07/23/2002

Suspect in Girl's Murder is Charged but Defers Plea

by Jeff Adler, The Washington Post

LOS ANGELES - Appearing from jail on a closed-circuit television camera, Alejandro Avila was charged in an Orange County court today with the kidnapping and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion.

Runnion was abducted outside her condominium complex in Stanton, Calif., one week ago, and her naked body was found along a lonely highway last Tuesday afternoon. Authorities later said the curly-haired girl had been sexually assaulted and suffocated.

Although Avila has denied any involvement in the case, he did not enter a plea today. At the request of his public defender, his arraignment was continued until Aug. 9.

Avila, 27, also was charged with two counts of lewd acts with a child, including special circumstances that allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said he would talk with Runnion's family before deciding whether to pursue that course, but promised a stiff punishment.

"Anyone who commits an act like this in Orange County will either die in prison of natural causes or will be executed," he said. "Nothing that we say or do can bring Samantha back."

Rackauckas said that the evidence, which includes DNA samples, is "very, very compelling." But prosecutors are guarding their case against Avila, saying they do not want to give him any advantage by prejudicing potential jurors.

"What we want is justice for Samantha," said Susan Schroeder, an Orange County deputy district attorney.

During an interview today with ABC's "Good Morning America," the defendant's mother, Adelina Avila, said she was watching news coverage of the murder last week with her son and, "I said, 'They should get that person and tie him up alive and burn him.' "

"I never thought about my son doing this," she added. "And I hope that, with time, they find it's not - he's not - involved in this. But I'm just hoping."

Avila, who was acquitted of molesting two nine-year-old girls in 2001, has told investigators that he was shopping alone at a mall last Monday when Runnion was abducted.

Runnion was playing in front of her home with a friend when a man who had asked for help finding his dog suddenly snatched her up in his arms and dragged her into his light green car and sped away, leaving her playmate as the only witness.

After Samantha's body was found the next day, police initiated a frantic manhunt to find a suspect they were convinced would strike again. Based on a tip, police arrested Avila on Friday.

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