Rachael Runyan

On August 26, 1982, a three-year-old girl named Rachael Runyan was abducted from a playground and murdered in Sunset, Utah; the case remains unsolved to this day.  Her body was found three weeks later in a creek bed in nearby Morgan County.

The murder of Rachael was one of Utah’s most infamous cold cases, and it served as the impetus for the creation of a child abduction alert system called the “Rachael Alert,” which was used in the state until 2003, when Utah adopted the national AMBER alert system.

The US Congress passed the Missing Children’s Act in 1983 in response to events like the kidnapping and murder of Rachael Runyan, which required the government to devote more resources to finding missing children.

In 2017, Utah passed and Governor Herbert signed into law the Rachael Runyan Missing and Exploited Children’s Day. Rachael’s kidnapping on August 26 is commemorated every year to call attention to the plight of missing and exploited children in the state. Runyan’s murder and kidnapping have not been solved as of the year 2019.

Early Life of Rachael Runyan

Rachael Marie Runyan, the second and only child of Jeff and Elaine Runyan, was born on June 23, 1979, in Weber County, Utah. Both Justin and Nathan were her brothers.

Before Rachael was born, the Runyan family had relocated from Tennessee to Sunset, which her mother would later describe as a “beautiful and safe place to raise children.” Sunset had a population of around 6,000 at the time. Rachael had been named “Little Miss Sunset” the year prior to her death, making her a child beauty queen. Her mother says that she was a well-behaved youngster who was pleased to sit on the sidelines and suck her thumb while watching Justin and the other kids play on the playground. In light of this behaviour, Rachael’s mother would periodically tease her that she might end up with “bucktooths” as an adult, to which Rachael would respond with a giggling fit. Even though Jeff and Elaine Runyan felt safe in the Sunset neighbourhood, they constantly told their children not to trust anyone who tried to entice them away from their home or any other secure location.

The family’s humble house was right next to the playground at Doxey Elementary. Mitchell Park, a favourite of the three children and a frequent hangout, was also close by. Jeff and Elaine Runyan built a gate in their backyard fence that summer of 1982 so their kids could have easy access to this area.

Abduction of Rachael

Rachael Runyan, then age 5, and her older brother Justin, then age 3, requested their mother if they may take their younger brother Nathan, then age 18 months, to the Doxey Elementary School playground in the late morning of August 26, 1982. Elaine Runyan had never before let her children to play outside alone, but she gave in to their request this time because she was making lunch for them and the school playground was only 15 feet (4.6 m) away, within within view of her kitchen window. Though Runyan spent much of her time in the kitchen talking to her kids and staring out the window, she did so frequently as she cooked.

Around 12:55 p.m., she called her kids for lunch, but only Nathan and Justin came back. Justin then informed her that a young black man who had volunteered to buy Rachael ice cream and bubble gum at a local store had instead abducted her from the park. Justin claims that the man tried to coax the three children into his car by promising to buy them candy as they were playing in the sandbox. Rachael told the man she enjoyed bubble gum ice cream as they approached his car. This is the ice cream flavour the man insisted he had in his car. Justin claims that after he advised Rachael not to go with the man any further, she turned and started to walk away from him. While Justin stood there paralysed in dread, Nathan by his side, Rachael was simply slung over his shoulder and bundled into his car.

Elaine hurried to the grocery store the kidnapper had specified and asked shoppers and employees numerous times: “Where would I find a young blonde girl? A black man and a little child?” No one she spoke to had seen her child. Elaine contacted the Sunset Police Department about Rachael’s kidnapping about 20 minutes after her daughter vanished.

Investigation of Case

The Sunset Police Department immediately set up obstacles in and around the city after hearing of Rachael’s kidnapping. Neither the culprit nor Rachael were located thanks to this strategy. Hours after her kidnapping, a team of ten police officers was assembled to look into the case. Sheriff Brant Johnston oversaw the investigation team that he assembled from various counties in Utah.

Justin Runyan and a child of around 10 years old who was also approached by the man at the playground gave investigators the following description of him: an African-American man with a light complexion, aged 30 to 35, standing 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, having a medium build, and sporting an afro haircut and a handlebar moustache. His automobile was a dark blue four-door with wood-grain stripes on the sides, and it was an older model. The man had been in Mitchell Park for at least 15 minutes prior to abducting Rachael, talking to a number of children and drinking coffee. The three Runyan kids, including Rachael’s five-year-old brother, had apparently played with this man for several minutes before they walked with him a short distance to his car, as was later uncovered by the investigators.

Although firsthand recall enabled authorities to gain an accurate physical description of the child’s abductor from which they were able to assemble a thorough composite drawing, the only witnesses to Rachael’s kidnapping had been the three youngsters. Her kidnapping from the school grounds was not caught by any surveillance cameras. Therefore, in the hours and days following the occurrence, law enforcement operations were essentially confined to things like forensic investigations of the crime scene and house-to-house enquiries, in addition to police and media appeals.

The public’s outcry for information about Rachael’s disappearance did result in many leads to her whereabouts and the suspected identity of her abductor. All leads were investigated thoroughly, but in the end none of them paid off.

Media appeals and family efforts

The Runyan family started looking for their daughter with the help of an assembled neighbourhood committee (many of whom donated money to an impromptu family search effort). Although Rachael’s photo was featured on posters that were disseminated across the country, the family and neighbourhood volunteers had few tools at their disposal to conduct the search. The Runyan family, with the help of their friends and neighbours, canvassed the area around their home and handed out thousands of missing person posters and leaflets. The family spent $10,000 on mail alone in only three weeks with this endeavour.

Rachael’s parents took a plane to New York a week after their daughter went missing so that they could participate in a news conference designed to keep the story in the public eye. I feel [the abductor] is without conscience, and my request is for someone who knows him to come forward and sell him out,” Jeff Runyan said at the news conference. Elaine Runyan, aware of the likelihood that Rachael was sold after her kidnapping, asked any prospective adoptive parents to check the child’s identification information to make sure she wasn’t Rachael.


A family was driving through Mountain Green, Utah, (about 50 miles; 80 kilometers) on September 19 at 5:00 p.m. when they pulled over to a turnout at Trapper’s Loop Road so their kids could play in the local stream and hurl rocks. The kids saw what they thought was a doll floating among a mound of brush, but it turned out to be something else. Children examined the doll and saw that it was truly the naked body of a young girl with her hands bound behind her back.

A broken tooth and ear piercings helped Rachael’s family members make an educated guess as to the identity of her body. The advanced stage of decomposition prevented a determination of the exact cause of Rachael’s death. The coroner could not rule out suffocation as a contributing factor in the death.


Jeff and Elaine Runyan held Rachael’s funeral at the Sunset Stake Center not long after their daughter’s body was formally identified. There were more than three hundred people present. Rachael’s funeral and burial were place at Washington Heights Memorial Park in Ogden, Utah. She was laid to rest in a plain white coffin with a photograph of her, a single pink rose, and a Raggedy Ann doll. She reduced a nation to its knees, it reads on Rachael’s tombstone.


In 2012, authorities reported that a prisoner in Pennsylvania who had lived in Sunset in 1982 was the subject of an investigation. The man has not been formally accused with Rachael’s kidnapping or death, but he is a suspect in the case. A man with a criminal history who is thought to be residing in New Mexico is another possibility. Chief of Police Ken Eborn of Sunset has stated that there is evidence to support the potential guilt of this suspect, but it is inadequate for police to make an official arrest at this time. In addition, Eborn has stated that he is certain that witnesses or individuals with knowledge of the man’s involvement are afraid to come forward to police, perhaps because he has issued death threats against them.

Rachael Case is Still Unsolved

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