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Assembly plant worker arrested in kidnap-murder of 5-year-old California girl
By Ryan Pearson, Associated Press, 7/20/02
"It happened to everybody," Lisa Eaddy of Cypress said as she joined a crowd of people lining up to spell out Samantha's name with candlelight Friday night, hours after authorities announced the arrest of 27-year-old Alejandro Avila.
"The mother said Samantha would have loved to see her name in lights," said Rebecca Clifford, 49, who lives at the complex of townhouses in this Los Angeles suburb from which Samantha was abducted.
Earlier Friday, Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona stood in the same public area of the complex to announce he was "100 percent certain" that Avila was Samantha's killer.
"This is a message from me on behalf of Samantha's family to Mr. Alejandro Avila," an emotional Carona said. "What you didn't realize when we found Samantha's body and this investigation took place: Samantha became our little girl."
Samantha's mother, Erin Runnion, 27, who had tearfully pleaded for her daughter's return before the body was found, remained in seclusion.
Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo said she was grieving and "arresting the right guy or anybody doesn't change that reality."
Carona said one of the thousands of tips that poured in from the public led authorities to Avila, who was found Thursday at his mother's Lake Elsinore apartment, not far from where Samantha's body was recovered. He was arrested Friday morning.
Samantha was playing with a 5-year-old friend just yards from her home Monday when a man, using the ruse of looking for a lost puppy, lured her close enough to grab her and carry her away kicking and screaming.
Authorities say Avila had access to three light green cars the same color of vehicle identified by Samantha's playmate, Sarah Ahn, who witnessed the kidnapping.
Two years ago, Avila was acquitted by a jury of molesting two girls in Riverside County. One of the girls, the 9-year-old daughter of an ex-girlfriend, lived in the same townhouse complex as the Runnion family. Avila often visited the area, said Lewis Davis, 39, the ex-girlfriend's foster brother who lives in Lake Elsinore.
Court records also show that Avila's ex-girlfriend filed a restraining order in 1999, claiming he stalked her. It was unclear from the record whether the order was granted.
Avila was jailed without bail and it couldn't immediately be determined if he has an attorney. But his mother insisted he is innocent, saying he was with her on Monday and Tuesday.
Samantha was snatched Monday evening and her nude body was found Tuesday afternoon about 50 miles away, in neighboring Riverside County, off a rural highway near Lake Elsinore. Authorities say she was sexually assaulted and asphyxiated.
Avila's arrest was announced after Riverside County Sheriff-elect Bob Doyle released a tape recording of an anguished 911 call made by the man who found her body.
"I am so scared, it was a little kid. I'm sorry, but I have a 3-year-old son," said the caller, who identified himself as Justin.
"It was a baby, I think it might have been the little girl who has been on the news," he added.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Avila, in an interview before his arrest, denied involvement and told detectives he was at a mall in Ontario on Monday evening. Avila said detectives told him they found fibers on Samantha's body that linked him to her.
After he was jailed, people from throughout Southern California converged on Samantha's neighborhood by the hundreds, continuing to contribute flowers, stuffed animals and other keepsakes to a huge memorial in the townhouse complex's courtyard.
Many held their children tight as the youngsters read poems and letters they had written as tributes to Samantha.
"It's overwhelming," said Roland Adkins, 42, who lives in the complex and helped organize the memorial. "People are touched. If you're not touched by this story, you can't be touched."
Associated Press Writer Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.