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Interview With Frank Melero

Aired August 9, 2002 - 21:00   ET


NANCY GRACE, GUEST HOST: Tonight: As two terrified girls were kidnapped by a violent ex-con, two anguished young men were left behind, bound, blindfolded.
One of them, 19-year-old Frank Melero, talks to Larry about the abduction and its aftermath.

Then, arraignment day in the Samantha Runnion murder case. Alejandro Avila pleads not guilty to all charges.

Tonight: the man overseeing Avila's prosecution, Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas.

And the man who tracked Avila down, Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona.

Then, deliberations go on in the Danielle van Dam murder trial. David Westerfield could be sentenced to the death penalty if the verdict comes back guilty.

We'll get perspective from jury consultant Jo-Ann Dimitrius; Marc Klaas, his beautiful daughter Polly abducted and murdered in 1993; defense attorney Mark Geragos; world renowned forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee; and reporter Steve Fiorina covering the van Dam trial for local KGTV.

It's all next on LARRY KING LIVE.

Good evening, I'm Nancy Grace. Thanks for being with us tonight. I'm sitting in tonight for Larry King.

Tonight we're covering a lot of intense territory. As you'll recall, two teenage girls, Jacqueline Marris and Tamara Brooks endured a terrifying ordeal just last week in California. Kidnapped at gunpoint by a fugitive with an extensive criminal history, assaulted, and then driven to the point where they actually believed they had to kill their abductor before he killed them.

After 12 horrific hours, the girls were ultimately rescued, their lives saved by police, the criminal who had kidnapped them shot dead.

During those long hours when the girls were missing, two young men endured a special kind of hell. Joshua Brown was with Tamara when she was abducted, Frank Melero with Jackie Marris. Like Joshua, he was tied up and left behind by the kidnapper. Well, earlier this week Frank shared his story with Larry.


LARRY KING, HOST: Frank is 19 years old, he's going to emergency training school. His goal is to be a fireman, graduated high school a year ago.

OK, Frank. What were you doing there? Or is that obvious?

FRANK MELERO, TIED UP & LEFT BY GIRLS' KIDNAPPER: Well, no, actually we had -- I go up there a lot, actually, with my friends. A lot of people -- it's more of a hang-out spot more than so-called lover's lane, so...

KING: It's misnamed?

MELERO: Yes, it's very misnamed. I mean, it's just, there's not a lot to do out in Palmdale, so a lot of people just go up there to hang around -- you know, place to be away from everything. It's a good view, so...

KING: You're not always in their cars, or everybody stays in their cars?

MELERO: No, it depends. Like Jackie and I that night were in our cars, but sometimes I go up there and I'll be outside of my car, like, sit on the -- in the bed of it, or the tailgate, or anything and...

KING: And up late often?

MELERO: Yes, it's mainly late.

KING: Especially weekends?

MELERO: Yes, weekends.

KING: And is Jackie your girlfriend?

MELERO: No, we're just friends.

KING: So you were just sitting as friends; this was not a romantic...

MELERO: No, it was just a friendly thing. Just because we hadn't talked in a while, we hadn't seen each other in a while, so just catching up.

KING: Were you school mates?


KING: Does Jackie have a boyfriend?

MELERO: I'm not sure if I can answer that, but -- I mean, I know that she did, and I'm not sure if they broke up, so I don't know.

KING: Do you have a girlfriend?

MELERO: No, I don't.

KING: OK, so nobody's jealous over somebody sitting in a car?

MELERO: I don't think so, no.

KING: OK. Now Roy Ratliff -- the now late Roy Ratliff, came over to the other car first, right?

MELERO: Yes...

KING: You were in the second car?


KING: Were you aware of anything else going on?

MELERO: When we had driven up there I had no clue that there was two other people -- when our first -- our initial drive up there, when we were going up I saw Roy inside of the Bronco and I saw what I thought was another girl with him.

KING: But you didn't see a boy?

MELERO: No, I had no clue.

KING: And that turned out to be Tamara, right...

MELERO: Yes, I guess...

KING: ... that I guess that you saw? But you didn't think anything of it?


KING: Then what happened? So you park.

MELERO: So we parked and...

KING: The lights are out.

MELERO: Yes, and then we turn on the radio...

KING: Any other cars around?

MELERO: There was the Bronco, then there was a Saturn sitting right next to it, but no one was in the Saturn that we saw.

KING: And the Saturn obviously belonged to...


And then we just sat there and we started talking about it, kind of, joking about what we had seen. And so we were just sitting there talking, and we were talking about music, and then out of nowhere he just approached and none of us were paying attention, then he pulled a gun out.

KING: Was the window closed?

MELERO: No, it was open.

KING: And what did he do with the gun?

MELERO: At first he had it outside of the window, like, kind of -- well, in the window. And then he told -- "None of you look at me, both of you turn away." And so we did. And Jackie squatted down and I, kind of, squatted down, like, over her.

And then at that time he had put the gun to my head and he was just, like, "Give me your money." And so I gave him my wallet, and that's when he started searching through it. And he was like, "Where's the money at?" And I told him it was inside the flap. And he grabbed the money, looked through the wallet a little bit and threw it back at me.

And then he had reached for the ignition to get the keys out, and he couldn't -- it kept on fumbling it. So I pulled them out for him and I gave them to him.

KING: And he's got the gun still at your...

MELERO: Yes, he still has the gun to my head. And then...

KING: And Jackie all this time is...

MELERO: Is just squatting (ph). She's just staying quiet.

And then we kept on telling him throughout the whole thing, you know, "Just take our money. We don't want any trouble. You know, we're really sorry."

KING: Did he take Jackie's money?

MELERO: Not at that time, not yet. He had asked if we had a rope, or any type of tape so he can tie us up with. And I told him, you know, "I don't have rope or tape. I don't have anything like that in my truck." And he told me, "Either you give me rope or tape, or I'm going to hurt you both," you know -- "or I'll kill you," basically he's saying.

So I remembered I had a nylon tie-down, like, because we go dirt bike riding a lot, and so we tie down our dirt bikes with it. And I'd remembered I had it in the bed of my truck. So I asked him if I can get out and get it for him. And he let me. He opened up the door for me and he pulled -- he had the gun to my back and...

KING: Jackie is staying in the vehicle?

MELERO: Yes, she stayed inside the passenger seat. And so I gave it to him, and he tried to -- he started trying to tie my arms together and across. And it wasn't working, so he started getting, like, really mad. He was really aggravated throughout the whole thing, like if it wasn't supposed to happen. So he was really edgy, and I didn't want to say anything to make him too mad.

So I got back in the truck and he told me to place my hands on the steering wheel and so he can tie me up. And at that time, another -- a water and power truck was driving up the hill to the gate. And we were right next to the gate, maybe a few feet away. And it drove up and it kept on running and the guy got out, and he went and -- I guess, to reinforce the gate. I don't know what he was doing.

KING: He didn't see what was going on in your car?

MELERO: He didn't, and that's when Roy started flipping out. He was just, like, "Oh, I don't know," and just cussing and just getting really mad, really aggravated.

And I didn't know what to say, so he just told me -- he was, like, "Stay quiet. I don't want you guys making any sudden moves." And he just started tapping the gun against the side of my door.

So we just -- we stayed there. And then sooner or later, the water and truck -- the water and power truck drove away, back down the hill.

KING: And he tied you to the steering wheel?

MELERO: Yes, he tied me to the steering wheel with the tie-down. He made sure my arms were underneath and he kept on telling me to pull -- to tighten up the tie-down for him. And as I was pulling, you know, it was hurting my right arm, because that was -- it's like he was concentrating on my right arm.

So I kept on pulling back, and I told him I couldn't pull no more. And that's when he started getting mad, and he told me, you know, "You better keep on pulling." And I kept on trying to pull, and I couldn't.

KING: To make it tighter?

MELERO: Yes. And then, so he punched me, like, a couple of times. I think I remember it being two or three; I'm not sure.

KING: Were you very scared at this point?

MELERO: Oh, yes, I was very scared for my life.

KING: Adrenalin going nuts.

MELERO: Oh, yes. Praying like you wouldn't believe, just praying for our lives.

KING: Was Jackie crying, or? MELERO: No, she wasn't. She was quiet, you know. She was more in the type of mood that I was in. Just, like, you know -- just trying to...

KING: Make this go away?

MELERO: ... we couldn't believe that we were in that situation, and just...

KING: And what do you do after he tied you up?

MELERO: He tied my arms and then he saw Jackie, like, the way she was -- she was sitting there, so he noticed. And he walked around the back of the truck to the passenger side, and he tried opening it up, but it was locked. And so he kept on pounding on the window, you know, "Open up the door. Open up the door."

KING: Window open on her side?

MELERO: Yes. And then that's when she started, kind of, like, getting scared. I saw that she started getting scared. She said, like, "I don't know how to open up the door." I told her, "It's -- you know, it's that handle right there."

I couldn't really use my hands so I kept on doing it so he assumed that we were doing something. And then he got -- he started getting even madder than he was getting before.

And then he opened up -- or she opened up the door for him. He pulled her out and then he walked around back to my side. And I think he tried tape -- or he tried tying down -- with the rest of the tie- down that I had on me, he tried tying us both together. So he made us hold hands. And...

KING: And you're still hearing no sounds from nowhere else?

MELERO: Yes. There was nothing.

And so Jackie at that time told me -- she was, like, you know, "I'm really scared." And I was, like, you know -- I didn't know what to tell her, and I was really scared, but I told her, you know, I had a sense of peace because he hadn't done anything to us yet. And I felt, like, God's presence and I just told her, you know, "It's going to be all right. God is with us," you know.

KING: And if he's going to kill you, why not kill you?


KING: Why is he tying you up?

MELERO: Yes. And so, it was, kind of, weird to me.

KING: We'll pick it up in a minute.

My guest is Frank Melero. He was there. Don't go away. (END VIDEOTAPE)



KING: We're back with Frank Melero and this incredible story.

OK, you're tied up; what is she now?

MELERO: She wasn't tied up to me yet, because he -- there wasn't enough room on the tie-down to tie us both up.

KING: So he took her, right?

MELERO: So he took her. He told her -- he told me that he was going to go to the Bronco, he was going to go look for some tape, and if I moved or if I tried to signal anyone or fidget or try and make a call or anything that he was going to, you know, hurt Jackie.

KING: He took her with the gun?

MELERO: Yes, he took her with the gun and so she left.

KING: And you never saw her again?

MELERO: Well, I did. She came back about five minutes later.

KING: And...

MELERO: And he came back with tape and that's when he asked me -- it was strange, because he asked me if I was doing all right when he came back, like, if he was checking on me.

And he just -- and I told him I was, and then, like, a few minutes later he started getting really mad, he started asking me, "Oh, you think you're real fast," you know, "You think you're fast, you think you're crazy, you think I'll kill you."

And I was like, "Yes," you know, I didn't want to upset him. I was like, "Yes, I do think you'll kill me." And he was just, like, asking all these outrageous questions, like a Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing.

KING: Like he was on some kind of...

MELERO: Yes, I know he was drunk; I could smell it on his breath. And I -- and I was confused...

KING: And if he intended to tie her up, how do you explain the taking her and the rape and everything if he was looking for stuff to tie her up to the car?

MELERO: Right. I can't.

KING: He just took her away again? MELERO: Yes, he just took her away again. Like, he had taped my mouth, he taped my eyes, and he asked me, you know, "Can you breathe?" and I told him -- I nodded yes. And he taped my legs, and then he put more tape around my arms onto the steering wheel.

KING: And Jackie, all this time, was where?

MELERO: Yes, she was sitting there right next to him. And I think he had taped around her arms, but not her mouth or anything.

KING: And then you heard him take her away?

MELERO: Yes...

KING: Was she screaming or anything?

MELERO: No. She was, when he took her away she was...

KING: And you heard no other sounds from the other car?

MELERO: No, none at all.

So, he taped the back of my head, and he told me the same thing, you know, "Frank, I'm going to go back." And he...

KING: He knew your name by then?

MELERO: Yes, he knew my name. He told me -- he addressed me by my name. So he told me that he was going to go, and that he was going to come back again, but not to do anything stupid, not to make any noises or anything. And so that's when I saw him getting inside of the Bronco and I didn't see what he did with Jackie.

It was really -- it was about 100 yards away, so it was, kind of, hard to see.

KING: And dark.

MELERO: And dark, yes. And I had to look up to the back of my window, and it was tinted.

KING: So you had no idea of another of another guy, another car, another girl?

MELERO: No, none. And...

KING: And he drove away?

MELERO: And he drove away and I assumed that the girl that I had initially saw him with was inside the Saturn and he stuck Jackie in there with him. So I didn't want to get out of the truck, and I didn't want to make the wrong move and them hurt Jackie. So I just kind of...

KING: You assumed both of them were in the Saturn. You had no idea they both were in the Bronco. MELERO: And I thought he was going to come back so...

KING: Where was the other boy? In the Saturn?

MELERO: No, I guess he had been tied up the whole time on a cement block against the pole. Like, he was tied up, like, with his hands behind his back.

KING: Do you every think, Frank, in thinking back, "I could have done something"?

MELERO: Yes, I'm sure everyone does. But, I mean, at the same time you also think, you know, a gun versus fists. No matter what predicament you're in...

KING: You ain't going to win.

MELERO: ... you're not going to win. And what good are you going to do being dead than you are being alive?

KING: So you sat there tied up, blindfolded for how long?

MELERO: About five minutes when -- until I realized, you know, he was gone. And so I ripped out of it and I grabbed the cell phone that I had hid from him. I didn't let him see it. And I got on the phone and I called my parents, and I told them, you know, "I've been mugged."

And my mom told me, you know, "Well, did he take you money?"

And I said, "Yes."

And she said, "OK, well, just bring your -- or just come home."

And I was like, "You don't understand, you know. They took Jackie -- I don't know where Jackie is at. And..."

KING: And does he have your car keys too?

MELERO: Yes, he took my car keys. "And I don't have the car keys, and he has a gun." And that's when she realize how serious it was. And that's when she told me she was going to call the cops. And I told her to tell my dad to come.

KING: How quick before the cops got there?

MELERO: Oh, they got there really fast. I'd say maybe a couple of minutes.

KING: And how quick before they found the other boy?

MELERO: Right then. They were driving at the bottom of Portel (ph) Mountain looking, because I don't think they knew I was at the top. And so I started pumping my brakes to give them a little signal to show them that I was up at the top. And that's when they put their flash -- their searchlight on me. And they drove up to the top of the mountain and they had the light on me the whole time.

And they went from one side to the total opposite, and then that's when I first saw the other guy. I saw that he was taped up and I was, like, "Oh, God, this isn't good," you know. And I didn't know a whole lot about it until they finally let me out of my truck. And that's when I found out.

KING: Did you know him?

MELERO: Never met him before in my life.

KING: You didn't know the other girl, either?


KING: You weren't in school at the same school with you or same community? That's not a huge community, is it?

MELERO: No. Actually, it's Courtshill (ph), Palmdale and Lancaster all smashed together, and there's a lot of high schools out there.

KING: Oh, there are.

MELERO: Yes. There's about five or six high schools, so, I mean, there's a lot of teenagers. But, I mean, I didn't know any of them.

KING: How shaken were you?

MELERO: I was pretty shaken, because it's almost as if I felt responsible. I mean, I know it can happen to anyone, but going up there and just having the person that you're with taken away and all of a sudden realizing that it was a kidnapping and that it was going to go nationwide, worldwide, I don't know what it went. But I mean -- and I just wanted her to be OK. I just couldn't help but, you know, think of myself as being responsible. And it was really hard.

KING: And you had to develop some sort of kinship with the other boy, right?

MELERO: Oh, yes. I mean, as hard as it was under those circumstances, I don't want to be someone's friend. But, I mean, I guess it happened that way. And, I mean, sure he came off to me as, kind of, weird, you know, because his reactions of taking it were different than mine.

KING: Joshua?


KING: Like weird in what way?

MELERO: In a way, like, where he took it, like, as if it was maybe a little bit more humorous. But I know he was -- I know it hurt him just as bad, you know. KING: Do you think it might have been just a reaction?

MELERO: Yes, just a reaction, because...

KING: Some people react with nervous laughter.

MELERO: Yes. My cousin, for instance. When he hears bad news, he laughs. And...

KING: Joshua was doing this...

MELERO: It wasn't like a laugh. It was just, like, you know, as if he was in so much disbelief that he was just, like, "I can't believe this is happening," like, "ha ha," and, like, laughing about it. And I was just, like -- it seemed weird to me, but then I was, like, you know, "I know he has to be going through pain." Because when I talked to him, he just explained it to me. And I was, like, you know...

KING: How'd the cops handle it?

MELERO: Very good. I mean, I can't give them enough credit. Because they were -- they made sure that, throughout the whole situation, we were comfortable. They wanted us to feel that it was not our fault, you know. And they did everything they possibly could to help us out.

KING: And you had to describe the guy as best you could?

MELERO: Yes. I had to describe him so they can draw him.

KING: Did you then go home, or did you -- where did -- there was 12 hours between their being taken and being found.

MELERO: Throughout those 12 hours, I stayed quite a bit of time up on the mountain, just waiting to see what happens. And I got questioned by a couple of investigators. And then they took us to the Courtshill (ph) station, where they had everything -- the families there, and they had everyone there.

KING: Did your father come up to the spot too?

MELERO: Yes. He was up there in the spot with me the whole time.

KING: And your mother met you at the station?

MELERO: Yes. And then my dad left and they both met me at the station.

KING: Did you finally go back home, or did you wait it out there?

MELERO: I had to wait, because they had further questions, because they didn't know if he was going to be dead, or if I was going to have to go to trial, and... KING: Did Joshua wait there too?

MELERO: Yes. He waited. And...

KING: What were those 12 hours like?

MELERO: Horrible.

KING: Did you have the television on?

MELERO: No. We couldn't watch any television. They didn't want any televisions. And, like, without people bombarding us and just asking us so many questions, they wanted us to stay by ourselves.

There was a lot of running around, moving us from place to place to place, just to stay out of everyone's...

KING: Well, they have a particular situation.


KING: Girls might have been killed, guy might have been captured. You would've been prime witness.

MELERO: Yes. I know.

KING: Back with more of Frank Melero on this edition of LARRY KING LIVE. Don't go away.


KING: We're back with Frank Melero, who will never forget this as long as he lives.

All right, how did you learn about what happened to Mr. Ratliff and the girls?

MELERO: When we were sitting in the Lancaster station, we were sitting in a cubical, my dad and my mom, a detective and I.

KING: And Joshua was in the next cubicle?

MELERO: Yes. He was in -- no, actually, I don't know what they had done with him, because they wanted to question us separately, you know. That way our stories weren't mixed up.

And we were sitting in there and my mom was on the cell phone with my sister. And my sister told me that she thought -- or she told my mom that she thought she saw that they were OK. And then I saw my mom start crying, and she said that they were all right, and that they had a shoot-out. And they don't want to tell us that he was dead.

KING: Why?

MELERO: I don't know, to tell you the truth. Until my mom -- I think my mom told me first. And that's when I asked the detective, and I said, you know, "Is he dead?" And then he said, you know, "I don't think we're supposed to tell you, but you have a right to know. So yes, he is." And which -- it brought a reassurance to me, you know, knowing that if he ever did break out of jail, you know, he couldn't come after me. But in a sense, I don't want to see a life lost, I mean...

KING: You feel sorry?

MELERO: Yes, I actually did. As hard as that is to believe. I mean, don't get me wrong: I know how much bad he did in that, and I can't begin to describe how many bad feelings I had toward him. But that was still someone's son. That was still -- it was still a life that God made, as hard as it is to believe.

And it's hard to see me, like...

KING: I guess you're opposed to capital punishment?

MELERO: I mean...

KING: Are you?

MELERO: I don't -- yes, I guess. I mean, I think that everyone -- what comes around -- what goes around comes around. I believe in that.

KING: You're going to get even maybe somewhere else?

MELERO: Yes, and then he got what was coming to him.

KING: How, Frank, was the news -- and it happened on this show, not through any fault of ours, we were just questioning the attorney general and then the sheriff when we learned they were raped. You were home by then, right?

MELERO: When I found out that they were?

KING: Yes.


KING: How'd you react to that?

MELERO: Couldn't begin to describe how bad I felt just to know that it wasn't willingly. You know, I know how good those girls are. I mean, I barely met Tamara today and I feel like I'd known her for a while. And they're both such good girls, and just so pure and so nice, and just to see something that bad happen, you know, and just indented -- they don't deserve that, they didn't deserve that at all.

KING: Were you with Jackie today?

MELERO: I've been with her a lot...



KING: What was the first meeting like? Where was it?

MELERO: I think it was -- we talked on the phone the first time, then I went to her house and it wasn't at all like we really got to talk that much. It was just, like, a hug, just to -- you know, knowing that she was OK.

It was a good thing. But then there was a lot of media, you know. They were just asking her questions.

So I'd say the first time we really got to, like, be by ourselves we went to Red Robin to go eat...

KING: Just the two of you?

MELERO: Yes, just the two of us. And it was really nice. We got to talk a lot. I mean, I got to know what was on her mind. And it's good to see that she's doing so good, you know.

KING: Handled it well. Both of them.


KING: Did you go in the same car you were in that night?

MELERO: Excuse me?

KING: Did you go in the same...

MELERO: Yes, we did.

KING: Did it feel funny to get back in that car, you and her?

MELERO: Oh, no, we didn't go in my truck. They impounded it. Actually...

KING: Is it still impounded?

MELERO: Yes. Well, actually I got it back. But...

KING: Was it weird just to be in a car, the two of you?

MELERO: Yes, it was especially weird because we were in a limo, and that drew a lot of attention to us. And then, you know, everyone knew us by then, you know, as the Lover's Lane couple, and, you know -- so being inside of there, everyone was looking at us, you know, and just, like, pointing.

But, I mean, it was more than that, it was, like, we, kind of, blocked it out because we were so happy, you know, that -- to be alive.

KING: Do you think, in view of this, you might date her now?

MELERO: I can't speak for the future, but, I mean... KING: I mean, look, that the two of you have had an experience...


MELERO: Yes. Yes. Exactly.

KING: And you liked each other to begin with.

MELERO: Yes. But, I mean, it's a bond -- I'll tell you one thing: It is -- there is a new bond between us that...

KING: Sure.

MELERO: ... that no one can describe. And it's hard not to realize that it's there.

But at the same time, you know, God has his plan. And whatever happens, happens. I can't speak for the future.

KING: How has she dealt with the rape thing? Did she talk to you about it?

MELERO: She has, but, more or less, I don't want her to talk to me about it. Because, I mean, I'm sure that's really painful, you know. It's painful to describe -- you know, to get into details. And she doesn't deserve that pain.

So I'd rather -- if she wanted to, I'd be all ears. I'd be ready to listen to her, you know, if she wanted to get really into it in front of me. But I'm not going to make her. I don't think she deserves to live that over again.

KING: Is she physically OK?

MELERO: Yes. She's a strong girl. They're both really, really strong girls. You wouldn't believe how strong.

KING: So interesting, Frank, when you heard they were alive, you were overjoyed. But you were not elated that he was killed.

MELERO: I mean...

KING: You didn't have, "Wow, I'm glad."

MELERO: Yes, I didn't. I honestly didn't. I was like, you know, "Poor guy, but he got what he deserved."

KING: Do you ever say to yourself, or have you asked Joshua, "We could have done something"?

MELERO: I mean, I say to myself -- more and more when my friends come up to me and they tell me, "Oh, you should have punched him, or you should have done this, or you should have done that." But when you look back at it, it's, like, throughout the whole time he more or less had me where he wanted me. He tied me up initially. He had me. And, like, those punches that he delivered to me, as if he wanted to intimidate me right off the bat. And...

KING: With what we've learned of his prior record, you ever wonder how you're alive? Because the sheriff told us sitting right there, he was -- they were 10 minutes away from being killed, those girls.


KING: He had nowhere to go but to kill them. He kidnapped them, he'd raped them, that's the death penalty in California.


KING: Do you ever think, "Why am I alive?"

MELERO: Every day. I mean, I ask this question if you -- I mean, if you only knew how many times I ask this question to my parents, you know, and just asking, "Why is -- why did God still leave me here?"

I know for obvious reasons that I have a plan in this world, and I intend on making a good life for myself, you know. I now know that I'm not meant to be dead. So I'm going to try my hardest to use my life for something good.

KING: I would bet on you, Frankie. I really think you're...

MELERO: Thank you.

KING: ... you have both feet on the ground. You're an extraordinary man.

What lessons have you learned from all this, if any?

MELERO: Value everything that you have. Value your family, as hard and strict as they are. You don't understand how much I value my family, but...

KING: When Pop and Ma yell, you hear it a little better.


Obviously, life is great enough to where it's almost taken away from you, you still want it. So, I mean, value life.

And a lot of people, a lot of teenagers especially, think, "It can't happen to me." It can. Keep your head on your shoulders and keep looking straight ahead.

KING: Why do you want to be a fireman?

MELERO: I've always respected them. I've always been hands-on. I'm not really good at cubical jobs. I like business a lot. And I'm, kind of, struggling with the both of them because I like being in a suit and a tie and I like dealing with people. I'm a people person. I've lived... KING: All firemen are.

MELERO: Yes, so -- and it's fun to me. I've done it for -- I've been training for, like, three years. I've been doing classes and classes. And it's fun to me. It intrigues me a lot.

KING: Are you going to stay in Southern California?

MELERO: Yes. I love it here. I'm a Southern California kind of guy. So...

KING: I think you're a great kind of guy, Frank.

MELERO: Thank you, thank you very much.

KING: You're very special.


NANCY GRACE, COURT TV: Man, what a story, a kid that came that close to dying.

When we come back, we are switching gears to the Samantha Runnion case. Five-year-old Samantha went missing just yards from her own home. Her body was discovered shortly after. The little girl had been molested and asphyxiated, suffocated to death.

Tonight, we're going to be speaking to the Orange County district attorney in that case. As you know by now, Alejandro Avila, 27 years old, plead not guilty in court today. And also, the man that apprehended the alleged killer and sexual predator, Orange Country Sheriff Mike Carona.


GRACE: Welcome back. I'm Nancy Grace standing in for Larry King tonight. Thanks for being with us.

As you all know, little Samantha Runnion lost her life. The man who apprehended the alleged killer and sexual predator, Sheriff Mike Carona, is with us tonight. Also joining us, district attorney Tony Rackauckas. Sheriff, district attorney, thank you for being with us tonight.

Sheriff Carona, first to you. We all know by now that today in a court of law, Alejandro Avila plead not guilty on all counts. Any thoughts on that, sheriff?

SHERIFF MIKE CARONA, ORANGE COUNTY, CALIFORNIA: Well, I think that was expected. Again, one of the things that I had mentioned, Nancy, last time I was on the show, our part of it is done. We in law enforcement were able to put together a good team and apprehend the suspect. And now the trial process needs to take place and I'm sure the not guilty plea is part and parcel of that process.

GRACE: You're not kidding. Sheriff, have you ever worked on a death penalty case before, been a witness in a death penalty case?

CARONA: No, I have not.

GRACE: So this is a first for you?

CARONA: Well, we've had several death penalty cases. I have not been a witness in one, and I don't intend to be a witness in this particular case. We've had several that our office has been engaged in that we've gone after the suspect and the district attorney has asked for the death penalty.

GRACE: Sheriff, there's one thing I have learned about jury trials, never say never. Just hold on to that as you proceed forward.

Tony Rackauckas, again, thank you for being with us. Were you surprised at what went down in the courtroom today?

TONY RACKAUCKAS, ORANGE COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: No. I don't think there were any surprises.

GRACE: Well, you know, a lot of people have heard that you have stated you will not entertain a guilty plea. What's from stopping Alejandro Avila from flinging himself on the mercy of the court and pleading guilty?

RACKAUCKAS: Well, there's no provision to plead guilty and accept the death penalty in California. The California Supreme Court requires that that be done by a jury.

GRACE: Tony, question regarding your office. Have you guys handled several death penalty cases in the past?

RACKAUCKAS: Yes, we have.

GRACE: What's your success rate?

RACKAUCKAS: Well, very high. I mean, by the time we get to that question, normally we've -- we have a conviction. So, when you say success rate, do you mean concerning a conviction or getting the death penalty?

GRACE: Actually having a jury come back with a death penalty sentence?

RACKAUCKAS: Well, I think two years ago, I think we had eight juries come back with death penalties. Last year, it's tough for me to give you the number, I think five or six.

GRACE: The reason I ask, Tony, is because there's been also a swirl of rumors that the defense will attempt a change of venue because your jurisdiction does have a good success rate with getting a death penalty sentence. Now, do you anticipate a move, a change of venue? Will you oppose it?

RACKAUCKAS: Well, if that motion is made, of course we'll oppose it. And I think we have a great deal of confidence in the fairness of Orange County juries. And I can just say that in my experience, and, frankly, I have seen hundreds of juries, both as a prosecutor and as a judge. And I can tell you that once the jurors are sworn to do their job, they take that responsibility very seriously and they treat the matter fairly. They follow the court's instructions. And I think that we can get a good jury in Orange County. And I'm absolutely convinced that Mr. Avila will get a fair trial.

GRACE: Sheriff Carona, I was watching Samantha Runnion's funeral. Funerals are difficult enough as it is, much less a funeral for a 5-year-old little girl like Samantha. I saw you there. How's the family?

CARONA: Well, the family is -- and you're a crime victim, so you understand this. The family is coping as best they can. They're mourning now the fact that their daughter's gone. I think it starts to set in more poignantly for them at about this point. But I can tell you Erin's (sic) mom is doing as best as she can.

GRACE: You know what, Sheriff, you really hit the nail on the head because up until that point, there was the flurry of activity trying to find Samantha. Then the gruesome discovery, the press camped out in the front yard day and night, the funeral. In my experience, my own person experience, this is when it really hits home that Samantha is gone. I know they're in a lot of pain.

And, Tony Rackauckas, now they've got to be gearing up for a jury trial. There's no way this thing is going to go away with a guilty plea. Tony, I have heard also that there may be other charges against Alejandro Avila stemming from those two other little girls, the original charges on which he was acquitted a year and a half before the murder went down. Is that true? Is he being reinvestigated on other charges?

RACKAUCKAS: There were -- you're talking about some developments that might be in Riverside County?


RACKAUCKAS: And it's my understanding that there aren't any other charges that are being brought concerning that matter.

GRACE: I have heard swirlings of that today, possibly other molestations on one of the same little girl victims.

Let me ask you a question, Tony, regarding when you take this case to trial. Under the law, there's a theory of similar transactions. For instance, if a man is on trial for rape and he has raped in the past, the jury, under certain circumstances, may hear about those prior bad acts.

Since there was an acquittal for Alejandro Avila on those prior alleged molestations, can they come in before this death penalty jury or will the jury never know about them?

RACKAUCKAS: You know, Nancy, I have to try the case in court and maybe get that ruling from a judge and so I don't think it would be a very good idea for me to argue it here. But I'll tell you what, I bet you could argue it pretty well.

GRACE: Well, you know, in a lot of jurisdictions, prior bad acts can come in unless there has been an acquittal. And then very often it's very tough to get them in. Sheriff Carona, back to you.

In this case, when it first broke and Samantha's little body was discovered, I recall you saying on the airwaves that her body was left in a position that was basically a calling card, that this guy was going to strike again. What exactly was it that made you think he would strike again, simply based on the position of her body? Was she posed in some way?

CARONA: Well, without getting into, again, a lot of detail, because now the D.A. needs to be able to try this case, I can tell you, Nancy, that when we looked at the crime scene and presented that to the team that we had compiled, the investigative team that was made up of not only the Orange County Sheriff's Department, but the FBI and their forensic profilers, there was a belief in the room that the position of the body may have been a calling card and may have led us to some clues, which is why we put that information out to the public.

GRACE: Let me go back to you, Tony Rackauckas, the defense attorney in this case, she's quite a court room veteran. No doubt in my mind about that.


GRACE: She's handled a lot of death penalty cases before, and I have noticed in looking at her history and researching her in several child molestation cases, she has argued to the jury that it's not really a crime, it's a sickness, a mental sickness, a compulsion, that the jury should not hold that against her client. Are you expecting an insanity defense based on her track record?

RACKAUCKAS: Well, I have heard some of the same things that you're talking about, and what -- I'm going to leave that to the Denise to come up with the defense, and there's no doubt in my mind that she's an excellent trial attorney and that Mr. Avila will have a terrific team to defend him. But whatever the defense is, I think we'll -- I think we'll handle it.

GRACE: So, Tony, as usual, you're going to play it close to the vest with me tonight, not give anything away. OK. I know this woman is very, very committed to the anti-death penalty cause. I mean, this lawyer took part in a candlelight vigil for Timothy McVeigh. Alright? Let that sink in for a moment.

So she's going to come out guns a' blazing in this trial. Question to you. The way he was arraigned, the first time he was arraigned via closed circuit TV. Today he was behind a glass protection. Was that for security or is that S.O.P., standard operating procedure?

RACKAUCKAS: Well, in Department Five that glass case that you saw, that's standard operating procedure for the arraignments that they have there. GRACE: And last question before we've got to go to break, when do you think the case will go to trial?

RACKAUCKAS: Well, we're hoping for an early trial date. I think if you -- I don't know if you followed it, but this morning there was a defense motion to continue the arraignment. We opposed that.

GRACE: I heard that.

RACKAUCKAS: It was denied, and so we're set for September 16, to set the preliminary hearing. And it's my hope that we can bring this case to trial within a relatively few months. The people have a right to a speedy trial in California, as well as the defense.

GRACE: Just like the defendant.

RACKAUCKAS: And we're doing everything that we can to invoke that right and to bring this case to trial. And our team -- our team will be ready at an early time.

GRACE: OK. Orange County elected district attorney Tony Rackauckas argued that motion himself. Thank you, Tony.

And, of course, thank you to a man we've come to know as a friend on the airwaves, Sheriff Mike Carona, the man that apprehended the alleged killer and sexual predator. Gentlemen, we'll be watching. Everybody, stay with us.


GRACE: Welcome back. I'm Nancy Grace from Court TV in for Larry King tonight. We are juggling two high profile cases, the case of Samantha Runnion, a 5-year-old girl that was found dead and molested, as well as a jury trial going on in a San Diego courtroom, the case against David Alan Westerfield.

He's on trial for capital murder, kidnapping and child pornography in the death and disappearance of his 7-year-old neighbor Danielle van Dam. Joining us Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, jury consultant, Marc Klaas, the father of daughter Polly, now a victim's rights advocate, defense attorney Mark Geragos, world-renowned forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee, and, of course, Steve Fiorina, covering the Van dam trial for KGTV. Welcome, everybody.

Let me go to you first, Mark Klaas. In this case there has been quite the crucifixion of the victim's family. I'm talking about Brenda and Damon van Dam. Why?

MARC KLAAS, DAUGHTER ABDUCTED AND KILLED IN '93: Well, you know, that's a very good question because they're very nice people. They have a good infrastructure of friends and supporters around them that have been very loyal. They're very good to their neighbors and their friends. Yet as we speak, Nancy, there's a third rate little disc jockey named Rick Roberts (ph) who continues to pound on and vilify this family, and it just never seems to cease. Some people apparently will do anything for a ratings point. And this just basically proves probably the -- whereas we're seeing some of the highest rungs of journalism on the LARRY KING show tonight, we're seeing some of the lowest rungs of entertainment or journalism or media down in San Diego with some of these radio shows. I think it's despicable.

GRACE: Mark Geragos, I assume your position is, it's fair game for the defense?

MARK GERAGOS, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Actually, if you're talking about the radio show, I've seen some of the transcripts, and I couldn't agree with Marc Klaas more. I'm a guy who's been out there and I will fight...

GRACE: Let me write this one down.

GERAGOS: I will usually fight to the death for somebody's first amendment rights, but this guy...

GRACE: First amendment right to drag victims through the mud. You know, somehow I don't think that was in the constitution, Mark.

GERAGOS: That's exactly what I was going to tell you, Nancy. At a certain point, there should be a breach of bad taste. These people, both here in L.A., and there's a couple guys who do it with great frequency in San Diego, this -- I think Marc's got him pegged exactly right, bottom fisher, has been out there doing some what I consider to be just totally defamatory and libelous things.

You know, you have the right to free speech. You don't have the right to libel or slander somebody. At a certain point some lawyer ought to go down there and represent them and sue for libel or slander. They don't have to put up with that.

GRACE: Marc Klaas and Mark Geragos, you're really preaching to the choir here. I've been watching Brenda van Dam in tears every day in the courtroom. The long story short, the defense is arguing that because the parents had taken part in swinging, so to speak, with other sex partners, that they somehow introduced some nefarious sexual predator that actually took little Danielle, not David Alan Westerfield.

Let me go to you, Dr. Henry Lee. In this case, we've heard a lot of argument about the van Dam's so-called alternative lifestyle. But what about the forensic evidence? Will the forensic evidence, and I'm talking this little girl's blood on the defendant's jacket, trump everything?

DR. HENRY LEE, FORENSIC EXPERT: Yes, Nancy, you're right. Forensic evidence plays an important role in this trial. Of course, the blood evidence on his jacket.

GRACE: How did it get through the dry cleaner, Dr. Lee? That's what's stumping me. LEE: Right. It went through the dry cleaning, in theory that some of the blood may have washed away and apparently they found a lot of DNA and match the suspect all the parameters to compare. Of course, we did not see the evidence directly. We should look at -- I'm sure they should look at the blood stain, what the color is? Is it fresh? Is this a drop or a smear? Because that could be a secondary transfer.

GRACE: It was a drop. It was not a smear. But what's confounding me is how it managed to get through a dry cleaner and still be there. A, get a new dry cleaner. And B, it suggests to me there could have been even more DNA evidence that did not survive the dry cleaning.

LEE: Exactly. But if it's a drop, how that drop, isolated drop, to get there become a crucial issue. Of course, those maggot evidence, if the jury starts considering the maggot evidence, the time of the death becomes an issue.

GRACE: Right. And we know the defense attorney in this case -- let me go to you, Steve Fiorina -- in this case, the defense attorney has used the technique of attacking time of death in the past, about 20 years ago. Prosecutors thought it was an open and shut murder case. No. The defense attorney, Feldman (ph), attacked the time of death with a series of experts and got an acquittal. What's the latest today, Steve? What's the holdup with the jury?

FIORINA: Well, the jury's told the judge that they wanted to work five days a week, not just four. And that's kind of telling, I think, that the defense attorney not just depending on that bug evidence. He stressed to the jury that there's so much passion about the case, he's worried that they're going to have a herd mentality and rush to judgment. He's very worried about that. The DA says, no, it was not the bogeyman who did this. We've got all this evidence. He called the blood the smoking gun, but he's also got hair and fibers and fingerprints. All those types of things.

The defense saying, you've got to stand your ground. If you think he's innocent, don't let everybody else sway you. The prosecution, on the other hand, saying, listen to everybody else. You must be fair in this and not just go in there with your mind made up. Listen to everyone else, speak your peace.

GRACE: Man, there were some very, very intense courtroom battle, closing arguments all day the past two days before that jury, before they went into deliberations. When we get back from this break, we are going to Jo-Ellan Dimitrius who is an expert in jury consult. Stay with us.


GRACE: Welcome back, everybody, on this Friday evening. I'm Nancy Grace from Court TV in for Larry King. Thanks for being with us. Let me go quickly to Jo-Ellan Dimitrius. She's a Ph.D. and a jury consultant. Jo-Ellan, there's been a lot of flack about the jury having been out so long, but when you take a look at the clock, it's only been about six hours. What's going on in that jury deliberation room?

JO-ELLAN DIMITRIUS, JURY CONSULTANT: Well, it has only been six hours. And I had to laugh because yesterday when their first question came back as to whether or not they could work on Friday, everybody was all freaked out, thinking, oh my God, it's a verdict. But clearly to me this indicates this jury does take it very seriously. They're in the heart of deliberations, and I suspect it's going to go on probably at least another day, through Monday.

If I can interject for just a moment, back to one of the earlier statements about the lambasting of the family, I think it's interesting because I think it's going to play against the defense. Because by saying that, you know, their lifestyle opened up the opportunity for some deviant to walk in...

GRACE: Right.

DIMITRIUS: Well, guess what. A deviant did walk in, and his name is David Westerfield.

GRACE: Well put. Well put. The jury's mulling that over. They're off for the weekend. I have only got about 30 seconds left. Last word to you, Marc Klaas.

KLAAS: Well, you know, I think people have to remember that the van Dams are good people, that they love their daughter. They're very good parents to their other children. And we can only hope that the jury does the right thing and puts this guy where he belongs, which is on death row.

GRACE: Six hours and counting. The jury resumes their deliberations on Monday morning, 9:00 sharp, in a San Diego courtroom.

I want to thank all of my guests. Dr. Henry Lee, Steve Fiorina, Mark Geragos, Marc Klaas and Jo-Ellan Dimitrius.

I'm Nancy Grace, in for Larry King, saying good night. Thanks for being with us.




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