'He Will Strike Again'

Samantha Runnion was a precocious child. Though not yet 6, she had just finished first grade at nearby Lawrence Elementary School. She liked to read, play games and take ballet lessons. The curly-haired girl, who'd recently started to lose her front teeth, loved the movie "Hercules" and had a Disney poster over her bed. She planned to go to Disneyland for her sixth birthday on July 26.

On Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Runnion was snatched from a wall outside her home in Stanton, Calif., she was found dead. On Wednesday morning, her mother, Erin Runnion, and her boyfriend, Ken Donnelly, were given the news.

Now, coming on the heels of the Elizabeth Smart abduction in Utah and the trial of Danielle van Dam's alleged killer in San Diego, parents across the United States are worrying about the safety of their children. In Orange County, California, the fears are far more immediate. "We believe that [her killer] is a serial rapist and perhaps a serial killer and would strike again," said Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona, announcing Samantha's death.

This killer is also a coldly efficient kidnapper. Samantha and her friend Sarah Ahn were sitting on a wall playing Clue at about 6:45 p.m. on Monday when a Latino man alone in a greenish two-door car passed the girls, did a U-turn and doubled back. Getting out of the vehicle, he approached Samantha and Sarah with a question. "The man said, 'Did you see a Chihuahua?'" Ahn, 5, told NEWSWEEK. Samantha stood up and asked how big the dog was, lowering her palm parallel to the ground to illustrate her question. Suddenly, the man grabbed the 40-pound girl by an arm and a leg and swung her in the car, according to Ahn's account. Samantha screamed, "Help me! Tell my grandmother!" But it was too late. The green car sped off. "The abduction," said a cop, "literally took seconds."

Dozens of police, Orange County sheriff's deputies and FBI agents worked all night Monday to find Samantha unharmed. But on Tuesday afternoon, hang gliders in a remote national forest area 50 miles east of Stanton spotted what looked like a child's motionless body. The corpse was nude, left out in the open and, police believe, had been sexually abused. By Wednesday morning, dental records had proved that it was Samantha. That evening, authorities announced that the cause of death was asphyxiation, and that the five-year-old had been murdered on Tuesday.

Investigators have yet to match any other cases to Samantha's, but the notion that the perpetrator will commit further attacks is based on the work of FBI profilers in Quantico, Va., who are assisting in this case. (Experts say that only 200-300 children are abducted by strangers in the United States every year. Most missing children, particularly younger ones, are abducted by parents in custody disputes.) The profilers interpreted the killer's decision to leave Samantha's corpse nude and fully in the open as a taunt. "The way this body was found, the fact that it was not buried, not hidden ... is also almost like a calling card, like a challenge [that] 'I'm here and I'm coming back again'," said the FBI's Richard Garcia, special agent in charge of the criminal section in the bureau's Los Angeles field office. Added Sheriff Carona: "We believe the person will [act] again within the next 24 hours."

Based on Ahn's description, police say the killer is probably a Latino man between 25 and 40 years old with a small mustache and black, slicked-back hair. From what Ahn recalled of his speech patterns, investigators believe he is "an Americanized Hispanic rather than a foreign national," said the FBI's Garcia. Still, investigators warned the Border Patrol and Mexican police to watch for the man. Garcia and other law-enforcement officials caution that the killer may try to alter his appearance, ditch his car (police think it was a light green Honda or Acura) or behave in a nervous, skittish way. They also think he is probably closely monitoring media coverage of the case. Police took advantage of that fact to speak directly to the killer at Wednesday's press conference. "We're coming after you," Sheriff Carona promised. "The best thing you can do is turn yourself in."

Police believe they've gathered valuable evidence at the scene where Samantha's body was found that will help identify her killer. "We have a tremendous amount of forensic evidence," Sheriff Corona told reporters Wednesday. Officials wouldn't say whether they've gathered DNA evidence from Samantha's body. They refused to comment on whether they believed Samantha was killed at the spot where the killer left her body or transported there. (Anyone who may have information is urged to phone the Orange County Sheriff's hotline at 714-890-4280. British Petroleum, Erin Runnion's employer, put up a $50,000 reward on Tuesday.)

Law-enforcement officials cautioned parents to become more vigilant about training children to avoid strangers, but Erin Runnion had already done that with Samantha. In fact, safety is one reason Erin Runnion and Ken Donnelly moved into their current apartment a year ago after living in a rougher neighborhood in nearby Garden Grove. Their new home had low crime rates; dozens of children play in courtyards surrounded by apartments. "We never thought that something like this could happen. Not here," said mother Robin Jacobs, who has lived in the complex for five years. Only the roads are on the periphery. And that, by a horrible chance, was where Samantha and Sarah played when the killer drove by.