A 5-year-old boy looks up adoringly at the teenager, a tiny hand tightly grasping the palm of his older companion. Moments later, both boys would be rescued from a child's worst nightmare.
This 1980 scene from Ukiah is forever engraved on the Steven Stayner Missing Children's Memorial, a lifesize statue soon to grace the renovated entranceway to Applegate Park in Merced.
Ceremonies Aug. 28 will cap off years of work by a local committee to honor Steven Stayner, the 14-year-old boy who escaped seven years of captivity while bringing little Timmy White with him.
Sadly, both Stayner and the youngster he rescued have since died. That's where the $50,400 bronze will refresh local residents' memories of one of Merced's most compelling stories from the 20th century.
Carl Gregory, a longtime Mercedian and treasurer of the memorial committee, strongly believes Stayner is Merced's genuine hero.
"He saved himself and Tim (White), too," Gregory said. "When the City Council turned down a recommendation to name a park in his name, I thought that was awful on their part."
He concedes the public's unfounded association of Stayner with his brother, convicted serial killer Cary Stayner, complicated earlier memorial efforts.
Since those furtive efforts about seven years ago, the community and the world have responded with donations that enabled world-renowned sculptor Paula Slater of Hidden Valley Lake to create the statue soon to be unveiled in the new park entranceway.
Slater said she has put a lot of detail into the statues of Stayner and White, including shoelaces and veins in their hands. It has taken her more than a year to complete the work, which will be set up on a pedestal the day before but not unveiled until the Aug. 28 midday ceremony.
"It captures the spirit of the two looking at each other," Slater said. "I think it's really going to be beautiful. This called to my heart and I wanted to do this piece justice, showing how brave Steven was. I hope it touches other people. It's not only their physical likeness but also their spirit."
Elaine Freeze, 92, is chairman of the Stayner memorial committee and has lived in Merced since 1922. She lived only a couple blocks away from where 7-year-old Stayner was abducted in 1972 and vanished for nearly eight years.
"When he disappeared our hearts ached for the family," Freeze said. "We didn't know if he was dead or alive. I was elated that he had been found. The story about him saving Timmy was unbelievable; I was just so happy Steve came home to his folks."
Freeze's grandson, Jeff, was a crossing guard at Charles Wright School and often escorted Stayner across Yosemite Park Way. When the park naming request was denied by the council in 2003, Mrs. Freeze got involved organizing the committee that pursued the memorial.
Last year, Merced County supervisors allocated $20,000 in funds from former supervisor Kathleen Crookham to the Stayner memorial.
Stayner, 24, died Sept. 16, 1989, in a motorcycle accident as he was on his way home from work. Ironically, his motorcycle helmet had been stolen only days before.
White, 35, was a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. He died April 1 of an apparent pulmonary embolism.
Noreen Borba, a recreation supervisor for the city of Merced, said the Stayner-White statue will be the focal point for the acre-sized addition to Applegate Park at M and West 26th streets.
The new park features an ornamental metal archway, grass, crepe myrtle, agapanthus and other landscaping, along with curved cement walkways winding through the area. The renovations cost $142,000, including the base for the statue.
Unveiling ceremonies will take place between 10 a.m. and noon Aug. 28. The memorial committee is sending out invitations next Tuesday for the dedication. It's expected somewhere between 100 and 200 people will attend the ceremonies.
Borba said the actual dedication of the new park facility is planned sometime in October. Dar Wagner, 75, has lived in Merced off and on since 1964 and is secretary of the Stayner committee. A retired psychologist, she worked with abused women and children during a career spanning 1975-1996.
"He (abductor Kenneth Parnell) was a fairy tale ogre who came to life and was every child's nightmare," Wagner said. "Every child has defenses, until a new boy came into the picture. He (Stayner) could have made other choices but he was made of better stuff than that. There was a beautiful spark of life surviving in this child."
Wagner is not sure how many people will attend the unveiling. She said the committee still needs tax-deductible donations for the accompanying plaque, program and refreshments. Many people have been very generous in their donations, she added.
Gregory said the Stayner family has not been involved in the memorial efforts and there has been no communication between the family and the committee.
Freeze said any extra contributions received for the memorial will go to a trust fund to maintain the memorial.
Committee member Debbie Ybarra, a Merced resident since 1962, said she was excited when Stayner returned home in 1980 and "sad all the time" when he died nine years later in the motorcycle accident.
The city spent $870,950 to purchase and demolish the three abandoned homes on the property at 26th and M streets. Borba said it's believed the new landscaping will be more compatible with the adjoining fountain and rose garden.
Slater, the sculptor, said the 6-foot-tall statue likely weighs between 450 and 500 pounds and will be finely finished like a museum piece. It is composed of many different pieces which were welded together.
She remembers when Stayner was found. She has been a sculptor for more than 17 years and has sculpted other works in Merced.
Stayner was born April 18, 1965, the third of five children of Delbert and Kay Stayner. He was abducted Dec. 4, 1972, and was found more than seven years later.
His story was captured in books and a television miniseries. Stayner married Jody Edmonson in June 1985 and they had a son and a daughter.
Doane Yawger is a retired Merced Sun-Star reporter and editor.