Used condoms, handcuffs box found during search

Divers from the Santa Clara County dive team search the Ogier Avenue percolation ponds in north Morgan Hill for evidence related to the search for Sierra LaMar. 

Used condoms and an empty handcuff box were found Thursday by a volunteer searcher at the west end of Palm Avenue, about a mile from missing teen Sierra LaMar’s bus stop in Morgan Hill, though Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith said Thursday night that “it’s possibly nothing.”

Smith said that because it was found where a lot of teens like to park and hang out. Palm Avenue is a dead-end, rural road.

“They found 150 things out there, condoms where kids like to park, beer cans,” she said. Smith said everything collected is considered evidence and will be fully examined.

Sierra has been missing from her north Morgan Hill home since March 16. She usually walks to her school bus stop at Palm and Dougherty avenues each morning. Police and her family said she never made it to the bus stop and she did not go to school that day. At least two used condoms were found about five feet from a manufacturer’s box that said “stainless steel handcuffs” according to Sgt. Jose Cardoza. He said the Sheriff’s Department searched that area Wednesday, so he speculated that they didn’t know if the items had been there a day or two, or a week.

“Because of the close proximity to her home, we will submit the items to the crime lab for further testing,” he said. “There’s no way to tell right now if these are related to the Sierra LaMar case.”

Smith said the department is dilligently working around the clock on leads.

“There are so many leads  … we’re looking in all areas,” she said.

As law enforcement investigators expanded their search for Sierra LaMar into local ponds, reservoirs and other waterways, the volunteer effort to find the missing teen remains strong.

Including those who showed up multiple days, more than 1,400 residents of Morgan Hill and the South Bay area – and even a couple from outside the state – have volunteered to help find Sierra, who has now been missing for two weeks.

“This participation is off the charts,” said Marc Klaas, founder of the KlaasKids Foundation which organized the volunteer efforts at the request of Sierra’s mother, Marlene LaMar. “Since my daughter’s case, I can’t think of another that’s generated this kind of attention.”

And Klaas has been involved in hundreds of similar search efforts over the past 20 years or so. He founded the organization which is devoted to finding missing children nationwide shortly after his 12-year-old daughter Polly Klaas was kidnapped and murdered in 1993.

The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office announced Tuesday they are treating Sierra’s disappearance as an “involuntary missing person” case. That means she was abducted, kidnapped or she voluntary ran away but ended up with someone who turned out to have malicious intent, according to Sgt. Jose Cardoza.

Furthermore, investigators think the person or people responsible for her disappearance may live in Morgan Hill, or are at least familiar with the area, and she was picked up or abducted close to her home.

“She lives in a secluded area,” Cardoza said. “There’s not much of a chance that she’s going to have contact with transients or strangers” who are unfamiliar with the area.

Sierra has been missing from her north Morgan Hill home since March 16. She usually walks to her school bus stop at Palm and Dougherty avenues each morning. Police and her family said she never made it to the bus stop and she did not go to school that day.

Police found her cell phone March 17 in a field about three-quarters of a mile northwest of her home. On March 18, investigators found Sierra’s purse, which contained a “neatly folded” pair of pants and T-shirt, about another mile north on Santa Teresa Boulevard, near Laguna Avenue.

On Tuesday, the sheriff’s office began to deploy its dive team, sending water-based investigators and specially trained K-9 search animals out onto Calero, Uvas and Chesbro reservoirs, as well as the Ogier Avenue percolation ponds this week.

So far, those investigators have not found any notable evidence, Cardoza said.

Tuesday was by far the busiest day at the volunteer search center, at Burnett Elementary School on Tilton Avenue. Close to 700 people stood in line to be briefed by experienced KlaasKids search staff and then be dispatched to select locations in South County.

Many said the disappearance, and what police now consider a likely kidnapping, “hits too close to home” even if they traveled from many miles away to help in the search effort.

Omar Solares, 34, was standing in line with his grandparents Gil and Luanne Solares to help with the search. Omar has two teenage sons and a niece who is about the same age as Sierra, 15. They came from San Jose to help, and have been following Sierra’s search in the news since the weekend after she was reported missing.

“I can’t imagine what the family is going through, and we want to help make sure there is some closure,” said Gil Solares, 63. Luanne added they have been waiting for the public to be invited to an organized search opportunity such as the one started Tuesday at Burnett.

Stefan Medina, 36 and a lifelong resident of Morgan Hill, was preparing to go out with a group of 30 volunteers just after 9 a.m., after all had been briefed by KlaasKids staff. He showed up at 7:30 a.m. to stand in line.

“I’m concerned. I’ve got kids, and we’ve got to bring this to a closure,” Medina said.

His group had been dispatched to search a “remote” unincorporated area in south San Jose, off McKean Road, Medina said.

The search center will be open through Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. for anyone who wants to help.

Tragedies unite community

Annette Nevarez, 47, was helping to register volunteers Tuesday. Nevarez is the mother of slain Sobrato High School freshman Tara Romero, 14, who was gunned down in a drive-by attack in Morgan Hill Nov. 4, 2011. Three of Romero’s friends were also shot in the incident at Cosmo and Del Monte avenues, but they survived.

Romero’s mother said Tara and Sierra’s paths didn’t cross much at school – Sierra only moved to Morgan Hill from Fremont less than a month before Tara died. But she thinks they would have liked each other.

“Sierra went to my daughter’s school,” Nevarez said. “I don’t know her. I know a lot of kids that saw her at school. I want to support her family any way I can.”

Sierra LaMar, a sophomore at Sobrato High school, is about 5-feet, 2-inches tall with a thin build and dark hair.

KlaasKids Foundation director of search operations Brad Dennis, who led the briefings for the neophyte searchers, flew to Morgan Hill from Pensacola, Fla. to direct the local search. He said the community has been “amazing” in response to Sierra’s disappearance.

He pointed to a giant stack of bottled water occupying a corner of the school’s gymnasium and a concessions counter lined with food and snacks – all of which was donated by local individuals, clubs and businesses.

In 2011, KlaasKids offered similar volunteer search services in 46 missing children cases nationwide, Klaas said. Those efforts have helped reach resolutions in 37 of those cases.

“We decided long ago we would start an organization that fights crime against children, and decided to provide search-and-rescue services,” Klaas said. “And when it comes to being able to drop into a community anywhere in the U.S. (and start searching), I dare say nobody does it better.”

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