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Samantha Runnion

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Subject: Deaths in 2002, Joyful Child Foundation, Erica Pratt
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Samantha Runnion

Samantha Runnion
Born Samantha Bree Runnion
(1996-07-26)July 26, 1996
Boston, Massachusetts
Died July 15, 2002(2002-07-15) (aged 5)
Stanton, California
Cause of death Murdered
Nationality American
Citizenship United States
Known for Murder victim
Parents 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

Samantha Runnion was abducted from her front yard on July 15, 2002 by a man who told her he'd lost his dog and needed help finding it. The incident happened in full view of her friend Sarah Ahn, who was able to describe in detail to police the kidnapper's appearance and the car he was driving. A day later, her nude body was found by a passerby in Cleveland National Forest 50 miles to the south.[1][2][3] 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.[4]

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 Runnion met her fate. 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 of David Westerfield for the kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam. This led to fears that it would affect his trial, as media coverage of Samantha was inescapable due to her age and the brutality of the attack, and her mother blamed Avila’s previous jury for failing to convict him in his previous sexual abuse case.[5][6][7] The judge in the Westerfield case told the jury, which was not sequestered, that Samantha’s case was not similar in any way to Danielle’s. Yet both victims were prepubescent girls who lived in Southern California, not even 100 miles apart; both were kidnapped from traditionally safe places; both are believed to be victims of sexual assault; both bodies were found nude in deserted areas along a highway some miles from their homes; both were left on the ground as if they had been posed; and both cases fueled parents' fears about their children's safety and prompted debates on appropriate parenting.[8]

Joyful Child Foundation

The Joyful Child Foundation was established in her memory. The Joyful Child Foundation—In Memory of Samantha Runnion (TJCF) is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization founded in 2002 after the abduction, molestation and murder of five-year-old Samantha Runnion. TJCF is dedicated to raising awareness about child sexual abuse and abduction while facilitating proactive community organizing to give everyone an opportunity to participate in the national movement to stop violent sexual crimes against children.


External references

  • The Joyful Child Foundation
  • In memory of Samantha Runnion
  • Crime article on the Runnion case
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