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Memorial Overwhelms Family, Friends

Grief: So many people took gifts to the street where a girl was abducted, the display had to be dismantled.

July 22, 2002|MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It began as a gesture of hope--a tiny pile of gifts to welcome home a missing and much-beloved little girl.

Within hours, however, the modest assortment of Mylar balloons and smiling stuffed animals became a somber memorial, and a symbol of a parent's worst fears.

In the days since authorities announced the death of Samantha Runnion, the 5-year-old abducted from her Stanton condominium complex last week, the memorial outside her home has become Orange County's "ground zero."

In a small, grassy courtyard just yards from where Samantha was kidnapped, the site has continued to grow and attract a pilgrimage of the sympathetic. Thousands of parents and children have come by, a reverent silence part of their tribute.

Flowers and cards have arrived from as far as New York and Las Vegas, adding to the hundreds of candles, stuffed animals and toys already there.

The volume of offerings has been such that the Runnions and their friends are running out of storage space. Friends who have tended to the site are exhausted. And some neighbors, still shaken by the abduction, sexual assault and murder of Samantha, are unnerved by the unfamiliar faces showing up near their homes.

For these reasons, Samantha's memorial was dismantled Sunday evening.

Rebecca Clifford, a neighbor and friend of Samantha's mother, stood up and announced: "It's after 6 o'clock, and we need you to go.... Thank you for coming."

The visitors quietly filed out, a few with tears, leaving behind the teddy bears, flowers and votive candles arranged to spell "Samantha."

About 20 youths from Calvary Chapel Beachside in Huntington Beach gathered in a circle and prayed.

Above, five planes wrote "WE ALL LOVE YOU SAMANTHA R." in the bright blue sky.

Earlier in the day, visitors said the memorial's imminent closing prompted them to come.

"We came from Santa Monica," said Kathy Leiva, 39. "I can't imagine living without my daughter. When I saw the face of the mother on TV and I saw how desperate she looked, it just really hit me."

Like Leiva, many others brought their children, some using the pilgrimage as an opportunity to drive home lessons about the dangers of life and not trusting strangers.

Samantha was grabbed while she and a friend played near a row of garages at the complex July 15. Her nude body was discovered by a hiker the following day in Cleveland National Forest. On Friday, authorities arrested Alejandro Avila, 27, of Lake Elsinore, accusing him of her kidnapping and death.

On Sunday, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas announced that he will consider whether to seek the death penalty and will consult with Samantha's mother and Avila's defense attorney before making his decision.

Avila is scheduled to be arraigned today in a Santa Ana courtroom on charges of abducting, sexually assaulting and strangling the girl.

"This is a very cruel wake-up call," said a tearful Hilda Nowak, 41, of Orange, one of hundreds who visited Samantha's memorial Sunday. "I have girls and they're definitely afraid. They used to go out and play in the neighborhood and now they're overly cautious."

Nowak's 13-year-old daughter, Andrea, said she had helped wash cars to raise money for the family.

"I'm glad we came here," Andrea said. "It just shows that a lot of people who never really knew Samantha still care."

As tearful visitors walked past the memorial tables, Robin Jacobs, 30, removed wilted flowers from the display and her 13-year-old daughter, Hannah, scraped candle wax from the sidewalk.

Jacobs, who lives in the same complex and helped set up the display, said she and other residents have been awe-struck by the turnout.

"I've never seen anything like this," Jacobs said.

While Samantha's family have secluded themselves since learning of her death Tuesday, Samantha's mother has visited the memorial each evening, reading notes and taking some offerings back to her apartment, Jacobs said. Items not kept by the family will be donated to children's hospitals and other charities, she said.

Neighbors say maintenance of the memorial has been taxing.

"People here are still scared, and there's so many strangers coming here now," Jacobs said. "We're going to bed with this and waking up with this. It's just physically and mentally exhausting."

*

Times staff writer Jeff Gottlieb and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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