While this weekly series will focus on the 1987 disappearance of Theresa Ann Bier, we start by taking a look at the backstory of an entirely different Central California crime spree and how a certain titular character of this series made his presence known in that case, which unfolded only a few miles away, as the raven flies, from where 16-year-old Theresa was last seen alive.
Trigger Warning: This series, including this installment, discusses multiple forms of trauma, including sexual assault, kidnapping, and mental health.
Content warning: Some installments in this series will contain graphic language and descriptions of illicit drug use.
In the early 1980s, Cary Stayner was a troubled young man.
Born in Merced, California, in 1961, he was the oldest of five children. His father, Delbert, was a maintenance mechanic at various canneries, often working long hours. Cary’s mother, Kay, worked at a school cafeteria and later ran a daycare facility. The Stayners were a hard-working couple, doing their best to provide for their children and maintain their modest green-shingled house in a middle-class neighborhood at the edge of town.
When Cary Stayner was growing up, Merced was a typical San Joaquin Valley town. With a population of around 20,000 (it would grow to over 35,000 by the time Cary graduated high school), its economy was mostly supported by agribusiness.
Situated 45 miles north of Fresno and around 100 miles south of Sacramento, Merced proudly proclaimed itself the Gateway to Yosemite. Indeed, the Stayner’s home on Bette Street was just a couple blocks away from the Yosemite Highway 140, which headed east out of town through almond and peach orchards, into the foothills, and ultimately winding up through the canyon cut by the Merced River to the entrance of Yosemite National Park.
As long as Cary could remember, his family would take vacations in Yosemite and the surrounding high country. Delbert would pile his growing brood into the family van and make the 60-mile drive where they would camp, fish, and hike in the wilderness. His oldest son, Cary, quickly became an avid and accomplished outdoorsman. It was where he would always be the most at home. It was where he found comfort and solace from a troubled mind.
Even as a young child, Cary exhibited psychological issues. As a toddler, he was prescribed medication to treat his obsessive-compulsive hair-pulling. It would prove to be a lasting problem, as even during high school Cary often wore a ball cap to hide the embarrassing bald spots that resulted from this OCD behavior.
What his parents didn’t know then was that even at the startling young age of seven, Cary harbored disturbingly violent fantasies. He dreamed of capturing and killing women. He would even imagine killing the female cashiers at the grocery store while watching them ring up his mother’s purchases.
When Cary was 11 years old, reality (rather than mere fantasy) exacerbated the troubling psychological difficulties he faced. He was sexually molested by an uncle. Delbert would later claim this was a distant relative, but reports based on interviews with Cary state that it was Delbert’s brother, Jerry, who molested the young boy.
How traumatic or persuasive this molestation was is unknown. Cary remained very close to his Uncle Jerry, spending a great deal of time with him and later even living with him and working for him at his glass shop. It was, undoubtedly, a painful family secret.
The other event that year that had a big effect on Cary was anything but secret. It made headlines across the country and even the world.
On December 4, 1972, Cary’s younger brother, Steven, was abducted while walking home from school. It was an era when no one gave a second thought to allowing a seven-year-old child to make his own way home from school. But what happened to Steven that day and the horrors that he endured in the ensuing years would contribute to that attitude forever disappearing.
Kenneth Parnell, a stout, balding man who once worked as a bookkeeper at the Yosemite Lodge, held Steven Stayner captive for years. First taking to him to a cabin near Yosemite, then eventually relocating numerous times around Northern California, Parnell regularly molested young Steven.
Through coaching, convincing, and brutal force, Parnell molded the sick relationship with the child into a depraved father/son dynamic. Parnell renamed the boy Dennis, adding his own last name, and insisted his young victim call him “Dad,” even while he was regularly sodomizing the child.
Meanwhile, Steven’s real father was distraught, consumed with finding his missing son. Cary would often see his father reduced to sobbing, standing in Steven’s empty room. Steven’s mother became withdrawn, only able to continue to care for her older son and three young daughters by pressing on as if in a robotic haze. It was childcare by rote.
Cary, who had had emotional issues even before the kidnapping, continued to exhibit troubling behavior. His dark fantasies evolved. He would imagine women marching naked and being gang raped.
At 16, he crept into the bed of his sister’s friend during a sleepover. Vehemently rebuffed, he left but later came back into the room and exposed himself to the horrified young girl.
As the years pressed on and Steven continued to be missing, it is easy to imagine the emotional turmoil and hardship everyone in the Stayner family was enduring. But perhaps the hardest thing for the oldest Stayner child came when he was 19 and technically an adult.
On March 1, 1980, news broke that Steven Stayner had escaped captivity with another recent Parnell abductee, a 5-year-old named Timmy White. The now 14-year-old Steven was hailed as a hero for rescuing the younger boy. He was the subject of nationwide adulation, sympathy, and curiosity for the seven-year nightmare he endured in captivity.
Reporters swarmed the Stayner residence. Steven appeared on numerous TV news shows. Everybody wanted to hear his story. He would eventually become the subject of a television movie and sensational book. The title, I Know My First Name is Steven, cemented his name as part of the current popular culture. But no one seemed to know or care about the brother named Cary.
As difficult as the attention Steven garnered during his absence was for Cary, the euphoric spotlight Steven and the family now basked in was somehow even more painful and debilitating for the young man at a time when he should just be figuring out on his life’s path. Having graduated high school the previous year, Cary had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
He’d always harbored stifled ambitions of being an artist. He was a talented cartoonist, his drawings appearing throughout his high school yearbook. He had sometimes pondered being a cinematographer or a stuntman, working in the movies. He’d even idly dreamt of being an actor, but thought he wasn’t photogenic enough. In short, he had no idea what he wanted to do, other than be by himself whenever he could.
And so Cary Stayner was a troubled young man when one day in the early 1980s he set out towards the mountains of Yosemite, a place where he often found solace. Though he was heading east just then, Cary’s life lacked direction. Maybe because of that, he lacked ambition. His future was unclear. He didn’t know yet what he wanted to do with a life that seemed utterly messed up to him. But on this particular day, he just wanted to escape up to the mountains, to sit out in the wilderness by himself, and maybe just smoke a little dope.
Night had fallen by the time Cary made his way into Yosemite. Just past El Portal, Cary turned his pickup truck off the 140, winding up the canyon alongside the Merced River and onto a small road snaking through the darkness to the tiny hamlet of Foresta, comprised mostly of park employee cabins scattered across the bottom of a wooded glen.
At the edge of the tiny village, as he rounded a curve in the road, his headlights swept across an old barn. There he saw a creature crouching in the shadow of the dilapidated old structure. It stared back at him with glowing red eyes. Startled, the creature sprang upright and sprinted away with the long, athletic strides of giant middle-distance runner.
This was no bear. Cary was sure of that. Having virtually grown up in these mountains, he knew what a bear looked like when it raised up on two feet.
This was something else entirely. This, he realized, was the creature known as Bigfoot.
Cary sat there in his truck, frozen in amazement. It was then that he heard the howls. Incredibly dolorous wails, coming now from deep in the darkness. It sounded to him like a woman screaming through a bullhorn. A woman whose pain and terror was amplified. An audible reminder, perhaps, of Cary’s own terrors and dark fantasies. A harbinger, even, of the monster within. Cary Stayner would never forget seeing and hearing that creature, but he would never see him again.
In the early 1980s, Cary Stayner was, indeed, a troubled young man. Twenty years later, he would find himself on San Quentin’s death row, known to the world not as Steven Stayner’s older brother, but as the Yosemite Killer.
In next week’s installment of Meth, Murder, and Bigfoot, Part One takes us to a mysterious place known as Ghost Canyon where a Fresno man known as Skip takes a teenaged girl on a harrowing journey. He was a man who, like the prologue’s Cary Stayner, was obsessed with Bigfoot. We will also delve deep into the burgeoning meth crisis and a disturbing series of disappearances in California’s Central Valley.
About the author (and the series):