Samantha Runnion

Five-Year-Old Girl Abducted in Southern California
David McNew / Getty Images

On July 15, 2002, 5-year-old Samantha Runnion was playing with her friend, Sarah Ahn, outside of her home. A man approached, asking if they had seen his chihuahua. Samantha spoke to him briefly and then he grabbed her and pulled her into his car. Samantha, while fighting to get free, screamed out to her friend, "Help me! Tell my grandmother!" Sarah ran and told her mother what had happened and the massive manhunt for little Samantha Runnion began.

Sarah, who was the same age as Samantha, was able to provide the police with a description of the man and the details about his car. Other witnesses confirmed details for the police. They were looking for a Hispanic man with slicked-back black hair and a thin black mustache, possibly driving a light green Honda or Acura.

On July 16, a man called 911 and reported that he found a little girl’s nude body along rural Highway 74 in neighboring Riverside County. 

The Riverside County Sheriff's Department confirmed that the body found was Samantha Runnion. An autopsy determined that Samantha was sexually assaulted, suffered physical trauma, and was asphyxiated sometime on July 15. Authorities reported that the killer spent several hours with her before murdering her.

Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona delivered a strong message to the killer: "Don't sleep. Don't eat. Because we're coming after you. We will take every resource that's available to us to bring you to justice."

The Investigation

A tip line was set up and by July 18, caller’s tips lead the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to Alejandro Avila, 27, a production line supervisor from nearby Lake Elsinore. Avila reportedly denied any involvement in the murder, telling the police that he was 30 miles away on the day of the abduction. Phone and credit card records did not support his alibi.

The FBI learned that Avila had previously been to the apartment complex where Samantha lived during 1998 and 1999. His ex-girlfriend’s daughter lived in the same complex as the Runnion family. His relationship with the woman ended in 2000. In 2001, Avila was charged with molestation of her 9-year-old daughter and another young girl, but he was acquitted on all charges.

An Arrest Is Made

On July 19, 2002, Avila was arrested and charged with the murder, kidnapping, and two counts of forcible lewd acts on Samantha Runnion. Detective Carona reported having evidence from the two crime scenes found outside of Samantha’s home where she was kidnapped and where her body was found, and what they obtained from Avila’s home and cars.

Samantha Runnion’s funeral was held at the Crystal Cathedral and a crowd of over 5,500 mourners attended. Mourners received a program with a drawing of Samantha’s – a little girl in a red dress, a house and a heart under a bright blue sky with her favorite saying written, "Be Brave."

The DA Seeks the Death Penalty

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas from Orange County announced that because the murder occurred after the kidnapping and the crime involved lewd acts with a child, the prosecutors would seek the death penalty against

Alejandro Avila pleaded not guilty. Public Defender Denise Gragg was turned down by an Orange Country Superior Court judge after she requested a delay in the arraignment of Avila for at least a month. The judge also scheduled a pretrial hearing for Sept. 16.

Erin Runnion on "Larry King Live"

The day after the funeral for Samantha Runnion, her mother, Erin Runnion, discussed Samantha's murder on the Larry King Live program. She expressed anger toward the jury that let Alejandro Avila go when he was on trial for a previous charge of molesting two young girls:

I blame every juror who let him go, every juror who sat on that trial and believed this man over those little girls, I will never understand. And that is why he was out. And that is why his sickness was allowed to do this.

Erin Runnion Faces Daughter's Accused Killer

Larry King interviewed Erin Runnion a few days after she faced her daughter’s accused killer for the first time in person at his pre-trial hearing. Erin Runnion told Larry King, "I tried to prepare myself for it, but there was no way I could. It was awful. It was awful. I don't know what it is for everybody else, but I just—I want so much from that person. I want him to undo what he did. And I want to see some remorse. I want him to know the magnitude of what happened. And we can't get that, and so I was just instantly flooded with tears."

Joyful Child Fund in Memory of Samantha Runnion

Erin Runnion and her partner Ken Donnelly established the foundation out of a commitment to turn Samantha’s tragedy into something positive. The foundation’s focus is on proactive approaches in dealing with the difficult issues of violence against children while celebrating the gift that is every child.

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Your Citation
Montaldo, Charles. "Samantha Runnion." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Montaldo, Charles. (2020, August 28). Samantha Runnion. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "Samantha Runnion." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 6, 2021).