"I want to stop the guessing in my head. You try and stop yourself from thinking about what might have happened, and yet you can't."
It was the 15th of July 2002. A Monday. Five year old Samantha Runnion was playing in front of the apartment complex in Stanton, Orange County, California, United States, where she lived. She had a great day that day. She spent time with her grandparents earlier in the day and they had ice cream on the pier. When they got home, she went out to play. It was around 6.30pm and it was a bright and beautiful day.
Samantha's birthday was just over a week away. In eleven days , she would turn six. Samantha was a fun little girl. She loved to put on shows for her family and entertain them with tap dancing and she adored dressing up in Princess costumes and smelling sunflowers. That evening, the 15th of July, Samantha was having a great time with her friend Sarah. Sarah was six years old and the two girls loved playing together. That changed when a car pulled up beside them. They stopped playing.
Sarah had spotted the car a few minutes before it stopped. The green car drove past them, went around the block and stopped beside them. A man got out. The man said to the two little girls:
“Have you seen a little puppy?”
Samantha asked him what size the puppy was and he told her it was a chihuahua. Seconds later, he moved towards Samantha, grabbed her and dragged her towards his car. He threw her into the car and she was screaming and struggling and kicking to try to get away. She told Sarah to tell her grandmother.
Sarah ran to tell her own mother what happened and a huge search began. Erin, Samantha's mother, spoke to the media from the lawn outside her apartment complex. She pleaded with the man who had taken Samantha to bring her home and she pleaded with the public to help her find her daughter. Sarah gave a good description of the man and car and worked with a sketch artist to create a sketch.
The very next day, Samantha's body was found in a remote area near Lake Elsinore, near the intersection of the Killen Truck Trail and Ortega Highway. It was around fifty miles from where she was taken. She was naked and her body was badly bruised. Samantha had been sexually assaulted and suffocated.
The Autopsy revealed that Samantha had been sexually assaulted both vaginally and anally. She had suffered at least two blows to her head. This took place at least half an hour before she died. The blows to her head caused her brain to swell.
The Pathologist believed:
“she died as a result of mechanical asphyxiation through a compression of the neck and with the blunt force trauma to the head contributing significantly to it also.”
It could not be determined exactly what caused the compression of the neck. The Pathologist estimated that Samantha had died between 8 pm on the 15th of July and 2am on the 16th of July.
Police set up a tip line and they received calls in relation to one man in particular. Alejandro Avila. Alejandro was twenty seven years old and fit the description that Sarah provided to the police. But when questioned by the police, he denied any involvement. He said that at the time Samantha was taken, he was at the mall.
Alejandro lived with his sister Elvira in an apartment on Riverside Drive in Lake Elsinore. His other sister Adelita and his mother Adelina lived in the same complex. The day Samantha was taken, Alejandro was due to cook dinner for the family at around 6pm but he went out instead and drove around Southern California. He withdrew money from an ATM at a Bank of America branch in Lake Elsinore at 5.18 pm and stopped at two service stations. That night, he checked into a Comfort Inn in Temecula after 9pm.
Police searched his car. Samantha's DNA was found inside his car and his DNA was found under Samantha's fingernails.
Alejandro was charged with kidnapping, murder and two counts of forcible lewd acts on a child.
It was the Prosecution's case that Alejandro had a pattern of abuse and deviant behaviour towards young girls. It was not the first time child molestation charges were filed against him. They presented evidence to the Jury that before Samantha was murdered, there were three girls who they believe Alejandro molested.
He was charged with and tried for molesting two girls but was acquitted in January 2001.
His sister, Elvira, gave evidence that after he had been acquitted of the
molestation charges, they watched a movie called "Double Jeopardy." He told Elvira:
“I could do anything I want to that little girl and I can't be charged for it because of double jeopardy.”
Elvira also gave evidence that Alejandro was familiar with the area where Samantha's body was found as she went to that area before with him to watch a
The Prosecution presented other evidence including the DNA evidence and evidence that pornography was viewed on a computer that Alejandro used. At 4.43 am on the 14th of July, the day before Samantha was taken, a story was printed from the computer that involved an adult male having sex with young children. There was also a chat room conversation found on the computer with someone in Finland and both users said they liked girls under the age of twelve years old.
Alejandro maintained that he did not do it and was not involved in Samantha's murder in any way. His legal team called several witnesses to give evidence that they stayed at the Comfort Inn the same night as Alejandro and did not see him with a child. They also called their own experts to throw doubt on the DNA evidence and the time of death.
The Jury did not believe him. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Erin at the spot where Samantha's body was found
Alejandro's obsession with child pornography continued to grow with material he found online and through people he met online who were interested in little girls. His behaviour had already escalated to the point that he was accused of sexually molesting three young girls. Emboldened by the acquittal, he abducted a screaming little girl in broad daylight from outside her home. He planned to kill her so that he would leave behind no witness but his plan did not work. Even though Samantha was just five years old, she kicked and screamed and fought for her life. His DNA was found under her fingernails and that helped to ensure that there was no doubt in the Jury's mind when they convicted him and sentenced him to death.
After her daughter's murder, Erin founded The Joyful Child Foundation in Memory of Samantha Runnion, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing crimes against children through programs that educate, empower, and unite families and communities.
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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