While stories of kidnapping and murder are not uncommon, those that involve children are especially horrific. On July 15, 2002, Samantha Bree Runnion was abducted from her own front yard in Stanton, California, and murdered. Born July 26, 1996, Samantha was just five years old at the time of her death.
Samantha Runnion was born in Boston, Massachusetts but later moved to Stanton with her family. On the day of her abduction, she had spent time with her grandparents. Later, she returned home to play outside with her friend. Soon after, a vehicle approached the young girls. A man stepped out of the car, asking for help in finding his lost puppy. After a brief conversation, the man grabbed Samantha and forced her into his car, and drove away.
Just one day later, Samantha’s nude body would be found approximately fifty miles south in the Cleveland National Forest. She had been sexually assaulted, strangled, and ultimately murdered, just hours after her kidnapping.
It wasn’t long until mountains of evidence began piling up, leading to the arrest and sentencing of Alejandro Avila.
The Kidnapping and Murder of Samantha Runnion – 8 Shocking Facts
The details surrounding the Samantha Runnion case are both tragic and gruesome but help raise awareness of the importance of child safety. Here are some of the most shocking facts that you may not have known about this heartbreaking true crime case.
1. It Was the Summer of Abduction
While Samantha’s kidnapping and subsequent murder quickly gained headlines, she wasn’t the only child victim that year.
Throughout the summer, the media ran rampant with news stories of abducted young girls. From Elizabeth Smart and Erica Pratt to Tamara Brooks and Jacqueline Marris, this wave of kidnappings and violence sparked panic and outrage across the United States.
2. Samantha Wasn’t His Only Victim
Alejandro Avila, who was 27 at the time of the crime, had previous run-ins with the police prior to abducting Samantha Runnion in 2002. He was charged with a number of lewd acts against children under the age of 14. Unfortunately, Alejandro was acquitted in 2001 of sexually molesting his ex-girlfriend’s nine-year-old daughter and her cousin.
After the Samantha Runnion case came to light, Avila’s old lawyer released a statement saying that he was “shocked.” The lawyer expressed his surprise at the news that his former client was charged in the five-year-old’s death.
However, Samantha’s mother says she blames the jury for voting to acquit Alejandro, stating:
3. There Was Just One Eyewitness
At the time of the kidnapping, Samantha Runnion was playing in her front yard with another young girl, 6-year-old Sarah Ahn who lived nearby. At Alejandro’s trial in 2005, Sarah Ahn, then 9 years old, took the witness stand and told jurors what she remembered about the day of the kidnapping.
Sarah told the jury that a car had driven past them once, turned around, and came back. She then testified that he got out of the vehicle and asked if they had seen a puppy.
Sarah also provided information on the kidnapper’s appearance. A drawing was created, revealing a Hispanic male with slicked black hair, a mustache, brown eyes, and between 25 and 35 years old.
4. Evidence Kept on Piling Up
It didn’t take long for evidence to start piling up after the Samantha Runnion murder. Authorities would discover that the young girls that Alejandro was previously accused of molesting had lived in the same condominium complex where Samantha lived.
Police also found child pornography on Alejandro’s computer and discovered communications with another individual who also used and shared child pornography.
Another piece of key evidence in the Alejandro Avila case was a motel room that he had booked the day of the murder. Authorities believe that Samantha was kept alive for several hours after her kidnapping, molested, and ultimately killed in the motel room.
5. There Was an Abundance of DNA Evidence
There was sufficient DNA evidence linking Alejandro to the crime, including DNA under Samantha’s fingernails that matched Alejandro. A substance consistent with tears or mucus was also found on the inside door handle of Alejandro’s car. This discovery suggests that Samantha had been crying as she tried to escape after her abduction.
During the trial, defense witnesses tried to challenge the methods used to collect DNA evidence from under Samantha’s fingernails and the accuracy of the results. Philip Zalewski, a public defender, also suggested that genetic evidence was planted inside Alejandro’s vehicle but prosecutors denied this allegation.
6. Alejandro Avila Was Sentenced to Death
Alejandro Avila was formally charged with the death of Samantha Runnion on July 23, 2002. He was held at the Orange County Jail until his conviction in 2005.
On April 28, 2005, Alejandro was convicted of kidnapping, murder, and two counts of sexual assault.
He is currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California where he awaits his end on death row.
7. California Instituted the Amber Alert
The Amber Alert System was created in 1996 as a legacy to 9-year-old Amber Hagerman who was kidnapped in Arlington, Texas while riding her bicycle, and then murdered. This child abduction emergency alert platform delivers a message distributed by a child abduction alert system to request help from the public in finding abducted children.
Up until Samantha Runnion’s murder, California did not have the Amber Alert System in place. However, after Samantha’s tragic death, the Amber Alert was instituted in California.
8. The Joyful Child Foundation was Launched
After the horrific murder of her daughter, Erin Runnion launched The Joyful Child Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing childhood victimization through important programs designed to empower, educate, and unite families and communities.
The Joyful Child Foundation was created in memory of Samantha Runnion and serves as a resource to proactively advocate for the safety and better protection of children against all forms of violence, abuse, and exploitation.
On the organization’s website, she writes: “I felt compelled to understand how something so horrible could happen and the more I learned about crimes against children, the more determined I became to honor not only Samantha, but every child.”