Police arrested a man in connection with the disappearance of Sierra LaMar who has prior arrests and has been linked to at least one incident in a string of unsolved assaults against women in 2009 at two Morgan Hill grocery stores.
Antolin Garcia-Torres, 21 of Morgan Hill, was arrested by Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputies on suspicion of murder and kidnapping in relation to the March 16 disappearance of the 15-year-old Sobrato High School sophomore.
Sheriff Laurie Smith said at a press conference Tuesday that DNA evidence found with Sierra’s purse and clothing, which were found off the side of the road about a mile northwest of her home days after she was reported missing, linked Garcia-Torres to the crime.
The red Volkswagen Jetta that investigators released pictures of earlier this month, which was associated with the teen’s disappearance, also belonged to Garcia-Torres, authorities said.
Garcia-Torres and Sierra did not know each other prior to the teen’s kidnapping, Smith said.
Detectives have been watching Garcia-Torres closely since just a few days after Sierra was reported missing, and arrested him Monday night at the Safeway grocery store at Tennant Station. Police arrested him without having found Sierra’s body, a weapon or any definitive proof that she is dead, Smith said.
However, they had enough evidence to get Garcia-Torres in custody where he can’t harm another victim, Smith said.
“Public safety is our primary concern,” Smith said.
Detectives have interviewed the suspect at least once since his arrest, and Smith said those proceedings produced “some value” to the case.
The sheriff did not specify what kind of DNA was found on Sierra’s discarded belongings, but it was “enough to link him” to the crime.
“We have a lot of circumstantial evidence,” she said, acknowledging that such cases are difficult to prosecute.
One reason they waited until more than two months after Sierra’s disappearance to arrest Garcia-Torres is that it took a long time to process forensic evidence gathered from his car.
Sierra’s parents, who also spoke at the press conference Tuesday, said they remain hopeful that Sierra is alive, and will continue searching for her.
“We continue to pray that she’s found,” Sierra’s mother Marlene LaMar said, adding that “certain things” that her daughter probably had with her when she left the house the morning of March 16 were not found in the suspect’s vehicle. She did not specify what those items were.
To the suspect, she said, “Please give us the information you have to lead us to Sierra and end this nightmare.”
Sierra’s father Steve LaMar, speaking to the community said, “We still need your support to bring Sierra home.”
Authorities think Sierra is dead due to the fact that she was “very social” but has not contacted anyone since March 16, when she sent a friend a text message about 7:11 a.m. on her way to school.
Plus, some of the discarded belongings of Sierra’s that were found near her home in the days following her disappearance – including her cell phone and medication – were probably not thrown away by her voluntarily, Smith said.
Garcia-Torres has at least two prior arrests – one for interfering with an officer, for which he was convicted, and a felony assault that was not prosecuted, Smith said.
Furthermore, he is also linked to at least one incident in a series of at least three assaults on women in the parking lots of Safeway stores in Morgan Hill, on Tennant and East Dunne avenues, Smith said.
Those attempted assaults which were “not completed” occurred in March 2009. The suspect, who was never identified or arrested, confronted three women on separate occasions near their parked vehicles at night. The suspect entered the vehicles and locked the doors and attempted to assault the women. He was scared off by passersby or the victim’s resistance in all three incidents.
The suspect used a Taser on one of the victims, and punched another of the female victims in the string of assaults. Smith did not say which of the three incidents Garcia-Torres was linked to.
Police produced an artist’s rendering of the suspect shortly after the Safeway attacks, and even recovered his Taser, but the crimes were never solved.
Garcia-Torres is not a registered sex offender, Smith said.
Though early on in the investigation into Sierra’s disappearance, authorities had a number of suspects in mind, but they now think Garcia-Torres is the only suspect to the crime.
Smith added that since January 2011, 43 female children have been reported missing in Santa Clara County and have not returned home, highlighting the importance of placing suspects like Garcia-Torres in custody.
“We put a lot of resources into (Sierra’s case) but it was worth it,” Smith said.