Santa Clara County law enforcement officials announced Thursday they found a purse containing “neatly folded” clothing that belonged to missing 15-year-old Sierra LaMar, and they expanded their search by covering a larger area in north Morgan Hill, and devoting search dogs and other resources to the efforts.
The items were found about 1 p.m. Sunday, in a rural area north of town, near the intersection of Santa Teresa Boulevard and Laguna Avenue, Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jose Cardoza said at a press conference near the site of the found items Thursday morning.
The purse, a “Juicy” brand bag, contained a pair of pants, a T-shirt and underclothes. Authorities held off reporting the discovery of Sierra’s purse and clothing for four days because they had to confirm they were her possessions, and take “some investigative steps” in the meantime, Cardoza added.
The items were found about one mile from where Sierra’s cell phone was found Saturday evening at Scheller Avenue and Santa Teresa Boulevard. And that area was about three-quarters of a mile from her home just off Dougherty Avenue in north Morgan Hill, where the teen lives with her mother Marlene LaMar and mother’s boyfriend Rick Gardiner.
Investigators still have not found any information or evidence supporting either a voluntary flight or kidnapping theory, and there is no evidence of foul play, Cardoza added. Sierra’s disappearance is being treated as a “missing person” case, with no suspects or “persons of interest.” He added that Sierra has a “good relationship” with her parents, who are divorced, and with Gardiner.
He also announced that authorities, with the help of volunteer search-and-rescue teams, have expanded the search for the missing Sobrato High School sophomore to a broader area.
The sheriff’s office deployed five K-9 search dogs, some trained to search for human remains and some to search for a missing person, Cardoza added. The search includes a three-mile radius surrounding Sierra’s mother’s home and will be expanded depending on the initial results. About 40 people, including volunteers, are involved in the search.
“We will be looking for any evidence of a crime,” including tire tracks, foot prints, more of Sierra’s property, and any other items that might be related to the disappearance, Cardoza said. The search will include waterways, private property and large tracts of land.
The intensified effort differs from the immediate search last weekend, which Cardoza classified as “more general” and covering a smaller area.
The FBI is assisting with the search as well, but Cardoza declined to comment on why or in what capacity the federal agency is involved.
Authorities declined to confirm whether or not Sierra had been wearing the clothing that was found in her purse Sunday, or if she might have been carrying them for a sleepover or an after-school change of clothes. Cardoza could not confirm if Sierra typically carried a change of clothing in her purse, or if she had any plans after school Friday.
Nothing else was found in the purse – not makeup, a wallet or hair brush, Cardoza said.
Sierra did not attend school Friday, according to authorities and her family. She likely went missing sometime after 7 a.m., but was not reported missing until about 6:30 p.m. when her family learned she did not make it to school.
The teen usually starts walking from her home to catch the school bus between 7:10 and 7:15 a.m., police said. Her last post to her Twitter website account was 6:29 a.m., and she sent a text from her phone to a friend about 7:11 a.m., Cardoza added. Both messages were sent from her home.
The text was not a “distress” message and it did not indicate anything suspicious, though Cardoza declined to elaborate on what the message said.
Investigators are still running forensics examinations on Sierra’s Droid smartphone and her laptop, which deputies recovered from her bedroom. Analysis of her Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts so far have not indicated that she planned to run away, and no “persons of interest” have been associated with any visits, follows or friend connections on the sites, Cardoza said.
Some of the content on the accounts contains profanity, references to marijuana and alcohol use and suggestive photos and comments. Cardoza said her parents “knew she was an avid ‘Facebooker’ and ‘tweeter’,” but did not specify whether or not they closely monitored the accounts.
He added that none of the content is suspicious or reflective of an intent on Sierra’s part to run away.
Ongoing investigation techniques that authorities started earlier this week continue, Cardoza said. These include more interviews with students at Sobrato and Washington High School in Fremont, where Sierra transferred from; and interviews with known sex offense registrants in the South County area. As of Wednesday, more than 150 people had been interviewed as part of the investigation.
Sierra is about 5-feet, 2-inches tall with a thin build and dark hair. She was last seen with a black and pink “Juicy Couture” brand purse, authorities said. She has no prior history of running away.
Both parents and Gardiner have been ruled out as suspects, and all three have alibis and can be accounted for at the time of Sierra’s disappearance, Sheriff’s Lt. Troy Smith added. Steve LaMar is a registered sex offender in Fremont, but police said he has been fully cooperative with authorities since the investigation began. Steve LaMar released a statement this week saying he immediately disclosed his previous conviction to authorities, and asked the public to focus on finding his daughter rather than on the “unfortunate” piece of his past.
Tracking dogs employed at Sierra’s home Saturday lost her scent at the edge of her driveway, where it meets the cul-de-sac at the end of Paquita Espana Court, according to Smith. Furthermore, forensic examinations so far of her cell phone have not revealed fingerprints or any other information that may be useful in finding the teen.
“We’re really concerned. We’re obviously still out there, with a lot of our personnel, with search-and-rescue,” Cardoza said Thursday. “We’ve been working 24/7 since Friday evening. We’re hoping to get some information, some leads.”
On Tuesday night, more than 100 people from Morgan Hill and Fremont attended a prayer vigil at the Morgan Hill Presbyterian Church. Attendees lit candles as South Valley Community Church pastor Greg Quirke led a prayer service. Sierra’s mother, father Steve LaMar and sister Danielle LaMar spoke to the crowd, often through tears.
“Sierra, wherever she is, would really appreciate” the support offered by the community, Danielle said at the vigil. “We’re not going to give up until she comes home. Things are not the same without her. Sierra is everything I could ask for in a sister.”
Those attending the vigil included friends and fellow students from Morgan Hill, former classmates from Washington High, and strangers who don’t know Sierra but are hopeful for her safe return.
Sierra’s friends and teammates from the San Jose-based Black Diamond Elite all-star cheer team described the teen as an energetic and athletic cheerleader.
Victoria Yanez of Gilroy High School, Kyla Redmond of Santa Teresa High School and Mariah Ross of Oak Grove High School have cheered with Sierra since September. They attended the Tuesday night vigil wearing T-shirts with pictures of Sierra printed on the front with “MISSING” in bold lettering.
Sierra joined the team in September and was connected to the squad by a friend just before she moved to Morgan Hill. A cheerleader at Washington High School before transferring to Sobrato, Sierra is a “flier,” or the teammate at the top of a stunt who is lifted or thrown in the air, on the Black Diamond team, the teens said.
Aside from being talented at cheer, Ross said the team knows Sierra as a happy teenager, and Yanez said she is “always singing.”
“She would sing anything that was on the radio – anything that would make her happy and smile,” Yanez said.
Another friend from Fremont, Bernard Parker, 16, who has known Sierra about two years, described Sierra as “outgoing.” He said she gave him “confidence” by suggesting he change his hair style. He used to cover his hair with a beanie every day. Now, after Sierra’s urging, he wears his locks uncovered.
Moreno was joined by fellow SHS students Graciala Juarez, 16, and Viviana Serrato, 17, who attended the vigil with a group of parishioners from St. Catherine Church.
“You wouldn’t think something like that would happen,” Juarez said.
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith spoke at the Morgan Hill city council meeting Wednesday night, giving a summary of Sierra’s last known activity before she disappeared and pleading with the community to remain on the lookout for the missing teen.
“We don’t have any suspects,” Smith said. “We’re getting a tremendous amount of leads. There’s no information to link her family, friends or others to her disappearance. We’re even more concerned than we’ve been in the past. We’ve even had some tips from psychics, but we’re taking everything seriously at this point.”
Authorities have also received “a lot of leads” from people and police in Fremont, and have worked with law enforcement agencies from Morgan Hill, Gilroy, the FBI, and the county probation and state parole offices.
“Your community has really come together” in the effort to raise awareness about the missing teen, Smith told the council. “You should be proud of your community.”
The Polly Klaas Foundation, whose mission is to assist in nationwide efforts to search for missing children, is helping find Sierra by “inundating” the immediate area and the state with fliers and publicity efforts about the case, according to response department director Cindy Rudometkin.
Her photo and vital information were posted Wednesday to the website of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, at http://tinyurl.com/7276pz9.
Anyone with information on the case can contact Santa Clara County Communications at 299-2311.
During normal business hours callers can call Sheriff’s Investigators at 808-4500 or the anonymous tip line at 808-4431. Information or tips can also be sent via the Sheriff’s Office website at sccgov.org/portal/ site/sheriff. Information can also be submitted by text at 421-6760.
6 a.m. Friday: Sierra LaMar’s mother Marlene, and her mother’s boyfriend Rick Gardiner, left home where they live with Sierra.
6:29 a.m.: The last “tweet” Sierra posted to her Twitter account.
7:10 to 7:15 a.m.: LaMar usually leaves home to start walking to her bus stop at Palm and Dougherty avenues.
7:11 a.m.: LaMar sent a text from her cell phone to a friend. The content of the message is undisclosed.
6:30 p.m. Friday: Sierra LaMar reported missing, after her family learned she did not attend school that day.
Saturday, late morning: Tracking dogs deployed at Sierra’s home, lose scent at the end of the driveway.
Saturday evening: LaMar’s cell phone found near Scheller Avenue and Santa Teresa Boulevard.
Sunday, 1 p.m.: LaMar’s “Juicy” brand purse, containing pants, T-shirt and underclothes found near Santa Teresa Boulevard and Laguna Avenue.
Monday morning: Authorities begin interviewing friends, classmates and former classmates of Sierra’s.
Monday: Interviews with sex offenders within a 10-mile radius of LaMar’s home begin.
Wednesday: Police announce they have interviewed more than 100 people and investigated more than 150 tips related to the investigation.
Thursday morning: Search intensifies with more tracking dogs, search-and-rescue volunteers and more personnel from multiple agencies including the FBI. The search includes a wider land area surrounding Sierra’s home.