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Thousands Share Grief for Samantha

Memorial: Throngs pack the Crystal Cathedral to mourn the slain 5-year-old.

July 25, 2002|H.G. REZA and MAI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They began arriving Wednesday three hours early to remember a child they felt they had come to know.

They came from around the corner and from a hundred miles away, interrupting commutes and vacations.

All to pay tribute to a 5-year-old most had never met.

"It was the picture. It was the picture," said Alex O'Campo over and over as he clutched his 6-year-old daughter outside the Crystal Cathedral.

They were among an estimated 3,000 people who packed the giant Garden Grove church for an evening memorial service for Samantha Runnion, the Stanton girl who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed last week. Sheriff's officials estimated another 2,000 spilled out the church doors and listened to the interdenominational service over loudspeakers.

"Your sympathy and love throughout have given my family tremendous strength," Samantha's mother, Erin Runnion, said to a suddenly hushed audience near the end of the hourlong nationally televised service. "We always knew that she had a gift for the world. But it never occurred to us that her greatness would be shared in her death."

The service featured a video presentation on Samantha's life, two children's choirs, a bagpiper and a mournful violin solo, "Edelweiss" from "The Sound of Music," performed by a friend of the family. Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim clerics joined the memorial, which was organized by the Crystal Cathedral and Westminster Memorial Park, where Samantha is to be buried.

"Samantha was all that was good in the world," said Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona, who sat next to Samantha's mother during the service and spoke during the memorial. "What happened to her was all that was evil in the world."

There were friends, family and neighbors of the Runnions from the quiet condominium complex where she was abducted July 15. There were law enforcement officers who frantically sought Samantha--and then turned to hunt down her killer when her body was discovered.

Most in the crowd, though, were strangers, people of all ethnic backgrounds and all ages, many with children in tow. People were drawn to the cathedral on a hot summer's night for the simple reason that they felt they had to be there.

"I've never been to a funeral for somebody I didn't even know," said Greg Harris of Aliso Viejo. Before coming to the service he drove past Samantha's condo complex--for reasons he can't entirely explain.

"It just happened," he said of his detour. "The fact that she did everything right, did everything that she had to do and this terrible thing still happened--that's what got to me.

"She was so small, so tiny. Just a baby."

Erin Runnion always warned her daughter to be careful of strangers. But her attacker was brazen, cruising up to her and a friend, asking for help finding a lost dog, then grabbing Samantha and carrying the girl screaming and kicking back to his car.

It took all of a minute.

"This terrible thing traumatized the entire United States," said Jaime Hernandez, 52, of Westminster, who brought his 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son to Wednesday's service.

Like others in the crowd, Hernandez said Samantha's death has been a wake-up call for parents. "How could your heart not feel the pain when you saw the mother pleading on television that she be returned alive?" Hernandez said. "My wife and I began crying when we saw that. We looked at each other. We were both thinking the same thing: That very well could have been one of [our] children."

High above the cathedral, a skywriting plane drew a heart, a cross and the letters "SR." Inside, Samantha lay in a small wooden casket topped with pink flowers. Pink flowers formed a broken heart on the stage. Pictures of her smiling face filled large-screen televisions.

Included in the printed program for the service was a picture that Samantha, who would have turned 6 last Friday, had drawn of an animal, a house and a woman with long hair.

"I love my family more than anybody in the hole wold," she wrote. "More then enyboody in the hole wold."

Many in the crowd echoed the words of speakers who said that Samantha had become part of everyone's family.

"I just felt obligated to come today," said O'Campo, 32, who had driven down from Oxnard. "I'm on vacation. But we felt that instead of going to Universal Studios, it was better to come to Samantha's service."

Marisa Williams, 31, and two friends arrived in Southern California a few days ago on vacation from Illinois.

They've already been to Universal Studios and did the tour of Hollywood stars' homes.

On Wednesday they found themselves at Samantha's service.

"She was everybody's little girl during those horrible days last week," said Williams, who watched the story unfold on television. "You don't have to have a daughter or even be a parent in order to be grief-stricken about what happened to Samantha."

Rosalie Lingle, 52, has a family--a big one. She drove from Moreno Valley with her daughter and two of her eight granddaughters to support the Runnions and to find closure for herself.

Lingle followed last week's news in every heartbreaking detail. In the course of five days, Samantha became a part of her life.

And a part of her family too.

"I have a grandchild who is also named Samantha, who is also 5 years old, whose birthday is this week and she also has brown curly hair," she said.

"Samantha became my granddaughter. She's our angel too."

Times staff writers Mike Anton and David Haldane contributed to this report.

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