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Arrest made in California girl's slaying

| Saturday, July 20, 2002

STANTON, Calif. — A factory worker acquitted of molesting two girls two years ago was arrested Friday in connection with the slaying of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, the youngster whose abduction sent a chill across Southern California.

Alejandro Avila, 27, was taken into custody at his mother's apartment in Lake Elsinore, about 50 miles from Stanton and about 10 miles from where the body was found.

"I am 100 percent certain that Mr. Avila is the man who kidnapped and murdered Samantha Runnion," Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona said during a news conference yesterday about eight hours after announcing the arrest.

The sheriff credited the speedy arrest to solid forensic and scientific investigation as well as tips from the public and the media's work in spreading news of the abduction and the suspect's description.

No charges were immediately announced against Avila but Carona said the case was "ready to be handed over to the district attorney's office."

An acquaintance said Avila was familiar with Samantha's apartment complex because he used to visit someone there a few years ago, before the Runnions moved in.

Samantha was playing with a friend 50 yards from her front door Monday evening when she was dragged kicking and screaming into the light green car of a man who had asked for help in finding his puppy.

Before his arrest, Avila denied any involvement in the slaying during an interview with the Los Angeles Times and said he told detectives that he was at a mall when Samantha was kidnapped.

He said detectives told him they had found fibers on the body they considered key evidence.

Avila's mother, Adelina Avila, said her apartment was searched by authorities late Thursday.

"I don't think my son did anything, but I notice he is cooperating," she said. "He hasn't been through this before so he doesn't know what's going on. He doesn't have a record."

Two years ago, Avila was charged with molesting two girls under 14 but was acquitted by a jury, Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Paul Dickerson said. He said he did not have details of the case.

Emeline Ricalde, the manager of the low-income housing complex where the Avilas live, said she saw Avila inspecting a light green car Tuesday.

"He was walking around it and looking at it," she said. "I thought maybe he was trying to steal it."

She said she later learned it was Avila's car.

Lewis Davis, the foster brother of Avila's ex-girlfriend, said Avila had visited Samantha's neighborhood in Stanton on several occasions in 1998-99. He said Avila was visiting his girlfriend's daughter, who happened to live in the same complex where the Runnion family now lives.

Davis said his sister and Avila broke off their relationship in 1999. The Runnions moved to the complex last year, in part to provide a safer place for their daughter.

Samantha's nude body was discovered Tuesday on the edge of a forest, along a highway that connects Lake Elsinore with the suburban communities of Orange County, including Stanton. Authorities said she had been sexually assaulted and suffocated.

Avila has worked since September as an assembler at the Temecula plant of Guidant Corp., which makes pacemakers and similar medical devices. A spokesman said the company was cooperating with investigators.

The arrest was announced after authorities released the 911 tape of the anguished man reporting that he had found Samantha's body.

"I am so scared. It was a little kid. I'm sorry, but I have a 3-year-old son," said the caller, who identified himself as Justin. "It was a baby. I think it might have been the little girl who has been on the news."

In Lake Elsinore, Brianna Barber, 26, stood on her patio watching her 2-year-old child play a short distance from the Avilas' apartment.

"It boggles my mind. I really can't believe he lived right here," Barber said.

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