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Children's Unsolved Murders Add Questions to the Pain

Crime: Fourteen kids in the state have been abducted and killed by strangers since 1991. Six cases remain open.

July 28, 2002|RAY F. HERNDON and JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

More than a decade has passed, but hardly a day goes by that Oceanside police Det. Sheila Potkonjak doesn't think about the 7-year-old girl whose photograph is tacked to the bulletin board in her office.

The Easter picture of Leticia Hernandez, holding a baby chick in her hands, is a constant reminder of the biggest case of the detective's career, an abduction and murder that remains unsolved.

"It never goes away," Potkonjak said. "You wonder what we could do differently or could have done differently to solve such cases."

Her questions are all the more painful now, days after Samantha Runnion was kidnapped from in front of her Orange County home and later killed. The Runnion investigation--like the high-profile case nine years ago of Polly Klaas in Petaluma--ended with a relatively quick arrest.

But many other cases of children abducted and murdered are not resolved. The television cameras and news helicopters clear out and detectives move on to other cases. Families--and the community--are left to go on without knowing who is responsible for the crime, and whether the killer lives among them.

The number of child abduction-murders by strangers is small; California police agencies have reported just 13 such crimes, aside from the Runnion case, since 1991 that involve victims 12 and younger. Half of those cases remain unsolved--including that of a Beaumont boy whose face still haunts a billboard five years after his death and that of a Chula Vista girl who was snatched in 1991 when answering a nighttime knock on her home's front door.

The posters are still plastered in windows of businesses on Beaumont's main street. They show a photo of smiling, fresh-faced Anthony Martinez, 10. Next to it is a drawing of an anonymous, mustached man 25 to 35 years old, wearing a dark baseball cap.

This is the man who kidnapped Anthony on April 4, 1997, and killed him--a man who has never been found.

Beaumont is a desert town of 12,000 people, known for its cherry festival and antique stores that pull people off the highway on their way to Palm Springs.

The town is small enough that nearly everyone has some emotional tie to the murder. Parents know their kids played Little League with Anthony or went to the same school or they see his parents downtown. Maybe they were among the hundreds who took part in the search, from the time he was kidnapped at knifepoint until that day two weeks later when his body was found buried under rocks near Indio.

Anthony's murder is always just below the surface in Beaumont. When a child like Samantha is killed, the memories burst through. Erin Ohler, owner of the Country Junction restaurant on 6th Street, loses the battle to hold back tears as she talks about Anthony. The boy was kidnapped just a couple of blocks away.

"When [Alejandro Avila] was arrested for killing Samantha, people thought, 'Yes,' " Ohler said, banging her fist on the table. "They were really hoping this was the same guy."

But when detectives announced that Avila was not a suspect in Anthony's murder, the hopefulness in the town turned back to despair and apprehension.

"It brought everything back, and [we] are angry," Ohler said. "There is no closure for this family. And this guy is not caught."

At the city-run day camp, counselors have been ordered to keep a closer watch on the campers. Now, when kids use the bathroom at the park or at the swimming pool, counselors must go inside the restroom with them, instead of waiting outside or watching from a distance.

Things are worst, of course, for Anthony's family. His photos decorate the house, along with those of his brother Marcos, 11, and sister Monica, 9. He was a happy baby, posed to look as if he were reading the newspaper; a smiling fifth-grader; and the kid with the mischievous smile, just waiting to get into trouble.

When another child is kidnapped, the calls start coming from friends, relatives and reporters.

"It brings back all those feelings," said Anthony's stepfather, Ernesto Medina, who raised the boy as a son from age 1. "It tears you apart all over again. You feel so bad."

Struggling to Carry On

In the four years since her little boy was murdered, Melissa Michael has often asked herself whether she has the strength to go on.

Isaiver Teague, 4, of Oakland was visiting his father in Fresno when he and his 16-year-old aunt disappeared while walking to a nearby phone booth in July 1998. They were going to call Isaiver's grandmother. They never made the call.

A man walking through a field two miles away came across their skeletons four months later. During that time, dogs had found the bones and spread them over a half-mile area. The bodies were decomposed so badly that police can't tell how they were killed. "Homicidal violence of undetermined nature," is what the death certificates say.

Michael is 24, a child herself when Isaiver was born in 1994. "I used to see things like this happen on TV and think it will never happen to me," she said, "and it did happen to me."

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