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'These Things Just Never Seem to Have Happy Endings'

Kidnapping: As events unfold, Erin Runnion calls daughter a 'fighter' and hopes for her escape.

July 17, 2002|CHRISTINE HANLEY and EVAN HALPER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Erin Runnion took extra care in teaching her daughter about what to do if a stranger ever showed up, playing the bad guy as the two of them acted out various threatening scenarios in the living room of their Stanton condominium.

Samantha was always reminded during these sessions to scream for help or yell "Fire!" if she was ever forced into a car. She would reassure her mom that she would get away because "she could run really fast and was as strong as Hercules."

Runnion, 27, recalled those words Tuesday as she sat on Samantha's bed hours after her little girl was whisked away, kicking and screaming, by an apparent stranger.

It was a day filled with anguish and second-guessing for Runnion. It started at 6:30 a.m. with a plea broadcast around the nation for her daughter's safe return. By evening, as police converged on a mountain road in Riverside County where an unidentified girl's body was discovered, she and family members canceled a scheduled appearance on CNN and went into seclusion.

In an interview around noon, Runnion fretted about whether the role-playing drills were enough to protect her daughter from harm, but she still held out hope that Samantha would be home in time for her sixth birthday next week.

"These things just never seem to have happy endings. And I want her to change that," Runnion said Tuesday afternoon, before the body was discovered. "She's a little fighter. She's a smart kid. And I just keep thinking, if she gets the opportunity, she'll take it."

Runnion and her boyfriend, Ken Donnelly, spent the night frantically walking and driving around Stanton, hanging up fliers and searching for Samantha. At one point, Runnion spotted a light green Honda that fit the description of the car that fled with her daughter inside. In desperation, she pounced on the hood and asked the driver to open his trunk. He drove away.

"I heard her in my head, screaming out to me, 'Mommy!' And I jumped on his car," Runnion said. She later realized the car had nothing to do with the case.

Samantha, nicknamed "Mantha" by her mom, was born in Northampton, Mass. She is Runnion's only child from a former relationship with Derek Jackson, whom she met while attending Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. She met Donnelly four years ago, and she and Samantha have been living with him and his two children from a former relationship.

Runnion began teaching Samantha about staying away from strangers when they were living in a rougher neighborhood in nearby Garden Grove. She thought her daughter could be an easy target.

"She's cute, and it always did scare me.... I used to worry about that kind of thing more in Garden Grove, where there was a halfway house down the street," Runnion said. "I had to explain why she couldn't play in the frontyard."

The couple moved with all three children to Smoketree Condominiums in 2000, and Runnion believed the complex, filled with families and young children, would be a safe place for Samantha to play. Runnion's mother, Virginia Runnion, watched the children during the day while Runnion worked as an analyst at British Petroleum in Long Beach.

Samantha just finished the first grade at nearby Ernest O. Lawrence Elementary School. She plays with Barbie dolls and wants to be a dancer when she grows up. She told her mother a few days ago that she wanted to resume ballet lessons she had taken until recently.

Her mother said Samantha adores Hercules. A poster of the Greek hero hangs over her headboard, side-by-side with a picture of another hero, Peter Pan.

Samantha's mother, who studied Latin American culture in college, called her daughter "mi cielito linda" (my pretty little sky) and "tigrita" (my little tiger) during her comments to the media Tuesday.

Her phrasing was an attempt to reach out to her captor, who is described by investigators as a Latino man. Runnion says she wanted to make Samantha seem real to him.

Samantha's birthday is July 26, and her mother has gathered nearly everything she wanted: the three-dimensional dinosaur puzzle, new dresses for Barbie, Legos and Lincoln Logs.

"I have a trunkful of her presents," Runnion said, smiling at the thought of Samantha opening her gifts.

"She asked for everything her brother got on his birthday in May, plus the girl stuff."

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