Published July 18, 2002
STANTON, Calif. – Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona said Thursday the killer of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion may bear the physical signs of a struggle on his hands, arms and face — as authorities statewide hunted for the suspect.
Investigators pursued hundreds of tips and warned that anyone who resembles the suspect or drives a similar car could be questioned.
"There have been numerous detentions, there have been a few arrests, there have been vehicles impounded," Orange County Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo said. But so far, no sign of the killer.
The girl's body was easily found — a sign the FBI said may indicate the killer plans to strike again.
Investigators said they were checking to see if Samantha's case was similar to unsolved child killings nationwide. However, the focus of the manhunt remained in Southern California, where about 400 Orange County sheriff's deputies and local police officers were joined by nearly 100 FBI agents.
"Those individuals who are driving green cars, those individuals who generally meet and match the description are going to be detained and questioned," Jaramillo said.
The girl was abducted Monday as she played outside her Stanton home with a friend. Authorities said she was snatched off the street by a man who had asked for help in finding his puppy.
Samantha's body was found Tuesday near a highway. Authorities said she had been sexually assaulted and smothered after being alive with her killer for several hours.
Gov. Gray Davis on Thursday offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction of the girl's killer.
Carona declined to say whether investigators obtained any DNA evidence but said "we have a tremendous amount of physical evidence" and were sifting through more than 1,000 leads received from around the country.
Authorities released a sketch and description of the kidnapper based on the account of the victim's playmate. FBI agent Richard Garcia said the girl identified speech patterns that suggest he is a Hispanic American. He was described as between 25 and 40, with black hair and a thin mustache.
Outside Samantha's home, a memorial of flowers, stuffed animals, balloons, candles and personal messages continued to grow. The courtyard of the housing complex, usually full of children playing, was empty and there were few people in a nearby park.
Tara Frietas, 13, and her grandfather, Art Domen, 79, walked from their home a few blocks away to pay their respects to the slain girl.
"I have to be home before dark. I can't go anywhere alone, and I'm not to speak to strangers," Tara said, adding that she was afraid after hearing the authorities say the killer could strike again.
"I don't want to go anywhere," she said.
Irene Gonzalez, 45, told her young daughter, Victoria, not to talk to strangers, and to run or scream if somebody approached her.
"We were at the dentist yesterday and my 5-year-old daughter saw a car and ran back to me screaming," Gonzalez said. "They are really scared."
Clinging to her mother, the little girl added: "I hope nobody else gets stolen."
In Sunderland, Mass., Samantha's biological father, Derek Jackson, spoke briefly Thursday outside his home.
"I will always stay connected with her. She will live in my heart when I wake up every day," he said. "I love her dearly."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.