Around 6:30 p.m. on July 15, 2002, five-year-old Samantha Runnion and her six-year-old friend, Sarah A., were playing outside of the Smoketree condominium complex in Stanton. Sarah observed a man driving a green car pass by them, go around the block, and approach them a second time. The man got out of the car and asked the girls, “Have you seen a little puppy?” Samantha asked about its size. Suddenly, the man grabbed Samantha, threw her, screaming and struggling, into the car, and sped away.
Samantha’s nude body was found the next day in a remote area near Lake Elsinore, near the intersection of the Killen Truck Trail and Ortega Highway, that is popular with hang gliders.
An autopsy performed the next morning revealed that Samantha had been sexually assaulted both vaginally and anally. She had suffered at least two blows to the head at least half an hour before she died, which caused her brain to swell. In the pathologist’s opinion, “she died as a result of mechanical asphyxiation through a compression of the neck and with the blunt-force trauma to the head contributing significantly to it also.” The pathologist could not determine exactly what had caused the compression of the neck. Based on the degree of rigor mortis, he estimated that the child had died 30 to 36 hours before he conducted the autopsy, that is, roughly between 8:00 p.m., July 15, and 2:00 a.m., July 16, 2002.