YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Orange County

Carona Formed a Posse With a Plea

Crime: O.C. sheriff went high-profile to beseech the public for tips in girl's killing.


There was no playbook for dealing with the public, no secret list of do's and don'ts squirreled away in a drawer just in case a 5-year-old girl was kidnapped, sexually abused and murdered.

So Michael S. Carona, only a few months from the end of his first four-year term as Orange County sheriff, made up the playbook himself last week, using personal appearances to organize "a modern-day posse" of investigators, the media and the public in a desperate hunt for a little girl, then for her killer.

In a whirlwind week that began with the snatching of Samantha Runnion from a Stanton condominium complex and ended with the arrest of Alejandro Avila, Carona earned high praise--and a lengthy ovation as he rose to speak Wednesday at a memorial service for Samantha at Garden Grove's Crystal Cathedral.

"I can tell you that was a real humbling experience," Carona told the crowd after turning away to compose himself. "It's been very embarrassing to me to hear the words of thanks that come from Orange County and in California and across the nation.... We didn't know the world was watching."

Yet it was Carona's savvy management of the media that helped rivet the nation's attention as he worked behind the scenes to draw together traditionally turf-conscious law-enforcement agencies--including the beleaguered Federal Bureau of Investigation--into a cooperative venture driven to flush out Samantha's killer.

It was a highly personalized effort in which Carona's emotions seemed to bubble just below the surface as the sheriff beseeched the public to help, and addressed Samantha's killer directly, both before Avila emerged as a suspect and after his arrest.

"When I told you that we would hunt you down, wherever you were, arrest you and bring you to justice, if you thought for one minute that I was joking, that we were joking, tonight you know that we were deadly serious," Carona said.

But Carona also drew sharp criticism for issuing a public warning based on a speculative FBI profile that a serial killer might be roaming Southern California.

"I was astonished and surprised" by that blunt warning, said James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston. "There was no evidence the person had done it before. From what I can tell, no other cases have been linked.... This guy [Carona] seems to be interested in parading on television shows."

Carona, though, said the "parading" was part of a quickly hatched strategy to do whatever was needed to saturate the media with images of Samantha and the sketches of her suspected killer.

The plan: to create what Carona called a "modern-day posse" that could cover exponentially more turf than could investigators assigned to the case.

"It was a high-risk gamble, no doubt about it," Carona said. "It was a race against time."

All major law-enforcement departments have set operating standards for handling major crimes.

Where Carona veered into uncharted waters was bridging the usual information gap between an investigation and the media, and to issue dramatic and personal appeals for help instead of letting the department's official spokesman, Jim Amormino, do the talking.

"It's a different visual impact for citizens when their sheriff says, 'I need your help' [instead of] a guy in a suit saying, 'The sheriff needs your help,' " Carona said during an interview in his Santa Ana office next to the jail holding Avila, 27. "We used the media to let the public know what we had, and that we needed the public's help."

Carona held 3:30 a.m. press conferences to accommodate network news shows based in New York City. He appeared live on CNN, Fox News and other networks, and made himself available to just about any journalist who would talk to him--all part of a campaign to extend the search.

"I was talking to Southern California and residents of California" through the national media, Carona said, "because that's where I thought he was."

The payoff came in phoned-in tips directing investigators to Avila, shortening the time it would have taken to focus on the Lake Elsinore assembly-line worker based on forensic evidence left at the scene, Carona said.

Avila has denied he was involved in what court records described as two sexual assaults and the strangulation of Samantha. Avila is to be arraigned next month on charges of kidnapping, sexual assault and murder.

During the manhunt, Carona remained poised and intense in press conferences and interviews. At times pugnacious, he generally exuded the kind of calmness that can reassure a jittery public--even as he speculated about a possible serial killer and urged people to call police about any suspicions they had about others.

Carona quickly became the public face of the investigation for a nation haunted by the prospect of a sexual predator willing to kill, and struck numb by the beatific smile of a now-dead little girl.

Los Angeles Times Articles