'Taking the offensive'
STANTON, Calif. - The manhunt that would soon snare him was well under way earlier this week when Alejandro Avila talked with his mother, Adelina, about the murder of Samantha Runnion.
Whoever sexually assaulted and killed the little girl should hang, the mother said.
"What about the chair?" she recalls her son suggesting. "Who could do a thing like that to a little girl?" Now police say they think they know.
Avila's mother, who contends the earlier case was based on false accusations by the girlfriend, insisted in an interview that her son is innocent of the latest charge as well. "I know my son, and I didn't raise him to be like that," she said. "He's not capable of that. He's always good with kids."
Yet interviews with other family members, former friends and court records offer a disturbing picture of the man authorities say is the sexual predator who killed Runnion and then "posed" the Stanton girl's nude body in a ravine in rural Riverside County.
"He's always been arrogant," said Lewis Davis, the foster brother of Avila's ex-girlfriend, who accused him of molesting her 9-year-old daughter in 1999. "He thinks he can get away with stuff. He never thinks anyone can catch him."
Avila's exposure to violence is the sort of background often seen in sexual offenders, experts said. "This hints at the kind of environment where normal social controls were not well developed," said Florida psychologist James Hord.
In January 2000, Avila was charged by Riverside County authorities with sexually molesting Elizabeth Ann Coker's 9-year-old daughter and the daughter, also 9, of Coker's sister, Rosemary Drabek. Avila was also charged with threatening to kill Drabek. The court file mentions an alleged molestation against a third girl, but charges were never filed.
Detectives who interviewed Avila in 1999 found him cooperative and relaxed.
"The tenor of the conversation," the detectives wrote in their report, "revealed a person almost jumping at the chance to answer questions, and taking the offensive during the conversation." In a follow-up session, detectives said Avila admitted he had kissed and "tickled" both girls, but the kisses were not on the mouth and the tickling wasn't sexual.
A jury found Avila not guilty. Superior Court Judge Robert G. Spitzer said Friday he recalls there was little evidence besides the children's account of what happened.
Avila's acquittal, though, haunts the prosecutor in the case. "I felt the guy was guilty and did everything I could to try and get him convicted," said Riverside County deputy district attorney Paul Dickerson.
Today, Coker's daughter lives with her father two doors from the Runnions in the Smoketree Condominiums.
Davis said he believes that is who Avila may have been looking for on Monday when Samantha was abducted.
Alejandro Avila is the third of six children - three boys and three girls - raised by Adelina and Rafael Avila. As a boy, Avila lived in Bell Gardens. His father was a butcher.
In 1989, the family moved to Lake Elsinore, where Rafael Avila was convicted of shooting a neighbor to death during a confrontation with racial overtones.
Father in prison
Alejandro Avila was 17 when his father went to prison. His sister, Elvira, said her mother would take the three girls to visit their father at Chino and Lancaster state prisons, where he did time. The three boys, however, would rarely go.
Even after the elder Avila was released in December 2000 and put on a bus to Tijuana, Mexico, where he still lives and runs a restaurant, contact with his sons - particularly Alejandro - was rare, his sister said.
In April 2001, Avila's brother, Juan, was found dead in Rosarito, a bullet in the back of his neck. The family believes he was killed by members of his own gang.
"Sometimes, you just have to block it out," Elvira Avila said of her family's violent history.
Alejandro Avila divided his time between his mother's and sister's apartments in a Lake Elsinore complex only miles from where Samantha's body was found.
At his sister's place, Avila bunked on an inflatable mattress on the floor. Neighbors described him as a loner.
Avila had a membership at Video Shores, a store near his apartment. Records there show he rented mostly comedies - but also children's movies and pornographic films. On Dec. 26, he rented a pair of X-rated titles on the same day he took out "The Emperor's New Groove," a children's movie.
Avila worked on the assembly line at a Temecula plant owned by Guidant, an Indianapolis-based company that makes pacemakers and other medical devices, company officials said. His family said he was off Sunday through Wednesday of this week - the time during which Samantha was abducted and killed.