Murder of Samantha Runnion

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Samantha Runnion
Born Samantha Bree Runnion
(1996-07-26)July 26, 1996
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died July 15, 2002(2002-07-15) (aged 5)
Cleveland National Forest, Riverside County, California, U.S.[citation needed]
Cause of death Homicide by asphyxiation
Known for Murder victim
Parent(s) Derek Jackson (father)
Erin Runnion (mother)

Samantha Bree Runnion (July 26, 1996 – July 15, 2002) was a five-year-old American murder victim.[1] She was born in Boston, Massachusetts on July 26, 1996, and her family were residents of Stanton, California.

Kidnapping and murder[edit]

Samantha Runnion was abducted from her front yard on July 15, 2002.[2] She was playing a board game with her friend Sarah Ahn when a man came up to her and told her he had lost his dog and needed help finding it. After Samantha talked to the man for a minute, he grabbed her. While the man was forcing her into his car, she screamed to her friend "Help me! Tell my grandma!" before the man drove away taking Samantha with him. Sarah immediately told Samantha's mother Erin what happened and the search for Samantha began. Despite Sarah's age, she was able to describe in detail to police the kidnapper's appearance and the car he was driving. A day later, Samantha's nude body was found by a passerby in Cleveland National Forest 50 miles to the south.[1][3][4] An autopsy found that she was sexually assaulted and had died of manual asphyxiation. As she had fought her attacker, a sample of his DNA was found under her fingernail. Police described the killer as "extremely sloppy" and that he had left behind "mountains of physical evidence connecting him to the crime".

The suspect, a Lake Elsinore, California, man named Alejandro Avila, was convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances in May 2005. His DNA was found on Samantha's body, and her DNA was found in his car. He was arrested three days after the abduction. Avila had previously been to the condominium complex where Samantha lived, because his ex-girlfriend resided there: he had been previously acquitted of molesting her daughter and niece. On May 16, 2005, the jury returned a verdict of death. On July 22, Avila was formally sentenced to death. He is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison on death row.[5]

Among other evidence, police reported finding child pornography on Avila's laptop computer and an examination of his credit cards showed that he had used them to book a motel room on the day of the murder, where it was believed that Samantha was killed. Avila's public defender argued during the trial that it was impossible for him to have kidnapped the girl, abused, murdered, and then dumped her body 50 miles away in the course of one day as the prosecution believed.

Her kidnapping and murder occurred during the trial in San Diego of David Westerfield, accused of the kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam. This led to fears that Samantha's case could affect Westerfield's trial, as media coverage about Samantha was heavy and the cases were similar in several ways.[6] The judge in the Westerfield case told the jury, which was not sequestered, not to read or watch any news reports about Samantha, but added that Samantha's case was not similar in any way to Danielle’s.[7]

Joyful Child Foundation[edit]

The Joyful Child Foundation was established in 2002 by the Runnion family after Samantha's murder. Its first initiative was "Samantha's Pride" which aims to facilitate the establishment of child watch programs in communities across the US. As at the end of 2004, 51 programs had been established concentrated in the Orange County, California area of southern California. The California Conservatory of the Arts sponsored a group called the Kids Next Door who recorded a fundraising Christmas album at the end of 2004 with funds going to the Joyful Child Foundation.

In addition to funding the "Samantha's Pride" initiative, the Joyful Child Foundation will use donations to

  • fund children's creative writing and artistic programs; and
  • fund nonprofit organizations that seek to prevent child abuse and abduction; and
  • research into predator behavior and recidivism.


  1. ^ a b "truTV - Reality TV - Comedy". truTV. 
  2. ^ NewsActive3 (3 October 2015). "KTLA 10pm News, July 15, 2002" – via YouTube. 
  3. ^ Montaldo, Charles. “911 Call Transcript - Finding Samantha Runnion's Body," Guide. Retrieved on April 1, 2013.
  4. ^ Bragg, Rick. “Man Arrested in California Case Of Child's Abduction and Killing," The New York Times, July 20, 2002. Retrieved on April 1, 2013.
  5. ^ Division of Adult Operations (31 December 2008). "Death Row Tracking System Condemned Inmate List (Secure)". 13 August 2009. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Archived from the original (.PDF) on 2010-08-09. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  6. ^ Green, Kristen. “New case prompts concerns for jurors – Experts: Coverage probably had effect," San Diego Union-Tribune, July 21, 2002. Retrieved on March 30, 2013.
  7. ^ Dillon, Jeff. “Prosecution witness challenges findings of defense 'bug expert'," San Diego Union-Tribune, July 30, 2002. Retrieved on March 30, 2013.

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