Children’s Unsolved Murders Add Questions to the Pain
More than a decade has passed, but hardly a day goes by that Oceanside police Det. Sheila Potkonjak doesn’t think about the 7-year-old girl whose photograph is tacked to the bulletin board in her office.
The Easter picture of Leticia Hernandez, holding a baby chick in her hands, is a constant reminder of the biggest case of the detective’s career, an abduction and murder that remains unsolved.
“It never goes away,” Potkonjak said. “You wonder what we could do differently or could have done differently to solve such cases.”
Her questions are all the more painful now, days after Samantha Runnion was kidnapped from in front of her Orange County home and later killed. The Runnion investigation--like the high-profile case nine years ago of Polly Klaas in Petaluma--ended with a relatively quick arrest.
But many other cases of children abducted and murdered are not resolved. The television cameras and news helicopters clear out and detectives move on to other cases. Families--and the community--are left to go on without knowing who is responsible for the crime, and whether the killer lives among them.
The number of child abduction-murders by strangers is small; California police agencies have reported just 13 such crimes, aside from the Runnion case, since 1991 that involve victims 12 and younger. Half of those cases remain unsolved--including that of a Beaumont boy whose face still haunts a billboard five years after his death and that of a Chula Vista girl who was snatched in 1991 when answering a nighttime knock on her home’s front door.
The posters are still plastered in windows of businesses on Beaumont’s main street. They show a photo of smiling, fresh-faced Anthony Martinez, 10. Next to it is a drawing of an anonymous, mustached man 25 to 35 years old, wearing a dark baseball cap.
This is the man who kidnapped Anthony on April 4, 1997, and killed him--a man who has never been found.
Beaumont is a desert town of 12,000 people, known for its cherry festival and antique stores that pull people off the highway on their way to Palm Springs.
The town is small enough that nearly everyone has some emotional tie to the murder. Parents know their kids played Little League with Anthony or went to the same school or they see his parents downtown. Maybe they were among the hundreds who took part in the search, from the time he was kidnapped at knifepoint until that day two weeks later when his body was found buried under rocks near Indio.
Anthony’s murder is always just below the surface in Beaumont. When a child like Samantha is killed, the memories burst through. Erin Ohler, owner of the Country Junction restaurant on 6th Street, loses the battle to hold back tears as she talks about Anthony. The boy was kidnapped just a couple of blocks away.
“When [Alejandro Avila] was arrested for killing Samantha, people thought, ‘Yes,’ ” Ohler said, banging her fist on the table. “They were really hoping this was the same guy.”
But when detectives announced that Avila was not a suspect in Anthony’s murder, the hopefulness in the town turned back to despair and apprehension.
“It brought everything back, and [we] are angry,” Ohler said. “There is no closure for this family. And this guy is not caught.”
At the city-run day camp, counselors have been ordered to keep a closer watch on the campers. Now, when kids use the bathroom at the park or at the swimming pool, counselors must go inside the restroom with them, instead of waiting outside or watching from a distance.
Things are worst, of course, for Anthony’s family. His photos decorate the house, along with those of his brother Marcos, 11, and sister Monica, 9. He was a happy baby, posed to look as if he were reading the newspaper; a smiling fifth-grader; and the kid with the mischievous smile, just waiting to get into trouble.
When another child is kidnapped, the calls start coming from friends, relatives and reporters.
“It brings back all those feelings,” said Anthony’s stepfather, Ernesto Medina, who raised the boy as a son from age 1. “It tears you apart all over again. You feel so bad.”
Struggling to Carry On
In the four years since her little boy was murdered, Melissa Michael has often asked herself whether she has the strength to go on.
Isaiver Teague, 4, of Oakland was visiting his father in Fresno when he and his 16-year-old aunt disappeared while walking to a nearby phone booth in July 1998. They were going to call Isaiver’s grandmother. They never made the call.
A man walking through a field two miles away came across their skeletons four months later. During that time, dogs had found the bones and spread them over a half-mile area. The bodies were decomposed so badly that police can’t tell how they were killed. “Homicidal violence of undetermined nature,” is what the death certificates say.
Michael is 24, a child herself when Isaiver was born in 1994. “I used to see things like this happen on TV and think it will never happen to me,” she said, “and it did happen to me.”
What keeps her going is her eldest son, Isaiah, 10, two years older than Isaiver would have been.
“I try to keep myself right, and my son right,” she said. “I’m still going crazy.”
She tries to put the case out of her mind, but it proves impossible. Instead, she fixates on the killer and complains about the case never being solved. She holds out hope that catching the killer will somehow calm her.
“It’s like a heavy load is on you, and you want to get it off your chest. It can never be closed until they find him. I just want to know why they did this to my son. He was a young boy. I just don’t understand why. I want to know why, and that’s on my mind.”
3 Keys to Solving Cases
Why some child abduction-murders are solved, while others may never be, is something Potkonjak, the Oceanside police detective, often contemplates when she thinks of Leticia Hernandez.
In the Samantha Runnion case, she said, Orange County authorities were fortunate to have the three most critical ingredients for success: timely notice, a good eyewitness and physical evidence.
Samantha’s playmate was able to provide a detailed description of the kidnapper, and the crime was reported to police almost instantly.
Leticia’s parents, however, did not report her disappearance from the front yard of their home until 9 p.m., four hours after the fact.
The search for witnesses to Leticia’s abduction proved fruitless, and a shortage of Spanish-speaking officers to canvass the neighborhood hampered the investigation.
“That was a huge problem for us,” Potkonjak recalled, “having no witnesses. There was no one who saw her get in a car or be taken by someone. We were starting at ground zero with no information. And then it was primarily a Spanish-speaking neighborhood.”
Leticia’s remains were discovered 15 months later near a road between the Pala Indian reservation and the Riverside County line, about 20 miles from her home. Exposure to the elements had long since erased evidence.
A convicted child molester who lived down the street from Leticia became a suspect. But a case couldn’t be built, and no one else was arrested for the slaying. Leticia’s mother died of cancer five years ago. Her father has returned to his native Mexico.Potkonjak’s hope that Leticia’s murder might still be solved was bolstered last year when colleagues in San Diego cracked a similar case that had been cold for a decade.
Jonathan Sellers, 9, and a 13-year-old playmate disappeared March 27, 1993, while riding on a dry lake bed not far from their south San Diego homes. Their bodies were discovered three days later by an adult bicyclist who rode the same trails.
San Diego police never closed the investigation, even producing a four-minute TV docudrama in 2000 they hoped would jolt the public’s memory and produce more leads. They finally got a break in the spring of 2001, linking DNA evidence from the crime scene to an inmate in a state prison. Authorities allege the killer is Scott Erskine, who was serving a 70-year sentence in the state prison in Lancaster for the rape of a San Diego woman only months after the boys were slain. His trial is next year.
“Maybe [this] will prompt someone who knows something to have the courage to come forward and help us solve Leticia’s murder,” Potkonjak said. “I haven’t given up hope.”
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Six of 13 kidnapping cases involving California children 12 and under remain unsolved today. All were reported murdered in the past decade.
Leticia Hernandez, 7
Disappeared while playing in her front yard in Oceanside on Dec. 19. Police were unable to find any witnesses to her abduction. Leticia’s skull and a pair of shorts she was wearing were discovered 15 months later in a rural area about 20 miles inland from her home.
Laura Arroyo, 9, Year: 1991
Abducted and killed after answering a nighttime knock at the front door of her parents’ Chula Vista home. Almost nine hours after she was abducted, Laura’s bludgeoned and stabbed body was found on the sidewalk of a Chula Vista industrial complex.
Amanda Gaeke, 9
Disappeared after an open house at her San Diego school. Her Her killer was caught five years later.
Sandra Astorga, 9
Abducted in January while walking six blocks from her home to school in San Bernardino. Her body was found three weeks later.
Jonathan Sellers, 9
Captured and murdered while he and a companion were riding their bicycles along the Otay River in south San Diego.
Polly Klaas, 12
Abducted from her Petaluma home in October. Her body was found two months later. Richard Allen Davis was sentenced to death.
Angelica Ramirez, 10
Was at a Visalia flea market where her mother worked when she disappeared in March. Her body was found three days later in an irrigation ditch south of Visalia.
Jainah Spencer, 7 mo.
Taken as a hostage by five gang members attempting to extort money from her father in February. Killed when the getaway car crashed in Lancaster. All five were later caught and convicted.
Maria Piceno, 8
Abducted in March while walking from her home in Lemoore to a nearby store. Her killer was a Lemoore naval base seaman.
Cecil Turner, 2
Disappeared from his parents’ Mission Viejo home early Aug. 13. His body was found six hours later, hidden by brush on the banks of nearby Oso Creek.
Anthony Martinez, 10
Was playing in an alley near his home in Beaumont in April. A man approached, pulled a knife and forced him into his car. After a massive search, his body was found two weeks later in the desert near Indio, bound with duct tape.
Isaiver Teague, 4
Was walking to a phone booth in Fresno with his 16-year-old aunt in July. Four months later, their bones were found two miles away.
Courtney Sconce, 12
Forced into a car while leaving middle school near Sacramento. The son of a state deputy attorney general pleaded guilty.
Times staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report.
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