July 20, 2002

Man Arrested in California Case Of Child's Abduction and Killing


A man who was acquitted of molesting two girls two years ago was arrested today in connection with the abduction and killing of Samantha Runnion, the 5-year-old girl whose abused body was left in a gruesome pose in the hills southeast of this suburban city.

The man, Alejandro Avila, a 27-year-old production line supervisor at a medical equipment plant, was arrested this morning on suspicion of kidnapping and murder, in a case that brought fear and dread to this corner of California. Area residents now hope the arrest is the solution to a crime too terrible to comprehend.

In a voice that broke with emotion, Michael Carona, the Orange County sheriff, said he was ''100 percent certain'' that Mr. Avila had murdered the girl in a manner that made the case personal.

''I told you we would hunt you down,'' the sheriff said in a news conference, referring to Mr. Avila, who is to be arraigned on Tuesday. ''If you thought for one minute we were kidding, tonight you know we were deadly serious.''

He said Samantha became everyone's child when she was taken. ''If this were the Old West, you'd all be in the sheriff's posse,'' Sheriff Carona said, addressing Southern Californians through the television cameras at the news conference.

He said that thousands of tips from the public, an investigation involving hundreds of officers and help from the news media in circulating a description of the suspect had all helped to assemble what he called a quick resolution to the manhunt.

While he said a trail of evidence had led investigators to Mr. Avila, Sheriff Carona emphasized that the investigation was far from over and that he did not want the stream of information that poured in from callers to dry up just because a suspect had been arrested.

''You have been our allies all along,'' he said, referring to the news media and public. ''This in no way concludes our investigation. We are still trying to make sure we bring this man to justice.''

Police officials here have made it clear that their evidence, which is believed to include items like fibers that were found on the body, ties Mr. Avila to the girl, who was sexually assaulted and suffocated before being left on the edge of a road called Killen Trail near Lake Elsinore.

Mr. Avila had worked since September as an assembler at the Temecula, Calif., plant of the Guidant Corporation, an Indianapolis company that makes cardiac and vascular products like pacemakers and coronary stents.

Mr. Avila, who is in custody, lived with his mother at a low-income apartment complex in Lake Elsinore, about 60 miles from Stanton and about 10 miles from the roadside scrub where Samantha's body was found.

Some neighbors in the complex said that even before they heard of Mr. Avila's arrest, they suspected that the kidnapper might be from the area.

''That mountain is really difficult to know your way around it, but the people from Elsinore, they know it pretty good,'' said Kristy Rousseau, 15. ''It seemed to me like only someone from Elsinore would know where to go to leave her body.''

Mr. Avila has been accused of assaulting children before. He was arrested two years ago and tried on charges of lewd conduct with two 9-year-old girls, but was acquitted, according to Riverside County officials.

Those charges, said Mr. Avila's mother, Adelina Avila, were false, and resulted from a vengeful former girlfriend who made up the claims of molestation.

''I know my son,'' said Mrs. Avila, speaking through a crack in her door of her apartment. ''I know him enough.''

She said that her son had been arrested because of ''that other charge,'' referring to the trial in which he was acquitted. ''All I need is an attorney,'' she said.

Mrs. Avila said her son was at a mall when Samantha was taken.

Thus, she said, he could not have been involved in the crime that began on Monday, with the news that the child had been snatched kicking and screaming from the courtyard of the apartment complex in Stanton where she lived with her mother, Erin, and her mother's boyfriend.

Another 5-year-old girl who was playing with Samantha at the time said that a man with slicked-back black hair and a black mustache drove up in a light-green car and asked them for help finding a lost puppy. The man then took Samantha and shoved her into the car, the girl said.

''He stole my friend,'' the playmate told reporters after the abduction.

Wanted posters with a sketch taken from the child's description -- a description that resembles Mr. Avila -- were posted throughout Southern California. On Tuesday, hang-gliders found Samantha's body.

Investigators said it had been posed in a provocative fashion, leading them to believe that the killer was a sexual predator who was likely to strike again, perhaps in the near future.

This morning, investigators played a tape of the 911 call from the man who found the body. The caller was so shaken he could barely speak at times.

''It's a baby,'' the caller said. ''I think it might be the little girl from the news.'' He seemed to beg the dispatcher to let him go to his house.

''I'm sorry,'' he said, adding that he had a 3-year-old child of his own. ''Please hurry. I'm scared, and I want to get out of here.''

At the scene, investigators gathered evidence that may have included DNA samples and found tire tracks from the car believed to have been used in the abduction.

Investigators may also have linked Mr. Avila to the complex where Samantha lived.

The Associated Press reported that Lewis Davis, the foster brother of Mr. Avila's former girlfriend, said Mr. Avila had visited the complex.

Mr. Davis said Mr. Avila had gone there to visit the ex-girlfriend's 11-year-old daughter, who lived in the complex.

The former girlfriend, Beth Veglahn of Garden Grove, Calif., told The Orange County Register that Mr. Avila might have gone to the apartment complex to take her daughter.

''I think he went there to get my baby, but instead he took this little girl,'' Ms. Veglahn said.

In Stanton, even before an arrest was announced, a steady stream of sympathizers made their way to the Runnions' apartment complex, placing cards and flowers at a memorial site in the courtyard, and lighting candles in the shape of Samantha's name on the ground.

This afternoon, about 250 people held hands and prayed outside the apartments.

Mike Peck, a 40-year-old truck driver, brought his wife, Lisa, and their daughter Ashley, 9, down from Anaheim. Ashley had picked out a bouquet of flowers at a local shop to leave at the memorial.

Mr. Peck said he had his daughter watch the televised news conference, to show her that the police had made an arrest.

Ashley asked her father how long Mr. Avila would be in custody. He told her, ''He won't be coming out any time soon.''

''For a guy to come in here and do what he did, it's just unreal,'' Mr. Peck said. ''I'm real glad they arrested him. My daughter was afraid to sleep in her room last night.''

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