Samantha Runnion
July 26, 2002 - July 15, 2002
Find A Grave Memorial
A popular way for people to get children to their cars is to ask if they have seen their dog or cat. On July 15, 2002, Alejandro Avila used that line to get Samantha Runnion to come to his car and then he grabbed her and pulled her into his car. Samantha immediately began to fight her kidnapper and get away, yelling to her friend that she should go get her grandmother:

 "Help me! Tell my grandmother!"

Samantha's friend Sarah ran to her mother and told her what was going on. It was too late, Samantha was gone and that began the short search to find her. Sarah, who was only five years old, was able to give a detailed description of the man and his vehicle as well as his vehicle. The search would last only a day. Unfortunately, when she was found, Samantha was already dead.

On July 16, 2002, a man called and was upset at the fact that he had found the nude body of a little girl on rural Highway 74 in Riverside County. (read a transcript of that call - here)On July 17, 2002, Police confirmed that the body found was indeed that of Samantha Runnion. An autopsy was performed and it was discovered that Samantha has been sexually assaulted, had physical trauma and was asphyxiated. It was thought that the killed had spent a few hours with her before killing her. Sheriff Michael Carona made a statement to the person who killed Samantha:

"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"

On July 18, 2002, tips given by people calling in lead the Police to a man named Alejandro Avila who was 27 years old and worked as a supervisor on a line production in Lake Elsinore. Alejandro of course denied any involvement in the assault and murder of Samantha and said that he was 30 miles away on that day. Luckily, phone records and credit card purchases proved that he was lying.

It was discovered that Alejandro had been accused before, of molesting the nine year old daughter of his girlfriend as well as another little girl. Alejandro had been to the apartment complex where Samantha lived, in 1998 and 1999, to visit his girlfriend who lived there. He was acquitted on all of the charges related to those accusations, by a jury.

On July 19, 2002, Alejandro was arrested and charged with the kidnapping, murder and two counts of forcible lewd acts on Samantha Runnion. Michael Carona said there was evidence from the two crimes scenes involved. Those scenes were outside of Samantha's home and where her body had been found. Michael said that Alejandro messed up a lot during his crimes:

 "Mr. Avila made a lot of mistakes at the crime scene"

On July 24, 2002, Samantha was given a funeral at the Crystal Cathedral with a crowd of over 5,500 people attending. Given to the mourners was a program with a drawing that Samantha had done of a girl in a red dress, a house with a heart under the blue sky and her favorite saying "Be Brave".

One day after he daughters funeral, Erin Runnion went on the Larry King show and expressed her feelings about what had happened to her daughter and the fact that this man had previously been let go for similar charges:

 "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"

August of 2002 came and the D.A. was seeking the death penalty due to the murder taking place after a kidnapping and the fact that the crime involved lewd acts with a child. That same month, Alejandro plead not guilty, being represented by a Public Defender named Denise Gragg. Denise requested a delay in the arraignment, asking for a month long delay. An Orange County judge denied that re-quest and a hearing was scheduled for September 16th.

Erin faced her daughters killer in court and then again, went on the Larry King show to talk about it:

"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 in instantly flooded with tears"

In the courtroom that day was one of the girls who had been sexually abused by Alejandro in 1999. Also, Orange County's top law enforcement officials, Mike Carona and Tony Rackauckas sat together just a few rows behind Erin. Erin and Mike hugged as she silently thanked him for all he had done.

At 4:00 p.m., the jurors were seated and a foreman gave the binder which contained the verdicts, to a deputy. There was no visible emotion on their faces as the verdicts were read.

Alejandro Avila, 30 years old at the time, was found guilty in April of 2005, of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering Samantha Runnion. The jury was in deliberations for less than nine hours before they found him guilty. While the verdicts were read, Alejandro kept his head down, said nothing and showed no emotion at all. The
people in the court room had to be quieted down after "YES" could be heard when the first guilty verdict was read. Erin, who was seated in the front row a few feet from Alejandro, cried at the verdicts.

The jury again showed no emotion as they were lead from the court room after hearing from the judge that they were not to talk about the case. At this point, the job of the jury was not over, they would now need to decide the fate of Alejandro. A decision needed to be made in the penalty phase of the trial. Would Alejandro get life with no possibility for parole, or would he get the death penalty? The jury would have to decide.

The defense would be calling members of Alejandro's family to the stand to testify as for why they felt he should not get the death penalty. In an elevator, shortly after the verdicts were read, a woman could be heard shouting, in reference to the jury who let him go the first time he was accused:

 "What an animal! How could that jury let him go" 

A man on the escalator held up a picture of Samantha, showing it to television crews and shouted:

 "Justice! Justice for Samantha!"

After court, Erin spoke to the crowd outside. She thanked the jury for coming to the right conclusions and finding Alejandro guilty and said that it brought a great sense of relief. She shouted:

"He is guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! And that feels really good!"

Erin started a foundation called The Joyful Child Foundation which would help parents protect their children. At that time, she spoke to anyone who might have intentions of hurting a child:

"We outnumber you," she said sternly. "We're getting organized and will not allow you to 
get away with this"

Erin also said that she hopes other families and children will be able to get strength from the verdicts in Samantha's case:

"Crimes against children are preventable if we work together as communities"

Sheriff Mike Carona was in tears as he gave thanks that Erin had not held it against them for their inability to bring Samantha home, alive.

Alejandro Avila was sentenced to death for what he did to Samantha Runnion. Erin confronted him in court:

"I know she looked at you with those amazing brown eyes and you still wanted to kill her 
and I don't understand it, and I never will"

Seeming to ignore anything she was saying, Alejandro sat without moving and looked away. Alejandro said nothing as Judge William Froeberb spoke about the verdict:

"For the temporary gratification of his lust, the  defendant destroyed an entire family's future. 
He has forfeited his right to live" 

Alejandro's sentence will automatically be appealed and his defense attorney said that she would not be surprised if the issue of incompetent defense was the reason:

"I can't help but think he would have gotten life if I  had presented a better case" 
Assistant Public Defender Denise Gragg 

Denise added that she had advised him not to speak at all, in court. Assistant District Attorney, David Brent, said that he was satisfied with the verdict and that justice was served, though he said:

 "there's no joy that we're sentencing someone to death row" 

Joyful Child Foundation

The Joyful Child Foundation was established in her memory. It aims to facilitate the development of child watch programs in local communities through the U.S. through the Samantha's Pride program. In addition, it also seeks to encourage research and development into the psyche of predators and develop communication programs for parents and children.

Los Angeles Memorial Honors Young Victims

Samantha Runnion was just shy of her sixth birthday when she was kidnapped outside her home in southern California, sexually assaulted, and murdered by a child predator. An investigation by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies helped identify her killer and put him behind bars. 

On July 26—the FBI’s own birthday—Samantha would have turned 11. That day, we joined with her mother Erin Runnion in honoring Samantha and all child victims and survivors by planting a tree and dedicating a permanent memorial outside our field office in Los Angeles. 

“I am so grateful to the FBI for honoring Samantha with this beautiful ceremony and everlasting memorial,” Erin Runnion said. “I hope that those who were touched by Samantha’s death will join us commemorating her birthday and remembering the gift that she will always be. … In honor of all child victims and survivors, may this memorial remind us all to be brave, to be vigilant, to cherish our children and learn from their joy.”

Return To Samantha's Story
Read a transcript of the 911 caller who found Samantha's body.
Read about Samantha's funeral.
Read news articles related to Samantha's death.

Death occurred in the state of Massachusetts

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