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Orange County Authorities Hold Press Conference on Runnion Case

Aired July 19, 2002 - 21:03   ET


LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": Tonight, And the sheriff is now, we are told, approaching floor, so let's go right to him for the press conference. Here is Sheriff Carona.

SHERIFF MIKE CARONA, ORANGE COUNTY, CALIFORNIA: Thank you very much for hanging with us. The members of the -- members of the media, the public, if this were the Old West, you'd all be in the sheriff's posse. You'd all be deputy sheriffs, because you brought this one home, and I want to say thank you, straight up, to all of you who have been out here every single day and for the members of the public who kept calling and giving us leads, which eventually is what made this case.

I didn't get a chance to do the question-and-answer with you this morning. We needed to finalize where we were in this investigation. I have some prepared remarks, and we have a couple of speakers. And then I'll be more than happy to spend as much time as you'd like answering questions that you might have.

At this morning's press conference, we gave you information that we had arrested a suspect in the kidnapping and murder of Samantha Runnion. Alejandro Avila, a production line supervisor, age 27, of Lake Elsinore. Based upon the collaborative efforts of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, we were able to pull together what is, I believe, a quintessential picture of the way law enforcement should act and react to keep our community safe and to bring people to justice.

I'd like to personally thank some of my colleagues who have been with me day in and day out through this process. From the FBI, you have been able to talk with him and listen to him, Richard Garcia. From the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, Sheriff-elect Bob Doyle. From the California Highway Patrol, Commissioner Spike Helmick was going to be here. He was unable to get down here. And in his stead, Assistant Chief Skip Carter is representing the California Highway Patrol. The Orange County district attorney's office, Orange County probation for the countless hours as they worked through their sexual registry. The California State Parole Office, as they also deployed parole officers into the field, looking for sexual registrants. All the local law enforcement agencies throughout Orange County, every single one of them who donated personnel to this manhunt. To the people that are behind the scenes that you haven't had a chance to meet or talk to, but frankly kept us all going 24 hours a day. The Red Cross, who fed us and made sure the coffee was always there. T.I.P., the Trauma Intervention Program, who stayed with Sarah to make sure that she was safe and comforted. To Detective Mike Streed (ph) of the Orange Police Department, one of the first people that we engaged who did the composite that you have been passing around. It was very helpful in making an arrest in this case. To the city of Stanton, who stepped forward with a reward, council members and, of course, its mayor, Brian Donahue.

Despite all of this, and without the assistance of you, the media, and more importantly, the public, this case would not have been solved as quickly as it was. This arrest is a result of an incredible amount of tenacity and personal devotion on the part of talented, dedicated law enforcement professionals, combined with the concerned public and the most helpful media we've seen to date.

Let me share with you just a few details of this investigation. The Orange County Sheriff's Department was able to deploy deputies on the scene within four minutes of the 911 call when Samantha was abducted. A countywide broadcast was put out over the Red Channel within 10 minutes of that 911 call. A care alert, a child abduction regional emergency alert, was put out within one hour after the 911 phone call. A description of the suspect and his vehicle were broadcast by the media, also within one hour of our notification that Samantha had been abducted.

To date, over 60,000 hours of personnel time have been dedicated to this investigation, originally to deal with the kidnapping of Samantha Runnion, and afterward, to deal with the murder of Samantha Runnion.

Utilizing the best forensic techniques, the Orange County sheriff's crime lab, scientific procedures and investigative processes of not only local law enforcement, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation, we have confirmed that Alejandro Avila is our suspect in this case. We have therefore arrested Mr. Avila on suspicion of kidnapping, and for the murder of Samantha Runnion.

What is now most important is that we protect the integrity of this case for its eventual prosecution. As a result, many aspects of this investigation and evidence that we have confirmed cannot be discussed openly at this time.

We need to stress that this investigative process is ongoing, and we'll remain vigilant until we investigate all leads in reference to this case. Anyone who has additional information about Alejandro Avila or any other information regarding this case, however small, that it may be related to this case, please contact our information hotline at 714-890-4280. I can't stress enough our appreciation to the public for their patience and overwhelming support.

In the process of following every lead, and there were over 2,000 leads that came in, and in an attempt to reduce the risk to the public, it was necessary for many of us in law enforcement to make car stops, detentions, and other investigative contacts that may have inconvenienced some members of the public. We appreciate your understanding and we thank you for your support.

This case is now ready to be handed over to the Orange County District Attorney's Office, just four days, just four days after Samantha had been abducted. This serves as a testament to what can be done when law enforcement comes together, when walls were broken down, territorial imperatives set aside, when men and women stay focused on the prize. And in this case, the prize was making sure that no other child was injured and that the killer of Samantha Runnion was brought to justice.

I'd like to introduce now my colleague from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Richard Garcia.

RICHARD GARCIA, FBI: Thank you, sheriff.

You see before you representatives of various law enforcement agencies. But behind us are tremendous amount of men and women, professionals, who are dedicated to try to bring resolution to this crime. The cooperation that the FBI has enjoyed working with the other agencies here has been phenomenal. We utilized various investigative techniques. But one of the better techniques we have utilized is you, the public, engaging them, having you call in these tips. If it wasn't for the numerous tips that we have received, the information given to our investigators, and then gone out to try to see what we can dig up.

This cooperative effort not only with law enforcement, but with the public, cooperation in the media in this effort, brought resolution to this case. But having all these individuals out here, you got to have some sort of leadership in this location. Orange County Sheriff's Department initially has the call, initially has the jurisdiction and initially was running this investigation. Various jurisdictions were crossed, Riverside County, et cetera, FBI, other agencies were all here to help the Orange County Sheriff's Department. Anything we can do to make this thing work.

But I have to commend the leadership of Sheriff Mike. I just -- we went through a lot of different things this week. There's a lot of hours we spent up. You know, Mike Carona was just there all the time figuring out who is going to stay awake either for the next press conference or for the next briefing we're going to have in the investigative effort.

But this thing also worked as far as the agents and the police officers and the detectives involved here. They would see us here working together. And, you know, what we have here, we just have basically one law enforcement agency with a common goal: bring resolution to this case. Mike, I want to thank you. This is the best I've ever seen in the 28 years in law enforcement that I've been. Thank you.


CARONA: The FBI has been fantastic to us. They brought resources to bear that most law enforcement agencies, locally or at the state level, don't have. When we asked to be able to access their profilers in Washington, D.C., the answer wasn't just yes, it was, when do you need them? They were willing to put them on a plane. But time was of the essence. We were able to take digital paragraphs of some of the forensic evidence that we had and transmit that to Washington, D.C. And the profiling began, and it helped us engage in this manhunt for Mr. Avila. The man who signed off on that is the assistant director of the FBI, Ron Ayden (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIAL: Thank you, sheriff.

First, to the parents and to the family of Samantha Runnion, on behalf of the entire FBI, our deepest sympathies in your terrible loss. Please know that we all share your grief. Second, to the community, to the public, as a sheriff, and Rich had said earlier, to the hundreds of people who have called offering information, offering their assistance, thank you. You know that the assistance you have offered and have provided has been critical to helping us resolve this case.

And finally, to the hundreds of men and women of law enforcement who, since Monday, have worked tirelessly, first in an attempt to rescue Samantha, and then in a determined effort to bring her killer to quick justice, thank you. You have our deepest gratitude and our deepest respect. Thank you.

CARONA: Another example of what happens when law enforcement starts thinking outside the box and we cooperate and how quickly we can all come together, my colleague in Riverside County, the sheriff- elect of Riverside County, Bob Doyle, placed a phone call, running from one executive briefing to another. And there was a need for us to be able to get our homicide team out to Riverside and actively work that crime scene so we could keep the pressure on and get the profile done, collect enough evidence to be able to make an arrest in this case.

And, again, Sheriff Doyle didn't blink an eye. It is very unusual in America for cops to allow other cops to come into their jurisdiction. Boundaries are broken down. Sheriff Doyle stepped forward in a big way. It was a leap of faith and it was a courageous decision. It was the right decision. I want to introduce my friend, Sheriff Bob Doyle.


First of all, I would like to ask all of you to continue to pray, support and assist Samantha's family. The burden of losing a child is never lifted. This is just one of many chapters as they continue on in their lives. So please continue to be with them.

Second, I think all of us, the media, the citizens of Orange County, Riverside County, and certainly law enforcement can feel a moment of pride for contributing to this situation as we continued day in and day out to pursue the suspect in this tragic situation. In my 28 years of law enforcement, I have never seen the cooperation from all those entities that occurred this week happen. And because of that, we have a suspect in custody. The media, the citizens, law enforcement, all played a part in that. And it shows you what can be done when we join forces in these types of situations.

The citizens of Orange County can be proud of their sheriff's department and the personnel that work here. And they can even be more proud of the leadership that Sheriff Mike Carona gives to the communities here in Orange County. He is my friend. He is my colleague. And I am very proud to be able to call him both of those. They have a good man here in Orange County.

I especially want to thank all of the law enforcement personnel who were on the ground day in and day out, pursuing these leads, both here in Orange County, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department employees and especially our homicide unit that assisted in Riverside County.

I want to again thank all of you for your participation in helping to solve this crime. Thank you.

CARONA: The city of Stanton was rocked by this tragedy, but they stepped forward in a big way. Mayor...

KING: We're expecting some Q&A from the reporters on the scene. We'll go back as soon as that occurs. We won't break for any commercial interruption.

You've already met Marc Klaas in San Francisco and Dr. John Deirmenjian in -- here Los Angeles.

In New York is Nancy Grace, the anchor for "Trial Heat" on Court TV. Here in Los Angeles, defense attorney Mark Geragos, who has handled cases involving kidnapping and alleged pedophilia.

On the phone is Jeff Collins of the "Orange County Register."

Jeff, is it true that you spoke with the sister of the suspect? Is that correct?


What did she have to say about Mr. Avila?

COLLINS: She had a number of things to say. She started off kind of complaining about the treatment that they got by police, and she felt that after talking to her brother, that the search warrants were kind of a vindictive thing because he asked for a lawyer.

She also said that he didn't have any apparent alibi for Monday night. You heard earlier in the newscast that he had said he was -- he told his mother he was in the mall.

KING: Yes.

COLLINS: He was actually supposed to cook dinner Monday night, and family members were expecting him home to cook chicken. KING: And he didn't come?

COLLINS: He wasn't there. And then they called him on his cell phone. At first he said he was in Corona, which is on the Orange County/Riverside line and said he was just driving around. Later said he was in the Ontario Mills Mall.

The curious thing was it's an indoor mall, but the mother said she heard the sound of planes in the background.

KING: Did the sister seem to imply that this suspicion is valid?

COLLINS: No. They -- just the opposite. They think he's innocent. He says he's innocent. They don't think he has anything to do with it.

KING: But what do they make about him supposed to be home, not being home, saying he's at an indoor mall and they hear airplanes? What does she say about that?

KING: I asked her that question and she says, you know, I'm trying not to think about it; I don't know what to think, I'm very confused.

KING: He was found not guilty in a prior trial, right? Do you know any of the details of that?

COLLINS: I know a few of the details.

KING: Hold on, Jeff. I think we're going to take some questions.

CARONA: ... for what you were able to do, the support you've given them, the love you've given them and, more importantly, the information you gave us that brought Samantha's killer into custody so quickly.

That's the message from me on behalf of Samantha's family.

To Mr. Alejandro Avila, in which he didn't realize when we found Samantha's body and this investigation took place Samantha became our little girl. When I told you that we would use every resource that was available to us to make sure that you were brought to justice; when I told you, Mr. Avila, that we would be relentless; when I told you that if you sleep or you stop to eat, we won't, we're going to close in on you.

And when I told you that we would hunt you down wherever you were, arrest you and bring you to justice, if you thought for one minute that I was joking, that we were joking, tonight you know we were deadly serious.

Ladies and gentlemen, I'd be more than happy to answer any questions you might have.


QUESTION: What first brought Avila to your attention?

CARONA: A tip from the public. One of the calls that we received; actually, several of the calls we received.

Yes ma'am?

QUESTION: Sir, has Sarah Ahn, the 6-year-old witness, identified Avila as the person who kidnapped Samantha Runnion?

CARONA: The investigators are still working to put together that package. And you're going to hear this from me throughout, and I'm not going to apologize, but I'm going to state it up front.

We were very guarded in what we released, but we tried to give you. the media and, more importantly, the public every piece of information we could about this case so that you could help us solve the crime, which you did.

Wait one second, let me finish.

Now we move to the next phase, which is the prosecution. There are things that are embedded in what we've done in the investigative part that are still ongoing and that are important to the prosecution. I will not be telling you about those, and so I'll be respectful when I give you that answer.

But understand, while we did our job in getting Mr. Avila into custody, we want to make sure that we don't impede the work that the district attorney has to do in making sure that he gets prosecuted for this crime.

Yes sir?

QUESTION: A two-part question, maybe in general terms, so you can talk to us.

CARONA: Yes sir.

QUESTION: How certain are you that this is your man?

And secondly, how strong is the evidence? How would you characterize the evidence against him, in a general way?

CARONA: I'm 100 percent certain that Mr. Avila is the man who kidnapped and murdered Samantha Runnion.

We believe that our physical evidence, the investigative information we've pulled together, the help that we received from the public, combined, will prove that he, in fact, is that individual.

Yes ma'am?

QUESTION: One follow-up. Do you think there's a second person out there?

CARONA: Let me finish -- yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) DNA back and whether (OFF-MIKE) suspect?

CARONA: I can tell you that from this morning's press conference -- which you were all very gracious in not asking any questions until this afternoon -- we were able to comb through quite a bit of evidence, physical evidence, as well as investigative evidence that was put forward -- and as a result of that, I can tell you that we're confident that Mr. Avila is, in fact, the murderer of Samantha Runnion.

QUESTION: Mr. Avila told Channel 4 that...

CARONA: Scientific evidence is embedded in that, but it is not the only issue that we're basing this on.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: Mr. Avila told Channel 4 that he was taken into custody at 10:00 a.m. He said he requested a lawyer at 6:00 p.m. When we spoke to him again at 3:15 a.m. this morning he said that he was told that he was not under arrest but that he could not leave. You said this morning that he was then arrested at 9:55.

Are you concerned that, in his defense during this case, that this 24-hour period will be used against you in that prosecution?

CARONA: I can tell you that Mr. Avila was arrested at 9:55. I can tell you that he was under investigation prior to that. How that information is used by whoever decides to defend him is really up to the defense attorney and the courts. That's not a decision that I'll make.

Yes sir?

QUESTION: Yes it will. What's that considered?

CARONA: I can assure you that Mr. Avila was not held against his will until 9:55 in the morning, at which point in time we made an arrest of Mr. Avila.

Yes sir?

QUESTION: Is there any indication, or do your investigators have any clues that there's anyone else but Mr. Avila involved in this particular crime? (OFF-MIKE) assistance at all was given to him?

CARONA: At this point in time we do not believe that there is evidence to support that there were additional parties other than Mr. Avila involved.

However, this is an ongoing investigation. We are still culling through a lot of forensic evidence that we have picked up at the crime scenes. And we're still taking tips from the public. So that decision as to who else may or may not be involved in this crime is still up in the air.

Yes sir?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) just a couple days ago you were saying (OFF-MIKE) we have this guy in our sights (OFF-MIKE)

When did you know? (OFF-MIKE) was it forensic or was it a tip? What was (OFF-MIKE) finally that turned your department to say, this is our guy?

CARONA: What brought Mr. Avila into our field of vision was a tip from the public. Again, we were very thankful that somebody gave us, at least, an opportunity to look at him.

It was then based upon very solid investigative techniques that the -- our field of -- our focus narrowed onto Mr. Avila, as well as several other suspects, as I mentioned to you this morning. Physical evidence at the scene and additional evidence that was collected, when analyzed in its totality, gave -- made us come to the conclusion that Mr. Avila is our man.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Mr. Avila hit your radar screen (OFF-MIKE)

CARONA: I don't have the exact time, sir. We'd have to look at our tip sheet on that.

But we've been examining him for over 12 hours.


CARONA: I'm sure they will. I don't know how that's played out, but we're very thankful. So we're more than happy to get them a reward -- the reward.

Yes ma'am.

QUESTION: Was Mr. Avila one of your prime suspects from the beginning? At what point did he become a person of interest to your department?

CARONA: Let me explain to you. We've had -- and I shared with you somewhere between 10 and 50 people that came into our field of vision. This is a very difficult process. We had 400 investigators out in the field, and we had people that would become very exciting to us because of certain aspects of who they were or where they were or what they were doing. And as we were going through the investigative process, all of a sudden somebody would be exculpatory. They no longer were in our field of vision, and we'd drop them off. And the numbers keep narrowing.

It is a very laborious process. But I can tell you that it went from a huge number down to a smaller number, down to a smaller number, and eventually stopped at one. Yes, sir?

QUESTION: The demeanor of Mr. Avila, you detained him, and I gather he agreed to come with you. Can you talk about, was he cooperative when he was put under arrest? Did he say anything? Was he despondent?

CARONA: I can tell you that Mr. Avila was cooperative throughout the entire process when we were interviewing him. He was also cooperative at 9:55 in the morning when we made the arrest.

Yes, ma'am?


CARONA: I can't tell you anything about that. I will share with you that all of the investigative information was critically important for us in making this case. It's also going to be critically important for the district attorney in prosecuting this case. So, that's one of those comments that we're just not going to go down that. Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Is somebody going to be getting the reward in this case?

KING: It's obvious that, of course, they are not going to reveal the elements of the investigation and whether they have fingerprints and what kind of evidence they have. That will be learned when you get to trial, or possibly learned through leaks.





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