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THE DEATH OF SAMANTHA RUNNION

Lake Elsinore Man Arrested in Girl's Kidnap, Slaying

Crime: Police say his DNA matches samples from the 5-year-old's body. Sheriff says he's '100% certain.'

July 20, 2002|CHRISTINE HANLEY and JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A Lake Elsinore man acquitted last year on child molestation charges was arrested Friday in the kidnapping and slaying of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, with police officials saying they found his DNA in samples taken from the girl's body.

Alejandro Avila, 27, emerged as the prime suspect over the last two days after police received several tips suggesting that he might be the killer. The tips were among more than 2,000 calls received since Samantha was kidnapped Monday evening outside her condominium in the northern Orange County city of Stanton.

In a telephone interview early Friday before his arrest, Avila denied any involvement in the girl's kidnapping and slaying. Avila said he was at a shopping mall when the kidnapping occurred.

The arrest came after detectives questioned Avila for 12 hours in a Santa Ana hotel while crime-scene analysts searched his Lake Elsinore apartment, just miles from where Samantha's body was found in the Cleveland National Forest.

"I am 100% certain that Mr. Avila is the man who kidnapped and murdered Samantha Runnion," said Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona. "Scientific evidence is embedded in that, but it is not the only issue."

Law enforcement sources said they were also drawn to Avila because of his child-abuse case and his familiarity with Samantha's condominium complex.

Avila visited the Stanton complex because his ex-girlfriend's 9-year-old daughter lived there, according to the mother's relatives. Avila was charged with molesting the 9-year-old and a second girl, but a Riverside County jury last year found him not guilty.

Avila also resembles a sketch of the killer that was based on a description provided by one of Samantha's playmates, a 6-year-old girl who witnessed the kidnapping. She told police the assailant was driving a green car, possibly a Honda or Acura. Avila owns a green Ford Thunderbird.

Avila's neighbors told police they noticed him meticulously cleaning out his car Tuesday, police sources said.

Authorities released few details about their case, but police sources said a preliminary DNA match is the prime piece of physical evidence. More detailed DNA tests are expected to be completed in the coming days.

Avila said in the interview that detectives told him they found fibers on Samantha's body that linked him to the slaying. Authorities would not confirm this. During the questioning, officers also took a sample of Avila's blood and photographed a scratch on his leg, he said.

Police believe Samantha scratched her abductor in a struggle to escape. They said the assailant held Samantha for several hours after the kidnapping, sexually assaulting and eventually asphyxiating her sometime Tuesday. Her nude body was found in the open off a mountain road, posed in such a way that the FBI said it amounted to a "calling card" and a warning that the killer would strike again.

Avila said he tried to cooperate with officers during questioning Thursday but demanded an attorney when their tone turned hostile.

"They were raising their voices," he said. "If I didn't know the answer to a question, they wanted to know anyway."

His family blamed a vindictive ex-girlfriend for pointing police in Avila's direction.

"She said she was going to get even with him," said Elvira Avila, 22, the suspect's sister. "Now I think she's trying to put this death on him."

Avila's sister said she could not say whether her brother could have killed Samantha. She said she did not know where he was Monday when Samantha was abducted. She said he returned home at 3 a.m. Tuesday morning, when she buzzed him into the complex.

"If he had proof he was with someone [when the crime was committed], maybe he would not be where he is right now," she said.

Avila's mother, Adelina Avila, said her son was at his apartment most of Monday before leaving in the afternoon. She said she called him on his cell phone at 8 or 9 p.m. Hearing planes in the background, she said she asked him where he was and that he told her he was going to the Ontario Mills shopping mall.

Officers spent much of Friday collecting evidence at Avila's apartment, the nearby apartment of his mother and his workplace. Investigators confiscated a computer, bedding, clothing, shoes, telephone bills, garbage bags and other items. They impounded three cars belonging to the family.

The molestation accusations against Avila surfaced in late 1999. The alleged victims were the daughter and niece of Avila's girlfriend at the time, Elizabeth Ann Coker.

Coker's foster brother, Lewis Davis, said his niece lives two doors down from Samantha and is devastated by her death.

"The little girl blames herself because they [she and Samantha] were friends," he said. "The little girl thinks Avila was going to her home to carry out a threat that he once made to her mother that he would either kill her or her mother if she ever told about the molestation."

Officials Friday released an audiotape in which a distraught man described discovering Samantha's body off Ortega Highway.

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