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Eight years later: Samantha Runnion and Norma Lopez and a mother's message of hope

On July 15, 2002, 5-year-old Samantha Runnion was kidnapped and murdered, exactly eight years to the day that Norma Lopez went missing. Many miles separate the Lopez and Runnion families; one lives in Riverside County, the other in Orange County -- but a number, a month and tragedy forever link them.

This week the Lopez family will say their final goodbyes to Norma Angelica Lopez. The spirited 17-year-old teenager, found murdered in Moreno Valley after she was missing for a week, will be buried on Thursday. Not many know what it’s like to walk the path the Lopez family has been forced to travel. Erin Runnion, Samantha’s mom, is one of the few who does know.

“I would want them to know that thousands of people they don’t even know are thinking of them during this time,” Erin Runnion said.

July is not an easy month for Runnion. It’s the month that marks the death of her daughter, it was also the month she celebrated her birth. On July 26, Samantha would’ve turned 14. The realization that Norma died on the exact anniversary of her daughter’s death was overwhelming and difficult for her to accept.

“It makes me very sad. It makes me very sad because when Samantha was taken, I wished…I hoped that she would be the last,” Runnion said. “So having another girl taken on that day is just heartbreaking, just heartbreaking, eight years later.”

Lopez was abducted July 15 and her body was found five days later, about 2 1/2 miles from where she was taken. The teen had attended summer school the morning of her kidnapping and was en route to a friend’s house on Cottonwood Avenue when she was snatched, according to Riverside County sheriff’s officials. Norma’s killer has not been found. Investigators won’t say how Norma died or whether she was sexually assaulted.

The emotional events that have gripped the small, Southwest Riverside County community since Norma Lopez’s recent disappearance, take Runnion’s mind back to a painful time.

Eight years ago, on July 15th. Samantha Runnion was playing near her home in Orange County with a friend when a man who said he was looking for a puppy grabbed her. Her body was found a day later alongside a mountain highway between Orange County and Lake Elsinore; an autopsy showed she was asphyxiated and assaulted. The killer, a Lake Elsinore man named Alejandro Avila, was later arrested and convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances in May 2005 and given the death sentence.

“After Samantha was taken the community came together and there was a beautiful vigil outside, and it reminded me, when I saw the one for Norma,” Runnion said. “First, it is okay to acknowledge that it’s a beautiful thing that so many people come out to show their love and sadness at such tragedy. That gave me huge, huge strength when Samantha was taken and I want to thank the community for coming out for Norma’s family and for showing that it mattered to the whole community, and that’s so important.”

Still, Runnion can’t help but wonder, why? “I remember standing outside and looking at all of these wonderful people and saying, it should not take a tragedy like this to unite a community,” she said.

It’s more than any mother can truly handle, but Runnion has carried her grief with dignity and found her purpose through the pain of losing a child. She said Samantha was an extraordinary little girl with a tremendous amount of happy energy -- that energy and her smile live on through the Joyful Child Foundation, a non-profit organization Runnion started as a way to inform people about protecting their children and to help bring them closer to each other under one powerful message, proudly stated on their sunflower-themed website: “The Joyful Child is dedicated to protecting our nation's children from sexual abuse and abduction through programs that unite and uplift communities.”

The fact the two girls were taken on the same day -- eight years apart -- only makes Runnion more determined in her work. “We have a lot of work to do to keep raising awareness and continuing to teach young people how to better protect themselves to stop violence against them,” she said, adding that Norma’s family and friends should play an important role to prevent more victims.

“If they really love and care about Norma, they will sign up for self-defense classes and encourage others to do the same,” Runnion said. “They will form groups to protect children; they will do something in her memory.”

Runnion was gratified to hear that this week Riverside County supervisors unanimously passed emergency laws limiting where paroled sex offenders live and loiter. And while it is yet to be determined who is responsible for Norma’s death, Runnion believes that people must be proactive when it comes to keeping children safe.

“I think it’s important that we, as citizens, keep this in the forefront and not forget and don’t let legislators forget,” she said. “Don’t wait for another victim before you write to your legislator and tell them to do something about child protection.”

As Runnion reflected on the journey that at first seemed to have no end, she found that coming to a peaceful place sometimes isn’t possible without relying on others. She paused and shared some advice that helped her family through the difficult moments: “Each family member must acknowledge that each of them had a completely different relationship with Norma,” she said. “They will grieve differently. Please be patient and loving towards one another and get help outside the family to help you heal.”

A few years ago, Runnion also helped establish the Surviving Parents Coalition, an action-support group for families of victims of sexual abuse crimes. “We are a group of parents who advocate for better laws for the safety of children to stop predatory crime and we helped pass the Adam Walsh Act and partnered with the National Association to Protect Children to pass the Protect Act that gives law enforcement resources to combat child exploitation and child pornography,” Runnion said.

She also wants to remind the community “to help take care of each other.” She cautioned that they should not let anyone walk alone, and to be aware that a person does not have to be a stranger or registered to be a sex offender. And she encouraged everyone to speak out if you or someone you know is being hurt, touched or spoken to in a way that makes you uncomfortable – and, most importantly now, to remain vigilant day and night.

“There’s a killer on the loose. They need to catch that killer as soon as possible before he hurts anyone else,” she warned.

And it is her sincere hope that the residents of Moreno Valley continue to be there for Norma’s family. “The media will go away and there won’t be as much attention on your daughter,” she said, speaking from experience. “That’s when they’ll need the community the most for support.”

Runnion said the Lopez family will face some dark days that will make them feel like finding their way without Norma is simply impossible. And she wanted the family to know that, while it won’t be easy, they will never be alone.

Because, always, “They are in my heart.”


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