Time is Crucial in Hunt for Girl's Killer - Clues Pour In


COSTA MESA, Calif. — Authorities pulled over dozens of men in green cars, interviewed convicted sex offenders and fielded more than 1,000 calls from across the country as they worked yesterday to arrest the killer of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion.

In a day marked by high anxiety, false alarms and erroneous arrest reports, the FBI and Orange County Sheriff's Department deployed 400 officers across California but said they don't know who is responsible for the kidnapping and murder. Detectives focused most seriously on a group of potential suspects — many of them registered sex offenders — who were being questioned.

Speed is crucial, detectives said, because an FBI profile of the killer concluded he might kill again soon. Based on the profile, Sheriff Michael Carona said he believes the man is in Southern California and may live, work or have family in Orange County.

The dragnet is so massive that authorities are using an FBI tracking system designed to investigate domestic terrorism. The system consists of a phone bank that uses a computer program to set priorities in handling the tips.

False reports circulated throughout the day that the killer had been arrested or had attacked again. Around noon, police converged on a Costa Mesa neighborhood where a 9-year-old boy who later admitted he had lied claimed a man tried to abduct him outside his house. An hour earlier, California Highway Patrol officers in Fresno arrested a man driving a car similar to the suspected killer's. Investigators stopped short of calling him a suspect.

The false reports frustrated investigators. "When the media puts out that an arrest has been made, we see a marked decrease in the number of tips that come in, which have been very, very important to us," Carona said.

Officials urged the public to keep calling. Authorities interviewed up to 50 people, arresting some on unrelated charges and outstanding warrants.

"I have worked a number of these cases, and I haven't seen the kind of public response nationally that I have seen in this one," said FBI Special Agent Randy Aden, supervisor of the Los Angeles bureau's Crimes Against Children Task Force. "This individual does not just have to worry about law enforcement trying to find him. The public is out there, and they are watching."

Samantha was snatched Monday night from outside her condominium in the northern Orange County city of Stanton. Detectives believe the kidnapper held Samantha for several hours before sexually assaulting and asphyxiating her Tuesday.

Officials suggested the girl fought back, scratching her attacker's face and arms.

Her body was found in the open off a mountain road in Cleveland National Forest, posed in such a way that the FBI believes it amounted to a warning that he would strike again.

The assailant is described as a Hispanic man with slicked-back black hair and a mustache who was driving a green car, possibly a Honda or an Acura.

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