July 19, 2002

In Hometown of Slain Girl, a Veiled Fear Lurks


Motel pools here are enclosed by 10-foot iron fences. So are the preschool yards and McDonald's play areas that line Beach Boulevard. Cat flaps have latches that lock.

Stanton, population 38,000, was already as quiet and guarded as a military base. Since the body of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion was found on Wednesday, the town has just grown quieter and more guarded.

Telephone poles are not festooned with yellow ribbons, and front lawns are clear of banners vowing retribution. The only posted signs in drugstores and dry cleaning shops are prosaic likenesses of the man wanted for brazenly abducting the screaming girl from the yard of her condominium, then sexually assaulting and killing her. Despite police warnings that the man could be a serial killer preparing to strike again soon, few residents display raw terror. Fear is hidden in small gestures and behind closed doors -- parents clutch their children in the supermarket line, mothers call in sick to work so they can stay home, gated backyards are empty.

The nation was horror-struck by the fifth high-profile abduction of a little girl in the past few months, while Stanton is asking how it could happen here.

Why did all the safety precautions and parental warnings not protect the Runnions' daughter, a 5-year-old who was so well prepared by her parents that she obeyed instructions to kick her attacker and scream for help?

That thought seemed to haunt Janette Galipeau, a banker who took the day off to stay with her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, despite the fact that her husband, Steven, was a teacher on summer holiday and already home. ''It's the only thing I ever worried about, that Macy would be grabbed in a mall or parking lot,'' Mrs. Galipeau said.

''I am so careful. I never let her out of my sight. But I never once imagined she wouldn't be safe in here,'' she said, referring to her beige stucco condo down the street from the Runnions.

She said she had driven past Samantha about a half-hour before the girl was dragged away. Even though police cars were parked discreetly at the end of her drive, and outside the complex, television trucks stood on high alert, Mrs. Galipeau's eyes never left her daughter, who was playing 10 feet away in a small patio enclosed behind cement walls and a high wooden fence. ''The gate is locked,'' she said. ''But we talked today about adding a deadbolt.''

The expert managing of tragedy and grief has become an American avocation, something that every community is trained to provide as soon as disaster strikes. Outside the Runnions' shuttered stucco unit, volunteers from the Orange County Trauma Intervention Program steered neighbors and well-wishers into the grassy courtyard where flowers, pastel balloons, stuffed bears and dolls were placed in neat piles on picnic tables, giving the shrine to Samantha the look of a garden club rummage sale or child's birthday party.

The news media, which have filled hours of radio and cable talk shows with the seeming epidemic of kidnappings of young girls, swing into action just as smoothly. An ABC employee respectfully handed a neighbor, Lydia Petrey, a note written by Diane Sawyer to Samantha's mother, Erin. He told her that Ms. Sawyer was on her way to Los Angeles this weekend and wanted to put Mrs. Runnion on her morning show. He murmured that such interviews could be cathartic.

Most people came to express their sympathy. Some also wanted to scare their own children a little. ''Besides wanting to pay my respects to the family, I wanted them to come,'' said Kathy Behling from Anaheim, with her two daughters, Chelsea, 12, and Arlene, 6, and two of her neighbor's daughters.

''It's like going to the World Trade Center,'' Ms. Behling said. ''You watch it on the news, but actually being there and seeing it is so different. My boyfriend went a few months ago, and he told me, 'It was awful, it was just awful.' So being here and showing them this is real will make them realize this is not a game, not a cartoon, this is real life.''

Esther Valdez, an older neighbor, shook her head sadly over all the sharp, new warnings issued by jittery parents. ''Children forget,'' she said, looking out at the lawn where Samantha had so often played with her friends. ''They are children, after all.''

But such warnings echoed all over town and beyond. Derek Jackson, Samantha's father, who lives in Sunderland, Mass., made a poignant public appeal today on television. ''Please watch your children,'' he said, his voice choking. ''Keep an eye on them, don't let them out of your sight.''

At the Stanton Boys and Girls Club, children hung on the jungle gym of a small playground enclosed behind iron bars but were not allowed to leave the building, even to enter the library next door. Christina Chavez, a games supervisor, explained that the children were assembled every morning and told again and again why it is important to obey all the safety rules.

Just as experts on radio and television puzzle over police clues about the killer's profile and pattern, so do children, even more bluntly. ''It's always only girls,'' 9-year-old Michael said matter-of-factly, breaking away from a game of tag at the club. ''It's a rape thing.''

In two of the city's parks, Premier and Zuniga, playing children were being guarded with extra care. The supervisors for arts and crafts classes and other activities were tripled. A buddy system instituted about a year ago, under which children were encouraged to pair up with another child while in the parks, is now mandatory, said James Box, the recreation superintendent.

At Stanton City Hall, staff members and volunteers collected dozens of cards, checks, bouquets of flowers and toy animals addressed to Samantha's family and to the fund set up in her name. On Wednesday afternoon, two teenage boys dropped off a plastic container with Samantha's picture pasted to its side. It was filled with cash that they had collected in their neighborhood.

The city's e-mail address, available on its Web site, has received numerous messages from as far as Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Most of the e-mail messages expressed sympathy. ''My mother and I have been in tears when we found out they had found her little body,'' wrote Michele Masy, from Calhoun, Ga. ''I have an 8-year-old little girl, and I don't know what I would do if this would happen to mine. Your little angel is now with the angels.''

A few were vengeful. ''Hunt down this animal like a rabid dog!'' a woman who gave only her first name, Amy, wrote from South Carolina.

Marc Klaas, 53, who lost his own daughter, Polly, in a 1993 abduction and later founded the KlaasKids Foundation to increase awareness, said he did not believe such crimes were increasing, despite the rash of recent, highly publicized cases.

''The numbers are actually down a bit from recent years.'' he said. ''I think the numbers are down because we're responding better as a society, and because of truth-in-sentencing laws. We've been putting predators away and keeping them away for longer periods of time.''

Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in Alexandria Va., said that the incidences of small children snatched from their bedrooms or backyards were relatively rare, so they garnered sometimes disproportionate attention.

''In many ways, there are just too many missing kids, too many abducted kids,'' he said.

''It's like the 50th space shuttle launch,'' Mr. Allen continued. ''If you look at these three cases, all of them were outrageous; all of them were extreme; all of them frankly frightened parents to death. You look at Danielle van Dam, you look at Elizabeth Smart, and you think, you know, if my child isn't safe in her own bed? In her own home? Where is she safe? And little Samantha is just a parent's worst nightmare come true. I mean, 5-year-olds playing in their own neighborhood in broad daylight.''

At Disneyland in Anaheim, only five miles away, parents and children expressed dismay, sympathy but little sense of imminent danger. At Adventure City, a small amusement park inside Stanton, parents were more edgy. Rebekha Hodson, 24, a customer service representative at Adventure City, said she watched a mother panic when her toddler hid behind a garbage can.

''She went crazy looking for him,'' she said. ''I didn't really realize until then that this kidnapping happened here.''

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