Family and friends celebrate Rachael Runyan, the 3-year-old whose 1982 killing inspired Utah’s Amber Alert system

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Nathan Runyon, brother to Rachael Runyon is hugged as family, friends and child advocates gathered to celebrate the life of Rachael Runyan, the 3-year-old whose 1982 killing inspired UtahÕs Amber Alert system. Rachael Runyan's mother, Elaine Runyan, has made it her lifeÕs work to advocate for missing and exploited children.

Sunset • The balloons — purple and pink, Rachael Runyan’s favorite colors — were handed out to the 30 or so people assembled Saturday in the park that bears her name.

It’s the same park where, on Aug. 26, 1982, someone — whose identity still is a mystery — abducted 3-year-old Rachael. Her body was found three weeks later in Morgan County, 20 miles away.

People wrote messages in marker on some of the balloons. Rachael’s mother, Elaine, wrote on hers: “I love you, Baby Girl. Always + Forever, Mama.”

Then the people let loose the ribbons on their balloons, which floated quickly up into the clear blue summer sky.

“She was just so precious,” Elaine Runyan said of her slain daughter. “She just touched everybody’s heart.”

Elaine Runyan has made it her life’s work to advocate for missing and exploited children. She led Saturday’s event at Rachael Runyan Memorial Park in Sunset, an annual celebration of Rachael’s life and the impact she had in the lives of other children.

The event brought Runyan’s family and friends, as well as local dignitaries, to talk about measures to help other children who are abducted. The most important tool, the speakers said, is the Amber Alert system, which in Utah was introduced in 2002 as the Rachael Alert, named for Rachael Runyan.

“There are children who are alive today because of Rachael,” Sunset Police Chief Ken Eborn said.

Utah, Elaine Runyan said, was the ninth state in the country to establish a rapid-alert system to tell the public about abducted children. “It was the catalyst to all 50 states,” Runyan said.

The Rachael Alert — later renamed Amber Alert, the name that gained popularity nationally — became well known because of the first case in Utah in which it was used: the 2002 abduction of then-14-year-old Elizabeth Smart from her Salt Lake City home.

“I had no idea what the alert was at the time,” said Ed Smart, Elizabeth’s father, who spoke at Saturday’s event. “All I could think when I realized that she was gone was I’ve got to call all my friends, I’ve got to touch base with all the people that I know to help us find her. In essence, that is what the Amber Alert is all about.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 924 children have been rescued specifically because of the Amber Alert system. “The Amber Alert is the first defense for our children,” Smart said.

Sunset Mayor Howard Madsen, a retired Utah Highway Patrol trooper, said he, like most people, will hear an Amber Alert on the radio while driving and start looking at other vehicles on the road to see if they match the one described in the alert.

The fact that everyone gets instant information about an ongoing abduction attempt is one reason, he said, that most Amber Alerts are canceled within an hour of being posted. When an alert is canceled, Madsen said, “it means somebody listened, opened their eyes and made a phone call.”

The frequency of Amber Alerts has dropped in recent years, and Smart says that’s an indicator that the system works as a deterrent to possible kidnappers — especially in an age of social media, when information hits mobile phones in an instant.

“If somebody out there knows they’re going to be looked for, they’re going to be less likely to take a child,” Smart said. “You hear about cases where they pull over and let the child go, because they know there are going to be consequences.”

Meanwhile, Elaine Runyan has one major item of unfinished business: She wants to find who killed Rachael. She reminded those assembled that there is a $50,000 reward for information leading to Rachael’s killer.

Eborn said his department is still investigating Rachael’s death, and he hopes DNA evidence or a tip will someday break the case.

“I’m more convinced, after 36 years, that this case is solvable,” Eborn said. “I long for the day we can meet in this park and the first announcement is that the case is solved.”