A name on a funeral registry, dried mud encrusted on a suspect's tires, letters and numbers from a license plate, a mother's intuition, mysterious items found on a grave, an eerie message on a wall in an all-night laundry.
Those are some of the elements of the Rachael Runyan mystery, re-enacted by NBC's "Unsolved Mysteries." It was taped Oct. 18 and 19 and is scheduled to air Wednesday, Nov. 8.The first mystery that field producer Mike Palazzolo had to solve when he and his crew arrived at the Quality Inn in Riverdale was how to get a dozen little girls - who had all come in hopes of getting the part of Rachael, the 3-year-old daughter of Jeff and Elaine Runyan who was abducted from a playground in Sunset on Aug. 26, 1982 - to go away with him when he pretended to be a dark stranger.
"It just tore me up. How can you really re-enact the part?" said Elaine Runyan. "We try to teach these children not to go with, talk to or take candy from strangers, yet it's OK here for the show. Then tomorrow, the child can't do it. How do you really get a 3-year-old to understand?"
Dan Gomez, director of the show, opted for an older child because it was just too difficult for such a small child to understand.
Getting the children to understand and cooperate was only one small aspect of putting the 2 1/2-minute segment together. The final segment had to portray the horror and sensationalism of the case, delicately balanced with the simple beauty of an innocent child.
"This is the most difficult story our crew has ever had to do," said Gomez.
The story tugged at the hearts of the production crew as they followed Sunset police detective Lt. Phil Olmstead to each film location site. "It is hard to imagine how anyone could do such an evil thing to a child," Gomez said.
Four-year-old Amy Hunt, a neighbor of the Runyans, was chosen to play the part. Ramon Laos, a Brigham Young University law student who played Rachael's abductor, explained to Amy that he was really a good guy just playing a bad guy.
He would race with her and play silly games between practice sessions, and after practicing he would reassure her.
Just before taping began, Laos grabbed Amy to run toward the waiting car - which had actually belonged to the primary suspect in the case at the time of the kidnapping. Amy broke out in terrified tears.
The crew recognized her horror and opted for a still older child, 6-year-old Jessica Furlow.
Jessica understood the story because she lives across the street from the Runyans and her mother, Janis, is a friend of Elaine. She grasped the concept right away and had some fun playing Rachael for the day.
The reality of the horror Rachael felt as she was swept away by her kidnapper set in when the actual taping began. When Laos snatched the child and ran off with her, Elaine Runyan started to cry. "It's too real. I can't stand it. I've pictured it a thousand times and it's just like I pictured it," she sobbed as friends reached out to hug her.
The crew went to the site of Rachael's grave to put black roses on the gravestone that reads, "She brought a nation to its knees."
As the production crew carefully cleaned and adorned the marker, Elaine Runyan and her son, Justin (who was playing the part of a 10-year-old witness to the kidnapping), took in the panoramic view surrounding the gravesite. "You know when we picked this spot we thought of the beauty and how we would come here for picnics. We haven't, though. Somehow it's just never felt like home," Elaine Runyan said.