04/05/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
It was the nightmare every parent dreads, and it was happening to Erin Runnion. After a late-afternoon gym workout, the Stanton, Calif., accountant checked her voice mail and heard a series of frantic messages from her mother, Virginia, reporting that Runnion's 5-year-old daughter had been abducted right from their front yard. "My heart froze," she says of that July day in 2002. "I felt absolute terror."
Over the next 24 hours it would only escalate as Runnion, now 29, her family and friends desperately scoured the middle-class neighborhood for signs of the auburn-haired kindergartner, who had been grabbed by a man who sped off in a green Thunderbird. On the way into Samantha's school to spread the word of the kidnapping that night, Runnion tripped and tumbled on a sidewalk, began to cry and then caught herself. "I decided to stop being hysterical and thinking about my losses," she says. "And to do something."
Sadly, there was little that could be done. Within 24 hours police found Samantha by a roadside, dead from asphyxiation, her body nude and battered in a crime that sent shock waves through Southern California and the rest of the nation. But even amid her grief and tears, Runnion maintained her determination to take positive action. Now, as she anxiously anticipates the upcoming trial of the man charged with the brutal murder, Alejandro Avila, 28—who has pleaded not guilty—Runnion is keeping her main focus on Samantha's Pride, a pioneering community-safety program she spearheaded with the goal of preventing crimes against children. "Samantha's case was a wake-up call for America," says Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona. "Because of her, other little children will be watched out for."
It is certainly far from the role she could have imagined on July 15, 2002, when she left Samantha and her step children—Conner, now 6, and Paige, 12—with Virginia Runnion while she went to work. After an early dinner, Samantha and her best friend Sarah were playing outside the three-bedroom condo when a man approached, saying he was looking for a puppy. When Samantha drew near, the friend would report, the stranger grabbed her and fled. Alerted by Sarah, "I was dialing 911 on my phone," says Virginia Runnion. "But she was gone. No one was there."
Coming just five months after the abduction murder of Danielle van Dam near San Diego, Samantha's murder touched a nerve: Some 4,000 mourners attended her memorial service; strangers from across the country sent checks totalling more than $200,000 to Runnion. From those contributions, Runnion started a nonprofit she called the Joyful Child Foundation. "I could do something good for others," she says. "It was the only way to give her death purpose."
She collaborated with Carona, the sheriff, to create Samantha's Pride—a localized program based on the Neighborhood Watch model—enlisting neighborhood adults donning recognizable red vests to supervise children on a rotating basis. "It seems simple, but it's what's been missing," says Nicole Meloche, a mother of two young children who started a group in her San Clemente, Calif., neighborhood. "A way to make sure that adults are at vital points where kids are vulnerable." Though local Samantha's Pride groups create their own policies and priorities, all participants must undergo rigorous background checks including fingerprinting. Already in place in more than 35 communities in Southern California, it could well serve as a model for organizations across the country. "This is the first program to put together all the ingredients," says Shirley Goins, who runs the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's West Coast branch. "It organizes people to watch all the kids in the community, not just their own." As for the name of the group, says Runnion, "it comes from a pride of lions—they watch out for their little ones."
Although Runnion's heart still aches over the loss of Samantha, she realizes "her death really woke up communities to the need for safety. And when I see those red vests," she says. "I know she did not die in vain."
Thomas Fields-Meyer. Maureen Harrington in Stanton