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Murder Case Files to Be Opened

Judge's order will unseal search warrants and other material used against the man accused of killing 5-year-old Samantha Runnion.

August 26, 2003|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

An Orange County judge on Monday ordered the release of search warrants and other documents believed to outline the evidence against a Lake Elsinore man accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering 5-year-old Samantha Runnion.

But Judge William R. Froeberg said that some of the material -- including the position in which Samantha's body was discovered, the accused killer's statements to police, and names and addresses of witnesses -- is too incendiary to be made public.

The ruling marks the first time court documents or evidence have been released since last summer's arrest of Alejandro Avila, 28.

Avila was arrested several days after the girl was kidnapped as she played outside her home in Stanton.

Assistant Public Defender Denise Gragg was seeking to keep sealed the search warrants and other evidence in the court files, about 100 pages of material.

Froeberg said that most of the evidence Gragg was seeking to keep sealed had already become public and that there was no justification for keeping the material confidential.

But Froeberg agreed that certain information could prove inflammatory or prejudicial and should remain sealed to protect Avila's right to a fair trial.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys met in Froeberg's chambers Monday to negotiate the specific information that should be left sealed. The defense agreed to provide the court with edited versions of the material by Friday.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said the information to be released amounted to "little or nothing in there that you don't already know."

Samantha was playing with a friend at her Stanton condominium complex July 15, 2002, when she was forced into the car of a stranger, who approached the children and asked for help finding a lost puppy.

Her body was found the next day in the Cleveland National Forest. Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona said the body was positioned in a certain way that investigators took as a threat that the killer intended to commit more crimes.

Investigators closed in on Avila later that same week. Several tipsters told police he resembled the man portrayed in a police sketch drawn with the help of Samantha's playmate. One tipster reported that Samantha lived in the same complex as two daughters of a former girlfriend, one of whom Avila was accused of molesting. Avila was acquitted in that case.

Included in the material that Froeberg agreed to keep sealed are police reports from Avila's prior case.

Avila has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His trial is set for January. Rackauckas is seeking the death penalty.

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