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Tips Led to Fast Arrest in Girl's Killing

Crime: The breaks came quickly in the kidnapping of Samantha Runnion. Without them, the hunt could have been long and even fruitless.

July 21, 2002|JACK LEONARD and CHRISTINE HANLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It was late Wednesday morning, and the army of detectives investigating the kidnapping and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion was still at square one.

A day and a half after her kidnapping and nearly a day after her body was discovered, a massive dragnet had checked out scores of sex offenders, pulled over dozens of green cars and fielded hundreds of tips--but still produced little to go on. FBI profilers privately predicted they were in for a long search to identify the killer.

Then, about noon, a caller provided a name that transformed the investigation. Check out Alejandro Avila, the caller said. Within a few hours, two more people had called with the same advice.

So began a frenetic two days of police work that ended with Avila's arrest Friday. The quick result contrasts sharply with other high-profile abduction cases around the country, some of which remain under investigation.

Police officials Saturday said three factors were crucial in making a speedy arrest: a clear description of the suspect supplied by Samantha's 6-year-old playmate, finding the body within a day and the phone calls pointing them in Avila's direction.

"If his name hadn't come up, we'd still be checking every sex registrant in California, polygraphing them, checking alibis," said one law enforcement source, adding that the trail would ultimately have proved fruitless because Avila wasn't a registered sex offender.

While the Orange County Sheriff's Department said Saturday that it doesn't want to jeopardize Avila's prosecution by releasing details of the investigation, several officials spoke on the condition of anonymity about how they built the case.

Avila maintains he had nothing to do with Samantha's death, saying he was at a shopping mall when the kidnapping occurred. His family says a bitter ex-girlfriend pointed police in Avila's direction.

Police won't identify the tipsters. But within hours of those calls, officers began questioning anyone who knew him well. Their initial investigation was promising.

Avila had been accused, then acquitted, of child molestation in 2001. One of the alleged victims had lived in the same Stanton townhouse complex where Samantha was snatched. And Avila's Lake Elsinore apartment is just a few miles from the mountainous ravine where Samantha's nude body was left.

Neighbors at Avila's apartment complex told investigators they had recently seen him meticulously cleaning a green car--resembling the one Samantha's playmate said the kidnapper drove.

"In a case like this, you really depend on getting breaks," said one official who worked the case. "We got breaks."

By late afternoon Wednesday, investigators decided that the 27-year-old was one of their best leads. At 5:20 p.m., they began surveillance of Avila, who remained inside his apartment.

Surveillance continued through the night until Thursday morning, when detectives watched Avila prepare to drive away from the apartment complex in a friend's car. Detectives had a choice: Stop Avila for questioning or let him leave and risk losing him.

"If you lose him, that's a huge public risk that most of us aren't going to take," said the same law enforcement source. "They had to contact him."

Playing Their Hand

Undercover officers in a white van stopped the Toyota Tercel that Avila and his friend were riding in. The detectives took him to a hotel in Santa Ana, where they began a 12-hour interrogation, Avila said in an interview.

Despite the buildup of circumstantial evidence, some detectives, including FBI profilers, remained doubtful that the investigation was near an end. Hundreds of leads were still pouring in to the sheriff's command post in Stanton.

Detectives were examining as many as 50 other possible suspects, among them a Fresno man driving a green car similar to the kidnapper's who was arrested after failing to stop for California Highway Patrol officers.

At the Santa Ana hotel, investigators continued a marathon interview. Avila strongly denied he was involved in the murder, but detectives didn't believe his claim that he was shopping alone at the Ontario Mills mall. The interview went on until 6 p.m., Avila said, when the questioning turned hostile and he asked for a lawyer.

At that point, detectives pieced together the evidence they had so far and asked a judge for a warrant to search Avila's apartment, his workplace and his mother's apartment.

Police executed the search warrants late Thursday evening, and television news helicopters showed a caravan of police cars and undercover vans pulling into Avila's apartment complex. Officials impounded a white Buick Century that belonged to Avila's mother, a pale green Thunderbird he drove, and the Toyota Tercel.

In addition, they took a sample of Avila's blood and photographed one of his legs, which Avila said bore a scratch from a child's safety gate in his sister's apartment.

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