• U.S.

The Playtime Killer

4 minute read
Terry Mccarthy/Stanton

She had the face of an upturned blossom, but she was born under the sign of the lion and her heart belonged to Hercules. The first-grader adored Disney’s version of the hero and hung a poster of him over her bed. So Samantha Runnion, 5, reacted as her idol would have when a stranger first asked her to help find his chihuahua and then–as she bent down to show how small the dog might be–carried her into his car. She fought with all the might of her tiny arms and legs, and screamed to her friend, “Help me! Tell my grandmother!”

Samantha’s mother Erin, an analyst with British Petroleum in Long Beach, Calif., had moved to the Smoketree complex of $200,000 condominiums because it seemed safe. Even after the abduction, her neighbors wanted the world to know just how convivial a place it can be. “The garage doors open, and people socialize,” says Mike Pace, who lives two doors down from the Runnions in Stanton. “We use that as the patio.” But when cops arrested 6-ft., 200-lb. Alejandro Avila, 27, for Samantha’s rape and murder, residents had to reckon not only with the casual intrusion of evil into their midst but also with the fact that it was no stranger to the neighborhood. “He had been there before,” said an Orange County sheriff’s spokesman.

Avila is not a drifter. He lives in Lake Elsinore, only 60 miles away from the Runnion home, and has worked since September as an assembler at the Temecula, Calif., plant of Guidant Inc., a company based in Indianapolis, Ind., that manufactures pacemakers, defibrillators and other medical supplies. Disturbingly, he has a history of molestation charges: the daughter of his ex-girlfriend Beth Veglahn, along with another girl, accused him two years ago. The Veglahn girl lived with her father in the same condominium complex as Samantha, Veglahn’s foster brother Lewis Davis told TIME. A jury acquitted Avila on all those counts in 2001, however, and Avila’s mother says the case was an attempt by the ex-girlfriend to seek revenge for the failed relationship. Says Avila’s mother Adelina: “He bears a certain resemblance” to the sketch of Samantha’s abductor, “but not exactly.”

Avila lived an unusual life. He moved among the apartments of his mother and sister, which are next to each other, and of his present girlfriend Ruby. He also had a family background packed with violence. His father Rafael, a butcher, was convicted of shooting a neighbor to death. Avila was only 17 at the time. Just a year ago, his brother Juan was found dead in Rosarito, Mexico, with a bullet in the back of his neck.

From the very start, the investigation into Samantha’s kidnapping had a sense of urgency–and not just because she was scooped up in broad daylight with her grandmother inside the apartment nearby and a playmate by her side. Her nude body was found in a wooded region only 50 miles from her home. The corpse was unburied and posed in such a horrific way that the man who came upon it begged the police dispatcher he reached to let him flee the scene. “Please hurry. I’m scared, and I want to get out of here,” he said. The body was also loaded with DNA evidence. Law-enforcement officials interpreted this as the killer’s warning that the police couldn’t stop him and that he was free to strike again.

So when it came time for a televised news conference, Orange County sheriff Michael Carona did something unusual–he addressed his quarry directly: “Don’t sleep, don’t eat, because we are coming after you,” he said. But it was local residents who were having trouble sleeping. Suddenly those garage doors closed, the backyards emptied and a place that had been a community became a collection of condos behind a gate.

But even as neighbors recoiled, they joined a public eager to hunt down a monster: investigators received more than 2,000 tips, which helped lead them to Avila. By the time Carona detailed the arrest, he said Samantha had become everyone’s little girl. “If this were the Old West,” he said, “you’d all be in the sheriff’s posse.” He was addressing his helpers across Southern California. But he could have been talking about all those parents who were nudging their kids inside from their yards and holding them just a little bit closer.

–With reporting by Leslie Berestein/Stanton and Lake Elsinore

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