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Posted: 1/5/2003 7:28:55 AM EDT
[Last Edit: 1/5/2003 7:29:35 AM EDT by gaspain]


Berkeley -- Berkeley police couldn't tell anyone that Kenneth Eugene Parnell, one of California's most notorious child predators, was living near a popular park in a family-filled neighborhood.

The law wouldn't let them.

But they kept an eye on him. And when an informant told them last week that Parnell, 71, wanted to buy a 4-year-old boy, they moved quickly to foil his alleged plan and put him behind bars.

Yet Parnell's arrest -- 30 years after his infamous kidnapping of 7-year- old Steven Stayner -- raises questions about just what police can tell the public about sex offenders and casts a light on the shadowy world in which predators attempt to buy and sell children.

Parnell, jailed on charges that include conspiracy to steal and enslave a child, first arrived in Berkeley in 1985 after being paroled to Alameda County.

At least a decade ago, he moved into a modest studio in a working-class neighborhood near San Pablo Park and quickly fell into an anonymous, low-key life.

To his neighbors, he was just "Gene," a frail old man fed by the folks at Meals on Wheels. He rarely ventured outdoors and used a wheelchair when he did.

He occasionally retrieved mail for neighbors when they weren't home.

"I had no idea he was an ex-con. I was clueless," said a neighbor who identified herself only as Mela, 35. "I wish my landlord or somebody would have told me. I know we're not living in Mayberry, but . . . ."

Nothing in his demeanor suggested that he was behind the shocking abduction of Stayner, whom Parnell snatched from a Merced street in 1972 and sexually abused for seven years.

The case gained national headlines and was chronicled in the book "I Know My First Name Is Steven." A television movie of the same name was broadcast in 1989. Stayner's older brother, Cary, convicted of killing four women around Yosemite in 1999, said the kidnapping case had forever scarred him.

Yet despite Parnell's history of sexual crimes against children dating back to the 1950s, the hands of the Berkeley police were largely tied.

Under Megan's Law, which requires convicted sexual predators to register their whereabouts with the police, Parnell was not considered enough of a threat to allow police to warn his neighbors personally.

Parnell was deemed a "serious" offender, not a "high-risk" sexual predator under the law, said Berkeley police spokeswoman Mary Kusmiss.

That meant the authorities could place Parnell's name, photograph and other information in a department database accessible to the public -- but could not distribute flyers alerting people of his presence, as they had done in two other cases.

"It would be unlawful for us to do a widespread public disclosure on someone like him," Kusmiss said.

Still, police kept tabs on Parnell.

Just last month, authorities made a surprise visit to his Berkeley home to make sure he was keeping out of trouble, and as far as anyone could tell, he was.

"Since his parole in Berkeley as a result of the Stayner case, I know of no complaints against him," Kusmiss said. "He basically led a quiet life."

Then came the surprise tip last week from an informant -- described by police as a "regular citizen" -- who said Parnell purportedly asked her about buying a 4-year-old African American boy. Parnell had purportedly asked her about buying a child many times, Kusmiss said.

On Friday, the informant went to Parnell's apartment on Mathews Street to receive payment for the child. Police would not confirm reports that she was to receive $500.

Parnell had allegedly asked for the child's birth certificate and said he planned to raise the boy as his own, authorities said.

Moments after the money changed hands, police arrested Parnell, who did not resist. He never had custody of the boy, Kusmiss said.

Parnell was being held on $150,000 bail in Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. The charges are conspiracy to commit child stealing, conspiracy to hold a person in involuntary servitude and solicitation to commit a felony crime.

If convicted, Parnell, who served just five years for kidnapping Stayner and another 5-year-old boy, could be locked up for life.

And that pleases Steven Stayner's father, Delbert Stayner.

"He took my son for his own sick sexual pleasure. That man is a predator who never should have been released. He should have died of old age behind bars," Stayner told The Chronicle on Saturday. "Parnell ruined my family's life."

Parnell's attempt to buy the boy is a frightening example of how predators are becoming more daring in their attempts to snare children.

"Overseas, it is a huge problem, but I just don't remember many cases here involving an American family" selling a child, said George Grotz, a retired FBI agent.

In one case, two Virginia men were convicted of trying to buy a young boy and film his rape, torture and murder in 1989.

In 1998, 16 men pleaded guilty to federal charges for their role in the "Orchid Club," in which a 10-year-old girl was sexually fondled in Monterey in a molestation broadcast over the Internet. The group plotted the buying, selling and "renting" of children in Internet chat rooms.

The Orchid Club bust led investigators in 1998 to the Wonderland Club, in which members in dozens of countries broadcast sexual encounters between adults and "purchased" children around the world. Some viewers were in Northern California.

Such cases are always alarming -- and it was no different in Parnell's quiet neighborhood.

One neighbor, who lives across the street from Parnell and declined to give her name, said she and her boyfriend knew about Parnell's past but were still shocked to learn he'd been accused of trying to buy a child.

"To be honest, when I first saw the news trucks here Friday night, I thought he was dead," she said. "I've never seen him go anywhere. The whole thing about him trying to buy a kid -- would he ask someone to pick up the kid for him?"

Neighbor Nitchy Ellison, however, said he thinks the charges against his neighbor are unwarranted.

"I don't believe it. That old man didn't have money to buy a pack of cigarettes, let alone a child," said Ellison, a 58-year-old truck driver. "He can't hardly get down those steps. As far as I'm concerned, a small child could whip him."

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