The Justice Files: A brother’s guilt

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SOUTH OGDEN Utah (ABC4 Utah) – Justin Runyan was 5-years old and felt helpless as he watched his younger sister taken away by a stranger.

Rachael Runyan was kidnapped and her body was discovered about three weeks later in a shallow grave. Her abductor has never been found.

Justin Runyan is now 43-years old and he hasn’t spoken publicly about the ordeal since 1982 when it first happened.

Thursday he was with his mother and younger brother Nate.  They gathered with friends at Rachael’s gravesite in South Ogden. 

August 26th was the day she was kidnapped. The state legislature recently named that day Rachael Runyan Missing and Exploited Children Day.  It’s a day to bring awareness to all children victimized.

“I feel that I need to honor that day and to keep the word out for our children, to keep them safe,” said Elaine Runyan, Rachael’s mother.  

But she said it’s also a bittersweet day. She said seeing family and friends around Rachael’s grave is comforting.

Among those in attendance were her two sons, Justin, and Nate who was 18-months old at the time of the kidnapping. The three siblings were at a school playground which was next to their Sunset home.  Justin recalled seeing a stranger approach them.

 “He was friendly,” said Justin Runyan. “I remember questioning whether he was a stranger or not.  He was nice and so I had always heard that strangers were mean.”

He said the stranger invited them for bubble gum ice cream at the nearby Bobco grocery store.  Runyan said that captured Rachael’s attention.

“I remember Rachel was very excited about that,” he said. 

She started to leave with the stranger but Justin called for her to return and Rachael stopped.

 “(She) started to come back and that’s when he picked her up and he started running.  I remember thinking ‘oh no, nobody can find out what I did today.”

The five-year-old boy ran home and told his mother what just happened.  He said she fell to her knees.

“She said ‘he’ll kill her, he’ll kill her’ and I didn’t know what to do.  I just kind of sat there.”

Three weeks later, Rachael’s little body was found in Morgan County. And for a five-year-old there was guilt.

“I didn’t realize it at the time but I was feeling guilty, irresponsible,” he said.  “I felt it was my fault.

His mother said they tried to tell him otherwise.

“We all want to blame ourselves because there was some unknown preador that we could not pin it on,” said Elaine Runyan.  “We always told Justin he did not do anything wrong.  He did everything a 5-year old could do.” 

It took years for Justin to overcome his demons.  But his mother said he devoted his time to helping others.  She said he became an Eagle Scout at thirteen years old.

“He spent much of his life-saving people in difficult situations,” said his mother. 

As an adult, he and Nate joined their mother in helping raise awareness for all missing and exploited children.  At 43-years old, Justin has come to terms with what happened.

“It took me a lot of years to realize it was his fault,” he said.  “There was nothing that I did wrong that day.”

And even though Rachael is gone, he took comfort in knowing she’s nearby.

” I know there are a lot of parents that still wonder where their kids are at,” Justin Runyan said.  “I’m grateful knowing that we don’t have to go through that torment.  I’d rather her be here than anywhere else.  I’d rather know that she’s not out there suffering more and going through more.”

Recently Sunset police confirmed that the state’s Attorney General’s office was taking over the investigation. The chief of police also confirmed a possible person of interest has emerged.

Runyan said one thing bothered him all these years.  It was the composite drawing that Sunset police released in 1982.  He and a ten-year-old who witnessed the abduction from afar gave police information that led to the composite drawings.

But Runyan said the composite no longer resembles the kidnapper. Friday, in part 2, Justin Runyan now offers a better description of Rachael’s kidnapper.

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