‘Captive Audience’ recalls the awful aftermath when a kidnapped boy came home
In well-crafted Hulu true-crime docuseries, the family of Steven Stayner looks back on his abduction, his escape and the strange twists of fate that followed.
True-crime documentarians often employ the technique of filming dramatic re-creations to inform and amplify the story they’re telling—but “Captive Audience” director Jessica Dimmock didn’t have to stage any such scenes. She already had a treasure trove of material in the form of a two-part, 1989 NBC miniseries about her subject matter, titled “I Know My First Name is Steven.”
The acclaimed miniseries attracted a combined audience of more than 71 million viewers over the course of two evenings, with Cindy Pickett ( “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) and John Ashton (“Beverly Hills Cop” movies) as the parents of Steven Stayner, who was 7 years old when he was kidnapped in 1972 and miraculously returned home in 1979 at the age of 14. The filmmakers feature clips from the made-for-TV movie to augment the story—but also engage in the highly unusual and somewhat unsettling practice of having the actors who portrayed Steven and his older brother Cary reading from transcripts of interviews with the real Steven and Cary, conducted by screenwriter JP Miller (“Days of Wine and Roses,” “Helter Skelter”) as research for the NBC project. It’s strange to see these actors revisiting the characters they once portrayed—now reading the actual words of the subjects of the material.
That misgiving aside, “Captive Audience” is a well-crafted, three-part documentary series premiering Thursday on Hulu. In addition to the obligatory news footage from the time, the series features interviews with Steven Stayner’s grown children, Ashley and Steven Jr.; his wife, Jody, and Steven’s mother, Kay, who has been through more than anyone should ever have to endure.
A three-part docuseries available Thursday on Hulu.
In Parts 1 and 2, director Dimmock does a stellar job of taking us through the chronology of Steven’s story, from the time he was kidnapped by one Kenneth Parnell, a monstrous predator who told Steven his parents didn’t want him anymore, took the victim some 360 miles from home to set up in Comptche, California, renamed him Dennis and continually abused the boy for seven years while posing as his father. In heart-wrenching interviews with former classmates and a teacher, we learn nobody had the faintest idea “Dennis” was actually Steven—until Parnell brought home a young boy named Timmy White, and Steven fled with the child, determined to protect him from the type of horrific abuse he had suffered through.
It’s easy to see why Steven’s story made for nationwide headlines and the subsequent mini-series, with Steven being hailed as a hero. A few years later, Steven got married and had two children—but at 24, having already been robbed of his childhood, Steven was robbed of his life when a hit-and-run driver killed him while he was riding his motorcycle home.
In Part 3 of the documentary series, the focus shifts to the murders of four women in and near Yosemite National Park in 1999—a case that drew nationwide attention, with the killer writing a taunting letter to the FBI. A handyman who worked at the Cedar Lodge motel, just outside the entrance to Yosemite, was arrested for the crimes and made a full confession. His name was Cary Stayner, and he was the older brother of Steven Stayner. In some of the most compelling moments of the series, Steven’s daughter talks about being in junior high at the time and being fascinated with the case, only to learn her uncle had committed the crimes.
As for Kay Stayner—here is a mother whose son was victimized by a horrific crime, and who had another son who murdered four people. It’s a wonder she has the strength to even face the cameras and talk about it.