt "guided" by Steven Stayner's spirit while creating the artwork. "Bronze lasts for centuries, so this will be here a long time," Slater said. "Many future generations, I think, will be affected by it, and will know of his courage and the message of his life. Even though it was short, he did so much good."
The event also provided longtime friends of Steven Stayner's to reminisce and share old stories. Sharon Griffin, a classmate of Stayner's at Charles Wright Elementary, remembered how he disappeared when she was in the second grade. "We were in Mary Walsh's second-grade class. He was on his way home from school to get my birthday gift, and return back to my party. And he never came back to the party," Griffin recalled. "That's when the police came over and searched the house."
Griffin, who now lives in Tulsa, Okla., co-wrote a book titled "From Victim to Hero: The Untold Story of Steven Stayner."
"When he came back we were best friends again. We were inseparable," Griffin recalled. "Coming back here, I am reliving everything."
Albert Mosby befriended Stayner a few years after he returned home. "Back then, nothing like that ever happened. So for a kid to get taken like that, it was kind of surprising." Mosby said. "He was like a brother to me," he said.
During the ceremony, organizers also took time to thank those who contributed financially to the $50,400 bronze sculpture project. The city added $142,000 in renovations to the area of the park where the statue's located, creating an ornamental metal archway and a base for the statue.
The city also spent $870,950 to purchase and demolish three homes on the property at 26th and M streets.
Parnell was arrested and convicted of kidnapping, only to be paroled five years later from state prison in 1985. He was not charged with any sex crimes because under the law at that time, the additional charges would not have added any time to his sentence, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Prior to kidnapping Steven Stayner, Parnell had served three years in prison for molesting an 8-year-old Bakersfield boy in 1952.
Parnell was convicted in 2004 of additional sex offenses and died in prison in Vacaville in 2008 at age 76.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.