GARDEN GROVE, Calif. – Thousands of mourners packed the Crystal Cathedral on Wednesday to say goodbye to 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, a child many knew only through a photograph flashed during news reports of her abduction and murder.
The cathedral was filled to capacity with 3,000 people of all ages and races who came from throughout Southern California. More than 1,000 others gathered outside and listened on speakers.
Erin Runnion, the child's mother, spoke midway through the service and offered a slide show of Samantha's artwork accompanied by music from the animated Disney film, Peter Pan. She called the ordeal an "awful nightmare."
"Nothing can bring our baby back," she said, choking back tears. "But knowing that her death was handled with the utmost integrity and her life cherished by so many does bring some solace. We are overwhelmed by the love people have shown Samantha.
"We always knew she had a gift for the world but it never occurred to us that her greatness would be realized in her death."
The cathedral was adorned with pink and white roses, including several giant wreaths made of the flowers. Samantha's small brown casket was also covered with pink roses near the pulpit.
Bells chimed to signal the start of the funeral service, which also featured several other musical performances, including "Whenever I Feel Afraid" from "The King and I."
"It's not fair that we're looking at a tiny little casket," the Rev. Robert A. Schuller II told those in attendance. "It's not fair. It's wrong. What is good is what brought all of you here today ... Love, support, community."
Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona, who headed the massive search for Samantha's killer, recalled the child's mother giving him a picture of the girl and a toy tiger, her favorite stuffed animal.
"Little girls aren't supposed to die," Carona said. "Little girls aren't supposed to die the way Samantha died."
At the end of the service, mourners applauded in a show of support as the family followed the casket out the church, then lined streets and walkways as the processional left cathedral grounds.
As they arrived, many people said they saw Samantha as one of their own.
"It could have been in our neighborhood, it could have been one of our children," said Lisa Genera, 23, of Anaheim, who brought her 3-year-old daughter Ashley to the service.
The child said she hoped to tell Samantha, "I love you."
"She doesn't understand killing, so I told her [Samantha] was up in heaven," Lisa Genera said. "She understood that."
A program distributed at the service contained a picture Samantha had drawn of a little girl and a dog standing by a house with a heart-shaped window. The caption in the child's handwriting reads, "to: My great Family," and "Be Brave" is written as though the girl is saying it.
"I love My Family alot more then enyboody in the hole World," the caption reads. "I thank evry thing you give me. a lot of peple like me."
People began arriving three hours before the start of the service, carrying flowers, stuffed animals, balloons and cards.
A memorial grew outside the massive cathedral, around a statue known as "The Lost Is Found," which depicts Christ carrying a lamb, surrounded by children.
Charlene Nowak, 54, spent three hours in traffic coming from her North Hollywood home to bring a curly haired angel doll in a red dress to give to the family.
"You feel like you know her," Nowak said of Samantha. "You feel like she's family."
Ricardo Ramos, 33, and his wife, 29-year-old Joanne, brought their four children to the service.
Joanne Ramos said she wanted to offer support to the murdered child's mother.
"I can't even imagine losing a child in that way," she said, holding her 2-year-old daughter Bailey.
She said the message for her children was "stay close to us, tomorrow's never promised."
Even though she was too young for kindergarten, Samantha left her preschool playmates behind and sat with the kindergartners at her school, learning her numbers and her ABCs. She was supposed to start classes this fall at Lawrence Elementary School.
Her favorite subject was reading, in which she excelled. She was proud that she had recently lost both bottom teeth and then an upper one, earning visits from the Tooth Fairy.
Samantha would have turned 6 this Friday. She was playing with a friend when a man who said he was looking for a puppy grabbed her. He put her in a car as she kicked and yelled to a playmate: "Help me."
Her nude body was found a day later alongside a mountain highway between Orange County and Lake Elsinore. An autopsy showed she was asphyxiated and assaulted.
Alejandro Avila, 27, who has been charged with kidnap, murder and sexual assault, claimed he was at an Ontario shopping mall when Samantha was abducted while she played near her Stanton home on July 15.
Two years ago, Avila was acquitted by a jury of molesting two girls in Riverside County. One of the girls, the 9-year-old daughter of an ex-girlfriend, lived in the same town house complex as the Runnion family. Avila often visited the area, said Lewis Davis, 39, the ex-girlfriend's foster brother.