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Alejandro Avila Arrested in Samantha Runnion Case

Aired July 19, 2002 - 13:30   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, if you are just tuning into CNN, incredible news out of Orange County, California, news that no doubt many of you have been waiting to hear. Many people, especially in the community of Orange County, California. The sheriff, Mike Carona, from Orange County came out to say they made an arrest in connection with the kidnap and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, that beautiful 5-year-old girl, who for the past few days we have had to report on the discovery of her body, brutally, sexually abused, and left on the side of the road.

And you just were looking at the picture. The man that has been arrested, 27-year-old Alejandro Avila. We are told he fits the description. As a matter of fact, if you look at his picture here, and then you see the sketch that Samantha Runnion's playmate, the information that led to this sketch, from the playmate of Samantha Runnion, look at the correlation. it's eerily similar, but this man is in police custody, has been arrested in connection with the murder of this little girl.

Very interesting news conference. If you saw it, you know. If you missed it, the sheriff came forward and made this announcement just after listening to the 911 call-in tape.


SHERIFF MICHAEL CARONA, ORANGE COUNTY, CALIFORNIA: At 9:55 this morning, we have made an arrest in connection with this case. At 9:55 this morning, members of the investigative team arrested Alejandro Avila, date of birth, 3-13-75, 27-year-old male, 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, brown hair, brown eyes.


PHILLIPS: Bringing Lewis Hennessy back in, former D.C. homicide detective. He joins us this morning since we received this news.

OK, Lewis, you obviously, former homicide detective, you have covered a number of murder cases. Explain to us, please, if indeed this is the man, Alejandro Avila, explain the mindset after person like this.

W. LOUIS HENNESSY, FMR. HOMICIDE INVESTIGATOR: Well, it's kind of difficult to tell. Everybody is different. But I think what the police are probably trying to do right now, is they are probably trying to put a timeline together on this guy, and try to see if he may be linked to other cases as well. Obviously, the number one case at this point in time is the case of the young lady, Samantha, that they found. But he may also be good for some other cases. And I'm sure they are trying to get their cases as tight as they can on the initial case, and they continue to work on it, to see if he could potentially be related to something else.

A lot of these guys do this repeatedly, and people are creatures of habit. So that's something to watch closely the next few days, next few months probably.

PHILLIPS: All pedophiles, though, they are not all murders, are they?

HENNESSY: No, they are not. Everybody is different. To lump them all together in one category is unfair. But people do tend to repeat acts that they get gratification from. And some people believe that pedophiles do get gratification from inflicting pain or death on their victims.

PHILLIPS: So here is a man, if indeed this is the man that murdered 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, the body is found not far from where he is living. You would think that he would have taken off. Isn't it unusual for someone who has committed a murder like this to stay so close to where it happened, to be walking around and not change his or her appearance?

HENNESSY: Well, what I find unusual is that he went 75 miles to make the abduction. I think that's highly unusual for an abduction to occur in one spot and the body to be recovered such a distance away. People are going to stay in areas that they are familiar with, and I'm sure one of the things the police are looking at closely now is what ties and what affiliations he had in the area of the abduction, because that may help answer a lot of these questions.

PHILLIPS: The forensic evidence that they are studying on the body and in the area, what type of forensic evidence are we talking about? The sheriff has come out and said there is lots of it, obviously. Tell us what they are looking at and what they are studying.

HENNESSY: It's hard it tell. One would have to assume they are probably looking at potentially blood, transferred fibers, potentially some type of seminal fluids, maybe saliva, possibly bite marks. It's endless to what could potentially be there. But I guarantee you, they will be looking very hard at this.

PHILLIPS: Louis, how do you contain your rage in cases like this?

HENNESSY: In some instances, it's not easy. But you have to kind of understand that you are a professional, and just as a doctor would be treating that young lady, if she had survived her wounds and came into the hospital, he has a job to do, and regardless of what happened and how it happened, he has a job to do, just like the police do. Police are professionals, and they, in some instances, have a tough time containing their rage. But they have to in order to be objective and be thorough.

PHILLIPS: Is it harder when it is a child, especially as a little girl as precious as Samantha Runnion?

HENNESSY: I think that child cases always strike a nerve with any human being. Just children are so vulnerable and they're so precious. And it's so unnatural to have one attacked, that I think it is a little more difficult. But it seems as though they have done a good job in this case.

PHILLIPS: So you say they will be looking at a time line on Alejandro Avila. Tell me how they would do that. Are they going to go back and trace where he's been, where's he's been working. What he has done for a year, two years, three years. How does that work?

HENNESSY: I suspect that they are doing that as we speak. They probably have got a team of detectives that are going back to see where he's worked, where he's lived, where he's hung out, who his associates have been in different areas, for the last -- probably as far back as they can go, to try determine if there is other unsolved cases or other offenses that he may be responsible for.

PHILLIPS: Are you surprised his mother opened up the door and started talking to reporters?

HENNESSY: No, not really. Unfortunately, the families are these perpetrators are victims in many instances as well. They don't understand that their loved ones are involved in this type of heinous act, and they have no understanding of their complicity.

PHILLIPS: All right, Louis Hennessy, once again, we would like to ask to you stand by, stay with us, as this story unravel, as we get more information.

we will bring our Rusty Dornin back in, who's live on the scene.

Rusty, why don't you sort of recap where we are, and where we stand and talk about, I guess, pretty much how amazing this press conference was, definitely unusual for you, for me, for you'll of us here. It was done in a very unusual way.

RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Very unusual. And as I said, Kyra, we have been trying to press the sheriff's department all morning to find out more information on this man, Alejandro Avila, and they would not tell us anything. They just kept saying that this press conference at 10:00, this press conference at 10:00 Pacific, you know, they would talk about something, and I guess we thought we would all be pressing him and hammering him with questions about the suspect. Turns out he wouldn't answer one question, played a very unusual tape of a man who discovered Samantha Runnion's body, very just heart-wrenching 911 call by a man who also had a 3-year-old daughter, and they played that, which was unusual. And it wasn't until after that that they ended up announcing that they had arrested this man, only less than -- you know, less than 10 minutes before he had made the announcement. It was five minutes to 10:00 when apparently the investigators did arrest him. Now the interesting thing is, they talked long, they detained people for questioning. This man was detained. His mother said that they had taken him to a hotel in Orange County, because they kept saying, there were no arrests, no one was in custody. Apparently, this man was taken to some hotel in Orange County and kept there until they figured out they had enough evidence to make an arrest, but they didn't want to make any kind of indication they were pinning this on anyone until they were absolutely sure.

But he kept stressing all morning about the amount of forensic evidence, as you know, several experts have talked about, whether that is hair fibers, or blood or some kind of semen; there is definitely enough here that they are feeling very confident, because the sheriff, even though he wouldn't pinpoint this suspect this morning, he has been confident all morning long, saying that they were narrowing this down and that they knew -- that they felt like they knew they had Samantha's killer under detention that point.

So very unusual. It's also a very unusual scene here, because some of the neighbors have been coming by, just to hear what's going on. They even brought their kids, you know, wanting them to know what's going on, because there's been a lot of fear in this neighborhood since this happened.

PHILLIPS: So still at this point, even though there is a suspect in custody, they have made an arrest in connection, this Alejandro Avila, how is -- can you get a sense around you from the community? Are they feeling a little relieved? Have you heard anything yet? Have you seen people gathered to the area? Are there a lot of community members who have been hanging out at the press conferences, trying to stay up on the latest developments, Rusty?

DORNIN: As you know, I have been standing in front of those cameras pretty much since the press conference, but folks have been coming here all along during the press conferences, and right after, even bringing their children, and saying, yes, there is a great amount of relief. But still, Kyra, remember this is Orange County, this is where Disneyland is, this is where Knoxberry Farm is. This is where families come for all-American fun. This is a place people want it feel safe that their children can play in the front yard, so this was a horrible thing to happen, that devastated a community and brought up fears that people really hadn't had before.

So this is going to have obviously an impact for a very long time. But people are of course very relieved that someone has been caught quickly. This case moved along all along this week at a very rapid pace.

PHILLIPS: How is Samantha Runnion's family doing? Grandmother, mother? I know we've interviewed the father in Massachusetts. Since the last time you have spoken to or received information on the family, how are they doing, and how are they involved right now?

DORNIN: Well, only contact we'd had over the last 24 hours since the father spoke in Massachusetts, Derek Jackson -- he did talk about obviously how devastated he was. The mother has remained in seclusion here. She hasn't spoken to anyone about this. The sheriff did say they are holding up as well as can be expected in a case like this. But I imagine she is also very relieved that at least, there is any kind of closure in a case like this. Brings up some measure of relief. Obviously it doesn't bring her child back, though.

PHILLIPS: Understandably. Rusty Dornin, live on the scene there. If you are just joining us, once again, an arrest made in the kidnap, and murder and rape of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, Alejandro Avila, 27 years old, 6 foot male, 200 pounds, brown hair, brown eyes. Amazing comparison with the picture of this man, who's been arrested, and the sketch given to police not long after the abduction of little Samantha Runnion. Her playmate, who was with her out there in the apartment complex where grandma was baby sitting, this is the sketch that her playmate had given when the suspected approached the two girls, saying he had lost his puppy. It wasn't long after that, little Samantha Runnion was lured into a car, taken away, kicking and screaming.

Now police have made an arrest, this man right here, Alejandro Avila, age 27. He lives not far from where the body was found. Little Samantha Runnion was found about 75 miles from the area where she was abducted. And when police went to arrest Alejandro Avila, he was living in an apartment complex not far from where the body was found.

We had an interview with the apartment manager of that complex, that noticed he was acting very suspicious. He was pacing around and around and around a light green Thunderbird. And other people had noticed too, his suspicious behavior, while one thing led to another. Police had been in contact with the Avila family. And next thing you know, Alejandro Avila had been arrested in connection with the disappearance, kidnapping, murder and rape of little 5-year-old Samantha Runnion.

Let's bring in Louis Hennessy again, former D.C. homicide detective, Joining us in Washington.

I'm amazed at how quickly this happened. Is it surprising to you, Louis?

I know I've dealt with homicide detectives before in cases that just take years in finding a killer, and this just happened so quickly.

HENNESSY: Well, obviously, they were very fortunate and they were able to get some information early on in the investigation that pointed them in the right direction. Sometimes the media attention really helps in a case, but at other times, it can hurt, as the sheriff indicated earlier. They had 2,000 leads in this case, and all of those leads need to be evaluated, and pursued in some way, shape or form. Apparently early on in the investigation, they got the right tip, and they followed this one up, and it proved fruitful at an early point in the case.

PHILLIPS: How do you know when a tip is the right one? How do you decipher? Because I know you get so many phone calls, and letters and e-mails, you name it. How do you know when it is a solid tip?

HENNESSY: What the police look for is information that they have either gathered from, in this instance -- there was more than one crime scene. But information that they have gathered from either the scene of the abduction or scene of the recovery of the body, or any evidence that is recovered at any of the locations, which is unknown to the general public, but is part after tip that is provided to the police. Then the police immediately recognized that this is potentially very good information, and they'll start prioritizing their case, their tips, and go after that one with a little more vigor and obviously a lot sooner.

PHILLIPS: When you were a homicide detective, did you solve most of your cases through tips through citizens?

HENNESSY: I would say we probably solved 90-95 percent of our cases with some cooperation with the community. Unfortunately, the police can't be everywhere. So it's the community that witnesses different events. Some of the events appear disjointed and don't even appear to be connected to a crime. But when they get to the police, and then we're able to put the puzzle together, to speak, they fit very nicely.

And, yes, the public is very responsible for overwhelming majority of arrests and convictions in murder cases.

PHILLIPS: Former D.C. homicide detective Louis Hennessy, thank you so much for sticking with us and continuing to give us insight on this breaking news story. Please, stay with us.

We're going to move back over to Rusty Dornin, who's live on the scene, where the sheriff had just made the announcement not long ago, that this man, Alejandro Avila, 27-year-old Hispanic male, has been arrested in connection to the kidnap, murder and rape of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion.

One question we've been asking, the pulse of the community. Are they relieved? Are they still concerned? Rusty Dornin has been speaking with community leaders. She joins us now live with more from there -- Rusty.

DORNIN: Well, Kyra, I think it is mixed. Folks have been gathering and coming here for these press conferences. We have with us Angie Alvarez and her 7-year-old daughter, Genesis Baltran (ph).

Are you feeling relieved to know that someone has been arrested in this case?

ANGIE ALVAREZ: To be honest with you, no, I don't feel any relief. I'm glad they found somebody, and maybe they can, you know, be able to pinpoint that it is him. But I feel scared still for the rest of the people out there always trying to harm your kids.

DORNIN: You are saying that you brought your daughter here for what reason. ALVAREZ: I brought her here to get a sense of what happened to that little girl. I want her to understand why I'm always telling her whenever we go somewhere that I have to hold her hand. I have to know exactly where she's at all the time. And she hates it. She gets mad at me. She says I don't like to go shopping with you, because you tell me I have to stand right there; I can't go nowhere, I can't see nothing, so I would rather stay home.

And -- but I want her to understand why I am like that to her.

DORNIN: Angie -- can you understand how your mom is telling you things like this? What are you going to do?

GENESIS BALTRAN (ph): I'm going to change my attitude.

DORNIN: How are you going to change that? What are you going do?

BALTRAN (ph): I'm going to listen to my mom and do what she tells me do.

DORNIN: OK, something that you never dreamed in this community.

ALVAREZ: I never thought it would happen so close to home. You always hear it happen somewhere else. You never think it is going to happen in your neighborhood. You always try look for the safest neighborhood, where your kids can play outside, and you get to know everybody. But still, you can't trust your neighbor; you know, you don't know who will hurt them.

DORNIN: Thank you very much for joining us, Angie Alvarez and her 7-year-old daughter Genesis Baltran, not relieved to find out that there has been an arrest in this case, still feeling like that just points out how dangerous, how unsafe that there are people out there like this that can snatch children in the middle of the day -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Truly a reflection on the world with which we live.

Rusty Dornin, thank you very much.

OK, I understand we have Don Casper on the phone with us now. He's the freelance photographer who shot that interview with Alejandro Avila's mother.

And, Don, can you hear me OK?


PHILLIPS: Very good. You know what,before we talk, maybe we can show a clip of that interview.

Eric, are we able to do that before we talk with Don? All right, let's take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ADELINA AVILA, MOTHER: He is not being charged. They are just investigating. He has a green card. But his card is Thunderbird.

CASPER: What were they looking for here?

AVILA: I don't know. Some type of evidence. They took a lot of stuff, I don't know. We don't know.

CASPER: What kind of stuff?

AVILA: Like, I had a serape on a rocking chair. They took that, because it as lot of hairs, and I told them it is the cat's hair. So they took it.

CASPER: Did they mention this little girl who was killed in the investigation?

AVILA: They gave me the search warrant, and it mentioned the little girl, yes. And I said, well, I don't think my son did it. But I was -- as long as he's cooperating. I don't have anything against that.

CASPER: You don't think your son would do something like that.

AVILA: No, no.

CASPER: Is that your son you are talking to now on the phone?

AVILA: Yes. Since he was detained -- he is detained for investigation, but he is not arrested. This is the first time I have talked to him.

CASPER: Where was he last Monday and Tuesday?

AVILA: Monday he was at the mall in Ontario. And Tuesday, he was -- I don't know, here with us. And then, he comes and goes. I just told him what I know.

QUESTION: What I don't understand is, why, ask him if I may, why did they put him in a hotel in Orange County?

AVILA: They want to know why they put you in a hotel.

Because he is not arrested.

CASPER: That is where he is staying?

AVILA: Because he is going to be there over the weekend. That's what they told me when they took the stuff.

CASPER: Where are they keeping him?

AVILA: In Orange County, in some kind of a hotel.

(END VIDEOTAPE) PHILLIPS: Adelina Avila is the mother of 27-year-old Alejandro Avila. This is the man who has been arrested in connection to the kidnap, murder and rape of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, a story that has pretty much shocked the nation, as we have been telling you about it,. for the past few days.

John Casper is freelance photographer that shot that interview. He is on the phone with us now.

John, kind of take us back. When did you decide to head over there? How did you know head over there? Kind of take us step by step.

CASPER: Well, Kyra, we of course tried it stay on top of this story, knowing that part of it is in Orange County, and part of it literally in our own backyard. And we got word that one of the local stations was out in the area, that something was about to break. So we headed down to lake Elsinore area, began looking for signs. It was a big area to look for. But we began looking for police helicopters, things like that. Eventually found something that pointed to the direction.

PHILLIPS: So you didn't know exactly where to go?

CASPER: No, we didn't. When things like this happen, word travels pretty quickly. You know, it is always ask people in the area. They know what's going on, and they always point the way for you.

PHILLIPS: So you knocked on the door, how did you finally come to the home of the Avila's?

CASPER: We followed a police helicopter that was over the area, and got their actually just in time as they were towing the car away. The car they towed away was not the much talked about green car; this was the white car, that had evidence stickers on the side, and they towed it on a flatbed trailer and towed it past us to take as evidence.

PHILLIPS: When you interviewed the mother, I heard you ask if she was on the phone with Alejandro. Was she on the phone that moment with her son?

CASPER: Yes, she was, as a matter of fact. She had been talking to us through the door, and didn't want to go on camera. And while she was talking us to, the phone ring, and she indicated that it was her son. I thought it was a bit unusual her son would be calling her from jail, because that's where we all assumed he would be. While this was taking place, another reporter inadvertently leaned on the door bell, and when that happened, she opened door to talk to us with phone if hand.

PHILLIPS: That's so bizarre.

What did you think about what she today say? Did she seem calm, nervous, confident that her son is innocent? CASPER: As a matter of fact, she did not seem very worried to me at all. A mother whose son was, you know, whose son will be going through something this traumatic, she didn't seem all that concerned. I didn't see any sign of tears. She didn't seem overly upset. And continued in a pretty conversational manner.

PHILLIPS: So she didn't let you in, and you didn't see inside the apartment and how this family lived.

CASPER: No. Later we did step in the front door where she showed us a photo of her son, which I thought, you know, for a mother who's trying to protect her son, I don't know why she would want to put his photo out there, but that was her choice, and she seemed fairly confident that he didn't have anything do with. She would relay questions to him on the phone that she had in her hand.

PHILLIPS: Was she asking him on the phone?

CASPER: Mostly like where are you hold, why do they have you there? Those are the questions we were asking she was relaying to him. Much of the conversation she had with him was in Spanish. and we couldn't keep up with that. So we began relaying the questions, and that's when we found out that he was not in jail, that he, in fact, was in a hotel. And we asked which hotel, and he asked somebody with him, what hotel am I in? Then the response came back, I can't tell you which hotel I'm in, I'm with some deputies here. I'm not free to leave, but I'm not under arrest.

PHILLIPS: Did you ask her about if he had a criminal past, ever committed a crime before, had been arrested, put in jail?

CASPER: At some point she did volunteer information that he had never -- something along the lines that he had never been to jail before, or never done anything wrong before. That's the information she volunteered at the time. That, of course, is probably going to be a subject of much scrutiny.

PHILLIPS: I'm sorry. I missed the last part of what you just said. I apologize.

CASPER: That of course will be a subject of something that will be quite closely looked at, is did he have anything prior?

PHILLIPS: Were there any brothers or sisters living at home? Was it just mom and Alejandro?

CASPER: Well, in the same apartment complex, his sister lives directly across from his mother, and we observed them taking a lot of evidence out of the sister's apartment. We don't know -- we didn't see what was taken oust mother's apartment, although she did indicate there was a serape and possibly some shoes that were taken out.

PHILLIPS: All right, John Casper, good job, I got tell you. Outstanding job getting that interview with the mother, Adelina Avila. It will be interesting to see whether that interview is used in other ways, if indeed Alejandro Avila is found to be the man that kidnapped and murdered 5-year-old Samantha Runnion. He has been arrested in connection with the case, 27-year-old male.

This is a picture of him right here. We are talking with John Casper, the man who got a picture of Alejandro and an interview with this man's mother, as he remains in police custody,




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