Rachael Runyan: The Kidnap & Murder of Little Miss Sunset

For any child, having a school playground in your backyard sounds like a dream come true. This was reality for Justin, Rachael, and Nathan Runyan, three young children living with their parents in the small town of Sunset, Utah.

The local school playground stood a mere fifteen feet from the family home, and the children loved to play there whenever they could. On the morning of August 26, 1982, the happy playground became a land of nightmares when three-year-old Rachael Runyan was abducted in front of her two siblings, never to be seen alive again.

Tragically, her body would be found a few weeks later in a neighboring county, and the person responsible for the heinous crime remains unknown to this day.

Rachael Runyan newspaper collage

The Runyan Family Roots

In 1979, Jeff and Elaine Runyan moved with their son Justin from Tennessee to Sunset, Utah. Elaine was pregnant with their second child, a daughter they would name Rachael Runyan. Rachael was born in Sunset, a small suburban town with only 6,000 residents. Jeff believed that Sunset was the perfect picturesque small town, and that it would be a safe place for the growing family. A couple years after Rachael’s birth, her parents had another boy named Nathan.

Rachel Runyan family photos

Young Rachael was a beautiful girl, and she was a child pageant queen. In 1981, Rachael was crowned Little Miss Sunset. Rachael was described by her mother as a happy and well-behaved child.

The family home in Weber County sat directly across from Doxey Elementary School, which had a playground backing up to Runyan’s yard. In 1982, Jeff Runyan installed a gate in the backyard fence so their children could easily access the playground. Even though the town was safe, Elaine never allowed her children to play alone, and both Jeff and Elaine continually warned their children not to trust strangers. The three children loved to play outside and frequently visited both the Doxey Elementary and Mitchell Park playgrounds.

Gone in the Blink of an Eye

Just before lunch on August 26, 1982, the eldest Runyan children, Justin and Rachael, asked their mother if they could take their little brother Nathan to go play at the Doxey Elementary playground. Elaine was extremely hesitant, as she never let her children play unsupervised. However, because the playground was right outside their home, and she could watch them from the kitchen window as she made lunch, Elaine reluctantly agreed to let them go play. The children were excited and immediately rushed to the playground, leaving their mother behind to prepare lunch.

The three siblings were having fun playing together at the park as their mother looked on. The park was close enough that Elaine could call out to the children and they could respond. Elaine quickly prepared lunch, continually checking on the kids playing outside.

Just before 1 p.m., Elaine called the children home for lunch. To her surprise, only Justin and Nathan came home. Before Elaine could ask where Rachael was, Justin told her that Rachael had been taken just moments prior by a man who had approached them.

According to Justin, a man approached, parking his car nearby and coming near where the children were playing. He offered to buy all three of the children candy at the supermarket down the road. The children came closer to the car but did not enter it.

As they moved closer to the car, Rachael told the man that she loved bubblegum-flavored ice cream. The man told Rachael that he would take her to the supermarket for bubblegum ice cream and candy. At this moment, Justin recalled what his mother and father had taught them about trusting strangers. He warned Rachael not to follow the man any further.

Rachael heeded her big brother’s advice and turned away from the man to walk back toward her siblings. In response, the man picked Rachael up, swinging her up over his shoulder, before placing her in the car and driving away. The only description a fear-stricken Justin could muster was that Rachael’s abductor was a young black man.

Immediately upon hearing what had happened to her daughter, Elaine drove to the supermarket and began searching for Rachael. She asked staff and shoppers if they had seen Rachael, or if they had seen a man matching the description Justin gave her. Nobody reported seeing Rachael or the man, and Elaine promptly contacted the Sunset Police Department to officially report Rachael’s abduction.

Looking for Rachael

Immediately after learning of Rachael’s abduction, Sunset P.D. worked to establish roadblocks around the city. Unfortunately, none of these roadblocks were able to locate Rachael, or anyone matching the description of the suspect. They formed a task force the same day — consisting of ten investigators dedicated to finding Rachael Runyan — but at the end of the first day, they were no closer to finding her, though they had found an interesting lead.

According to eyewitness reports, the man that abducted Rachael had been at nearby Mitchell Park, where he was seen talking to several children. Another child that had been approached at Mitchell Park corroborated Justin Runyan’s account: the suspect was described as a black male, approximately 30-35 years of age, with a handlebar mustache. The suspect was seen driving an older dark blue car with wood paneling on the sides. The time between the suspect chatting with children at Mitchell Park and abducting Rachael was short, just under fifteen minutes.

Rachael Runyan suspect vehicle
Believed to be the suspect’s vehicle: a blue 1973 Ford Pinto Squire station wagon adorned with distinctive woodgrain stripes.

Unfortunately, CCTV footage from the school did not show any evidence of the abduction. With nothing to go on but a composite sketch created by the input of two young children, the Sunset P.D. and task force were severely limited in their initial leads. The police went door-to-door, interviewing neighbors and making public statements asking for information. The task force did all they could to investigate each and every lead, but none proved helpful in finding Rachael.

The Runyan family, with the support of their neighbors and community, put forward a national missing persons campaign to help find their daughter. No expense was spared in their pursuit of bringing Rachael home safely. The family flew to New York for a public press conference, with the hopes of making appeals for their daughter’s safety.

Elaine encouraged all couples going through the adoption process to make certain that the child was not her daughter, as she possibly could have been abducted to be sold. On September 3, the family was invited to appear on the Today show, where the Runyans offered a $20,000 reward for Rachael’s safe return.

The Search for Rachael Ends

Less than one month after Rachael’s disappearance, on September 4, 1982, a family traveling 40 miles outside of Sunset pulled off the road to allow their kids to play in the stream that ran nearby. The children went down to skip stones near the creek, and noticed what appeared to be a doll, floating in the water. Curiously, the children approached the doll, until they realized it was not a doll at all. It was the body of Rachael Runyan, floating in a pile of brush down the stream.

Rachael’s body was severely decomposed, likely due to being partially or completely submerged. Despite the advanced decomposition of Rachael’s body, the family was still able to identify her thanks to a chipped tooth and her pierced ears. Rachael’s hands were bound behind her back, and she was naked at the time of discovery. Unfortunately, a precise autopsy was not possible due to the severe decomposition. The coroner performing Rachael’s autopsy ultimately decided on asphyxiation or smothering as a likely cause of death, due to the other possible causes that were rendered incorrect.

The area where Rachael was found betrayed few clues about the child’s death. Her body had been very well-concealed in the shrubbery and brush, and if it weren’t for the Ogden family happening upon Rachael, it likely would have been even longer before she was found. In the immediate vicinity of the body, forensic investigators found a pair of children’s underwear, which the family identified as belonging to Rachael.

Several investigators concluded that Rachael was likely sexually abused prior to her death. Rachael’s limbs were tied behind her in a hogtie fashion. The killer took deliberate care to hide the body away, and Rachael’s body had decomposed enough that determining her exact cause of death or time of death was not possible. Officially, investigators agreed with the asphyxiation diagnosis made on official autopsy. Many details of the case were left out of the public eye, both out of respect for Rachael and her family.

Who Killed Rachael?

To date, there have been zero suspects released by the Sunset P.D. or FBI in connection to Rachael’s abduction and murder. Of the leads pursued, nothing provided investigators with the information they needed to narrow down a list of suspects. After years of searching in vain, Rachael’s case officially went cold. Without any solid leads, many lost hope that the family would ever get the answers they deserve.

What most people don’t realize is that there have been updates to Rachael’s case, even as recently as 2020. The Runyan family hired a private investigator, never giving up hope that they would find Rachael’s murderer. Rachael’s brother Justin provided the eyewitness account which influenced the suspect’s composite sketch back in 1982.

Rachael Runyan police sketch
Left is the original police sketch from 1982. Police released a more accurate update in 2019.

Justin stated that the individual in question was a black man with a distinctive mustache. Other children corroborated this account, but according to the private investigator, Jason Jensen, this may not be accurate. Both Jensen and Sunset P.D. have come forward noting that the killer may not be a black man after all. Justin has continually disapproved of the composite sketch, telling investigators it “wasn’t right.” According to Elaine, Justin has never felt good about his account, now relenting that it may not have been a black male but a man of a different ethnicity entirely.

This potential misinformation has brought investigators to their best lead so far. In 2020, Sunset P.D. announced that they had a solid lead, one which could lead to justice for Rachael more than 30 years after her death. Chief Eborn of Sunset P.D. revealed they had received a tip from someone suggesting the police investigate their relative.

Allegedly, multiple family members had discussed reporting this individual in 1982, but refrained due to the description and composite sketch portraying the killer as a black male. According to family members, the suspect in question lived in the Sunset area at the time, and may have been convicted for sexual crimes against young children prior to Rachael’s death.

The name of this suspect has not been released, but DNA evidence was obtained that is being investigated at the state crime lab. Unfortunately, the suspect in question died a year prior to police receiving this tip. Though police may not be able to make an arrest, the Runyan family may finally get the answers they’ve sought after all these years.

National Impact of Rachael Runyan’s Case

Rachael’s heartbreaking case had an emotional impact not only on the local community but for the nation as a whole. Rachael’s mother Elaine wasted no time in advocating on a national level for child safety, providing support for families experiencing similar situations.

At the time when Rachael was taken, there was no AMBER Alert system in place. Thanks to Elaine’s dedication and persistence, the state of Utah established the “Rachael Alert” shortly after Rachael’s death, a system established to help alert the public quickly to a child that has gone missing. This system was the earlier predecessor of the AMBER Alert, a nationwide alert system that has helped save countless children and spread awareness of child abductions.

In March of 2017, the state of Utah declared August 26 as “The Rachael Runyan Missing and Exploited Children’s Day,” helping to raise awareness and inspire improved legislation to protect children. The state also established the “Rachael Runyan Award,” granted to any individual who helps bring a child home safely following an AMBER Alert. The park that Rachael was abducted from is now a memorial in her honor, officially dedicated in 2016 as Rachael Runyan Memorial Park.

Though Rachael’s case is tragic, and her killer remains to be brought to justice, her life had a massive impact on the local community, the state of Utah, and the nation. Rachael was laid to rest in Washington Heights Memorial Park in Ogden.

Today, her gravestone bears a testament to the impact she has had on the lives of many children and families, inscribed with “She brought a nation to its knees.” Elaine’s dedication to her daughter’s legacy has helped reunite children across America with their families, and Rachael’s memory will forever live on through this impact.

Where to Watch