Sheriff announces arrest in case of slain California girl

Friday, July 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

STANTON, Calif. (AP) _ Authorities arrested a 27-year-old man Friday as part of their investigation into the kidnapping and slaying of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion.

Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona said Alejandro Avila was arrested after search warrants were served at an apartment complex not far from where the girl's body was found Tuesday.

Carona said the arrest ``in no way concludes this investigation.'' He took no questions from reporters and said more details would be released at an evening news conference.

The Los Angeles Times reported on its Web site that Avila, in an interview before his arrest, denied involvement and told detectives he was at a mall when the girl was abducted Monday night.

Avila said detectives told him they had found fibers on the body that are considered key evidence.

Adelina Avila said her Lake Elsinore apartment was searched by authorities late Thursday and that her 27-year-old son was being detained.

``I don't think my son did anything, but I notice he is cooperating,'' she said. ``He hasn't been through this before so he doesn't know what's going on. He doesn't have a record.''

The arrest was announced after authorities played a tape of the 911 call from a man who found the body.

``I'm so scared. It was a little kid,'' the man said in a frantic voice.

Authorities mounted a statewide manhunt following Samantha's abduction in this community southeast of Los Angeles. She and a 5-year-old friend were playing only about 150 feet from Samantha's front door in a complex of townhomes when a man drove up after making a U-turn.

The man got out and asked for help finding his puppy, then took off with the kicking and screaming girl.

Samantha's nude body was discovered a day later on the edge of the Cleveland National Forest, 50 miles from Stanton. Authorities said she had been sexually assaulted and smothered after being alive with her killer for several hours.

In Sunderland, Mass., Samantha's biological father, Derek Jackson, mourned her Thursday at a news conference from his home.

``I will always stay connected with her. She will live in my heart when I wake up every day,'' Jackson said. ``I love her dearly. I miss you, Samantha.''

Jackson also offered advice to other parents.

``Please watch your children. Every second, don't let them out of your sight, especially now,'' he said.

A memorial of flowers, stuffed animals, candles and messages has grown outside Samantha's home.

Tara Frietas, 13, and her grandfather, Art Domen, 79, walked from their nearby home to pay their respects. They said they had taken extra precautions.

``I have to be home before dark. I can't go anywhere alone, and I'm not to speak to strangers,'' Tara said, adding she was afraid after hearing authorities warn that the killer could strike again.