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Thousands Attend Runnion Funeral

July 25, 2002

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GARDEN GROVE, Calif. (AP) _ Thousands of mourners streamed through a cathedral 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 slaying.

Many of the mourners at Crystal Cathedral, which was adorned with pink and white roses, 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 funeral.

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. On it, Samantha wrote: ``I love My Family alot more then enyboody in the hole World.″

Inside the cathedral, Samantha’s small brown casket was covered with pink roses just below the pulpit.

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 Los Angeles home to bring a curly haired angel doll 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.

``I can’t even imagine losing a child in that way,″ Joanne Ramos said, holding her 2-year-old daughter Bailey.

Samantha, who would have turned 6 on Friday, was playing with a friend outside her Stanton townhome complex when a man who said he was looking for a puppy grabbed her July 15. 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. Investigators said she had been sexually assaulted and asphyxiated.

The suspect in her abduction, Alejandro Avila, 27, has been charged with kidnap, murder and sexual assault. He has denied involvement in the girl’s disappearance.

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