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THE DEATH OF SAMANTHA RUNNION

Murder Suspect Is No Stranger to Violence

July 20, 2002|TINA DIRMANN and MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The manhunt that would soon snare him was well underway earlier this week when Alejandro Avila talked with his mother, Adelina, about the slaying of Samantha Runnion.

Whoever sexually assaulted and killed the little girl should hang, the mother said.

"What about the chair?" she recalls her son suggesting. "Who could do a thing like that to a little girl?"

Now police say they think they know.

Their suspect is a man whose father went to prison for killing a neighbor. His younger brother was murdered by what were believed to be gang members in Mexico.

He was accused--although not convicted--of molesting young girls, including the daughter of his girlfriend, who later obtained a temporary restraining order after reporting that he was stalking her.

Avila's mother--who contends that the earlier molestation case was based on false accusations by the girlfriend--insisted in an interview that her son is innocent of the latest charge as well. "I know my son, and I didn't raise him to be like that," she said. "He's not capable of that. He's always good with kids."

Yet interviews with other family members, former friends and court records offer a more disturbing picture of the man authorities say is the sexual predator who killed Samantha and then "posed" the 5-year-old Stanton girl's nude body in a rural Riverside County ravine.

"He's always been arrogant," said Lewis Davis, the foster brother of Avila's ex-girlfriend, who accused him of molesting her 9-year-old daughter in 1999. "He thinks he can get away with stuff. He never thinks anyone can catch him."

Avila's exposure to violence is the sort of background often seen in sexual offenders, experts said.

"This hints at the kind of environment where normal social controls were not well-developed," said Florida psychologist James Hord.

In January 2000, Avila was charged by Riverside County authorities with molesting Elizabeth Ann Coker's 9-year-old daughter and the daughter, also 9, of Coker's sister, Rosemary Drabek. Avila was also charged with threatening to kill Drabek. The court file mentions an alleged molestation against a third girl, but charges were never filed.

Detectives who interviewed Avila in 1999 said he was highly cooperative and relaxed as he sipped a soda.

"The tenor of the conversation," the detectives wrote in their report, "revealed a person almost jumping at the chance to answer questions, and taking the offensive during the conversation."

In a follow-up session, detectives said Avila admitted he had kissed and "tickled" both girls but said the kisses were not on the mouth and the tickling wasn't sexual.

After being released on bail, Avila allegedly followed Drabek, her boyfriend and her three daughters to a movie theater. While watching the film, Drabek's cell phone rang.

"You're dead," said the voice, which Drabek said she recognized as Avila's. Detectives traced the call to a pay phone in the theater lobby.

A jury found Avila not guilty. Superior Court Judge Robert G. Spitzer said Friday he recalls there was little evidence besides the children's account of what happened.

Avila's acquittal, though, haunts the prosector in the case.

"I felt the guy was guilty and did everything I could to try and get him convicted," said Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Paul Dickerson.

Today, Coker's daughter lives with her father two doors from the Runnions. Davis said he believes that is who Avila may have been looking for Monday when Samantha was abducted.

"I think there's a very good possibility he was there looking for her and grabbed someone else instead," Davis said.

Alejandro Avila is the third of six children--three boys and three girls--raised by Adelina and Rafael Avila. As a boy, Avila lived in Bell Gardens. His dad was a butcher.

In 1989, the family moved to Lake Elsinore, where Rafael Avila was convicted of shooting a neighbor to death during a confrontation with racial overtones.

Alejandro Avila was 17 when his dad went to prison. His sister, Elvira, said her mother would take the three girls to visit their father at Chino and Lancaster state prisons, where he did time. The three boys, however, would rarely go.

Even after the elder Avila was released in December 2000 and put on a bus to Tijuana, where he still lives and runs a restaurant, contact with his sons--particularly Alejandro--was rare, his sister said.

"Dad only speaks Spanish," she said, adding that her brother speaks little of it, although authorities said Samantha's abductor had a Spanish accent.

In April 2001, Avila's brother, Juan, was found dead in Rosarito, a bullet in the back of his neck. The family believes he was killed by members of his own gang.

"Sometimes, you just have to block it out," Elvira Avila said of her family's violent history.

Alejandro Avila divided his time between his mother's and sister's apartments in a Lake Elsinore complex only miles from where Samantha's body was found.

At his sister's place, Avila bunked on an inflatable mattress on the floor. Neighbors described him as a loner.

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