"The hardest things are questions about the time — about what she endured in the last eight, 12 hours. He has admitted to nothing. And that is hard because the imagination is worse than any reality — and then there is the place where she was found."
Erin Runnion and I were having a cup of tea in Huntington Beach last week and she was describing, in part, what inspired a journey she had made several days before to an outpost along the Ortega Highway — to the spot where her daughter Samantha's body was discovered 10 years ago, brutally murdered after being abducted the day before at her home in Stanton by a man named Alejandro Avila (who is now deservedly on death row).
Yes, this Sunday marks 10 years since the precious youngster's face entered the national consciousness. To mark the anniversary and to continue generating awareness for the plight of abducted and abused children, Erin is organizing a series of public events. But this very private trip she took (with our mutual friend, TV producer Maria Hall-Brown, who will be presenting a special edition of "Real Orange" on PBS SoCal that documents the trip) was something Erin said she just needed to do once and for all.
"Going to where she was found was one of the few details I had not taken in," she said. "I tried to find it once, but they've changed the name of the exact area, so I didn't know what road it was. We went with Jim Amormino from the Orange County Sheriff's Department and Gary Jones, the lead investigator on the case. They showed me exactly where she was found that day. They were there. It was very emotional. Gary, who's been retired for six years but flew down for this, had interviewed the perpetrator for 10 hours. And he was there for every day of the trial."
Erin and I spoke at length about what the last decade has been like for her. Now living in Westminster, she has become a tireless activist and sheer force of nature in the fight to stop sub-human beasts like the one who murdered her daughter, right down to the teachers, coaches, clergy and anyone and everyone else who dare lay an inappropriate hand on a child. Her grace, guts and courage are as refreshing as they are inspiring.
She's particularly outspoken on how poorly she thinks public school systems handle child molestation issues.
"Schools act the same basic way the church did — by moving their own from one place to another," she said. "How many complaints does it take to arrest a teacher? A lot. They're overly protective when it comes to investigating sexual complaints — it takes three complaints over three years. Most kids wait three to 15 years to ever disclose, and most times teachers are reinstated upon appeal. It just comes down to a liability issue. That's how schools seem to view it."
Just after the horrific crime, she started the Joyful Child Foundation in honor of her daughter.
"I wanted to transform all of the instant compassion we received into ongoing prevention," she said. And so she did.
"I had no idea how common child sexual molestation is, and no idea how common abduction is," Erin explained. "There are 58,000 children taken every year in this country, and that has been consistent for a long time. And those are not crimes committed by a family member — that's just by acquaintances and strangers. Of those, about 115 are cases like Samantha's."
She also reflected on what else was happening 10 years ago.
"Think about 2002 — the media called it the 'summer of abductions.' Elizabeth Smart had been taken one month earlier. Danielle Van Dam's murder trial had just started. Maybe people remember six of the 115 that were taken that year — or the next year or the year after that. But that's not fair to all those kids."
Today she organizes, speaks out, lobbies, and perhaps most importantly, educates people. But it frustrates her that the California Megan's Law website main page has not been updated in 10 years, that so much of the information appears to be outdated, and that the state attorney general's office does not seem to consider any of this to be a huge priority.
Even in the face of the massive red tape and bureaucracy she deals with, Erin has still managed to make a huge difference over the years, getting bills passed, creating coalitions, changing the alert systems — and the fight is ongoing. Her energy, focus and sheer will have helped change the game, but to hear her describe it, it was just the natural thing to do.
"Not a lot of us end up in a position where law enforcement does everything right: The bad guy is caught, the family is able to focus on the grief and reach out and do something to honor their child and all of the others. That's why I do this. Not enough of us get put in this position so I did not want to waste the chance."
Erin told me that, in one way, the 10 years have flown by, that it does feel like yesterday, and that she feels as though she and her army should have changed the world by now (though we all know she has).
She also said, though, that when you miss someone so much every single day, it also slows time down. She said she survived the trauma by relying on the faith and belief that her daughter was watching her and didn't want her mom to wallow in misery for the rest of her life, nor would she want her own life to be defined by what happened to her.
So she'd stare at pictures of her baby and decide that crying was not always necessary because this was a child who always made her laugh and smile — so why let all of those memories be tainted by how she was taken?
"It's still very sad," she said. "But I focus on the goodness of Samantha and how she always made me feel."
On July 26, Samantha's 16th birthday, Erin has organized an event at 10 a.m. at the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, near the monument that's dedicated to her daughter. Then, later that day, she'll return to the site off the Ortega Highway where Samantha was discovered — a site that truly surprised her when she reached it last week.
"It sounds strange, but it's really quite open and beautiful," she said, "not remote and hidden at all. People were lined up to go paragliding off the side of the mountain, and you have to know that Samantha's two favorite movies were 'Hercules' and 'Peter Pan.' She'd say, if Hercules could fly, he would be her favorite. So to watch these people flying, at this leaping-off point, it struck me that there is some poetic beauty in that this is where she was when it was time for her soul to fly."
You can donate, volunteer and learn more about Erin at http://www.thejoyfulchild.org.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County" from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.