1. Archive

Accused does not enter plea in Runnion case

Bowing his head as the accusations were read, 27-year-old Alejandro Avila was charged Monday with kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering 5-year-old Samantha Runnion.

Avila did not enter a plea and was held without bail until his arraignment next month. Due to concerns about his safety, Avila did not attend the court hearing, but participated through a video hookup from the jail.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said Monday he will decide within two weeks whether to seek the death penalty against Avila, promising he was "not going to make any deals."

"I do want to make one thing very clear," Rackauckas said. "Anyone who commits an act like this in Orange County will either die in prison of natural causes or be executed."

Court papers filed Monday said Samantha was sexually assaulted at least twice before being strangled. Beyond that, authorities revealed no new details about the case.

"I can just tell you that the evidence that was amassed . . . is very, very compelling. And we are satisfied that we have the right person," Rackauckas said after the five-minute hearing.

Special circumstances filed along with the charges will allow the district attorney's office to seek the death penalty. Rackauckas said he will be meeting with his staff and Samantha's family about whether to seek death and described the case as his office's top priority.

"It is almost impossible to overstate the amount of damage this type of crime does to our community and the entire nation," he said. "Many parents and children feel more fearful and less secure because of this crime."

Neither Samantha's nor Avila's families attended the hearing before Superior Court Judge Gary Paer. Lorene Mies, a public defender who temporarily is serving as Avila's attorney, would not comment on whether Avila has received death threats at the jail, where a court order bars anyone from visiting him. He is segregated from other prisoners.

Samantha was abducted July 15, kicking and screaming. She was playing near a row of garages near her Stanton home with a 6-year-old friend when a stranger asked for help finding his lost puppy.

Samantha's body was found the next day. The pursuit of Avila began after several tipsters pointed investigators in his direction.

In an interview Monday on ABC's Good Morning America, Avila's mother, Adelina, said that before her son's arrest, she and her son were watching TV reports about the girl's disappearance, and "I said they should get that person and tie him up alive and burn him."

Mrs. Avila added: "If my son is found guilty and sentenced to the death penalty, I could forgive him, but it would be hard."

Judge tells San Diego jurors to ignore Orange County death

SAN DIEGO _ The trial of the man accused of murdering 7-year-old Danielle van Dam resumed Monday with the judge warning jurors to ignore last week's slaying of a girl in nearby Orange County.

The death of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion last week "bears no relation" to the trial of David Westerfield, and the jury should focus on his case alone, Judge William Mudd said.

Westerfield, 50, is accused of kidnapping and killing Danielle, who vanished after her father put her to bed the night of Feb. 1. Searchers found her nude body Feb. 27 along a rural road outside San Diego.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.