Kidnap cases -- Dugard and Stayner -- strikingly similar

09/05/2009 3:03 AM

09/08/2009 1:04 AM

Our newspaper, the television, even the Internet, are jam-packed with "big" news stories every day vying for our limited attention. The stories certainly have varying impacts on those who see or hear them.

But one that should resound mightily with Merced has to be the rescue of Jaycee Lee Dugard after 18 years as a kidnap victim.

We've been down that same road before.

Most folks who have lived in Merced for awhile should be aware that a similar situation played itself out here almost 30 years ago: a long-lost Merced child was found hundreds of miles north of here after being missing for eight years.

Of course, I'm talking about the Steven Stayner case, the subject of books, television programs and ongoing media attention for decades.

In nearly 39 years with the Sun-Star, the Stayner story was the biggest one I ever covered. That Sunday morning in 1980, I scrambled along with photographer Gary Keever to quickly get up to Ukiah and report on the Stayner boy's miraculous return. It was thrilling to be part of that massive newsgathering operation and such a happy story as well.

There are parallels between the Dugard story and the one about Steven Stayner. In both cases the trail was stone-cold in finding those children until the twisted fabric of mystery quickly unraveled itself. Just one event or one person can set things in motion. A seemingly innocent clue may be all that's needed to crack the most stubborn of cases. People know things that would solve these cases, but won't come forward -- for any number of reasons.

The Stayner boy had been snatched off a busy Merced street by child abductor Kenneth Parnell and an accomplice while walking home from school in 1972. Initially, many people got involved in searching for the Stayner boy, but nothing came of those efforts. At lunchtime I responded once to a scene just inside Mariposa County where officers were digging to find the boy's body. The suspect's confessions were bogus and thankfully nothing came of that incident.

But when Parnell abducted another young boy, Stayner had enough. By then a teenager, he didn't want young Timmy White to go through what he had experienced. After Parnell had left their remote mountain cabin on Saturday for his desk clerk job down at a downtown Ukiah hotel, Stayner and the boy hitchhiked along the winding coastal road into Ukiah where they walked into the lobby of the police station.

People report all sorts of things to dispatchers, from trivial and inconsequential to monumental. Young Stayner told police he thought they were looking for him. Instantly, one of the toughest abduction cases on record was solved. As I replay the circumstances of that police station encounter in my mind, I still get chills.

In mere hours the Stayner story became worldwide news. A media frenzy ensued. The boy was joyously reunited with his family. I wish I could have witnessed that emotional reunion here, but there were parts of the story in Ukiah that needed to be told where Parnell and Stayner had lived for several years.

More or less the same thing happened in the late-August case when 29-year-old Jaycee Dugard was rescued from sexual predator Phillip Garrido after vanishing 18 years ago.

The Dugard experience should give renewed hope to many people whose loved ones have vanished. Merced County has a number of people who have gone missing. Some of them may still be alive, caught in a tangled web like that woven by Dugard and Stayner.

I'll never forget my part in telling the Stayner story, which has been pushed into the corner of my mind until this new saga made it fresh once again.

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