Suspect described as ‘good father,’ ‘sweetheart’

Laura Torres, mother of Antolin Garcia-Torres

The mother of the suspect accused of kidnapping and murdering 15-year-old Sierra Lamar says she believes her son is innocent, but Sheriff Laurie Smith insists the DNA evidence found in his car and on Sierra’s belongings is damning – even if her body is never found. Meanwhile, a former FBI agent says Antolin Garcia Torres, a husband and father to a 20-month-old daughter, could have fooled everybody.

On Tuesday morning, Garcia Torres’ mother, Laura Torres, sobbed outside her home at Maple Leaf RV Park in Morgan Hill when she thought about her son being taken away and charged with the murder of Sierra, a crime she is certain he didn’t commit.

“I’m the mom, I know when my sons are in trouble. And he wasn’t in trouble,” Torres said, wiping tears from her puffy eyes. “He was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Torres described her son as the kind of husband and father who cooked for his wife after a long day at work, and who changed his 20-month-old daughter’s diaper without being asked.

She kept coming back to the fact that she believes in her heart that 21-year-old Garcia Torres is innocent in Sierra LaMar’s disappearance.

“All this is a surprise to me,” she said through broken English.

Unless, she did acknowledge, Garcia Torres has lied to her. Even if that is the case, Torres still isn’t sure she could ever believe her son could do something so horrible. Garcia Torres was arrested for two other assaults over the last three years and is implicated in a separate assault on a woman.

“(He) always be kind. That’s why I say, ‘what happened?’ It’s very hard to understand especially for the mother. If Antolin’s done something wrong and he lied to me, it’s still really hard,” she said through tears. “I don’t know, what can I say? This is my son.”

Garcia Torres lived with his mother, wife and daughter in a small trailer on the northside of the park, where a bright pink baby stroller and an assortment of toys are scattered in front of their home.

According to Torres, Garcia Torres’ wife Francine Sarmiento works at a fast-food Mexican restaurant in Morgan Hill and is expecting another baby in November.

“Antolin think a lot about his kid. He’s not responsible (for the crime). And the new baby he has, he’s not going to have a father to see him grow up,” she said in Spanish.

Laura Torres wept as she spoke in Spanish, her voice growing louder as she looked to the sky. She mentioned Tuesday she needed to be with her mother in Salinas to pray.

Her son’s arrest is just another event in a string of recent heartbreaks for Laura.

Her eldest son, Garcia Torres’ older brother, recently died from an alcohol-induced heart attack, and Garcia Torres’ father is in jail, though she declined to say for what crime. Garcia Torres also has two sisters who live in Morgan Hill.

Garcia Torres attended Live Oak High School, before transferring to Central Continuation High School, but ultimately dropped out in 2010. Garcia Torres and his wife Francine were high school sweethearts and met at Live Oak, according to his mother.

Francine has not returned requests for comment, but has taken to Facebook to express her disdain for Sierra LaMar and proclaim the innocence of her husband.

A photo posted by a Morgan Hill resident shows Garcia Torres’ mugshot next to the police sketch of the Safeway assaulter the words “Do you see the resemblance??” are written. Francine posted beneath the photo (which boasted 64 comments by 5 p.m. Thursday), “Have you seen her twitter thats a DIRTY NASTY HO!”  

Francine’s longest comment read (it has not been edited): “You guys can think and say what you want but the cops have been lying to everyone ya i feel bad for her fam biy dam youever know if you were in my position you might just say the same thing or worse you dont knowhow it feels uil it happens.”

The comments riled up other Facebook users who could access the same post – most scolding her and countering with foul language, while others tried to appeal to the fact that Francine, too, is a mother – and Sierra is just a child.

Also, someone created a public figure Facebook profile for Antolin Garcia Torres since Tuesday where people have taken to calling Antolin names and pleading for Sierra’s safe return; the page had 29 “likes” as of Thursday night.

Rochelle Torres, who knows Garcia Torres (the two are not related) from when they attended Central together, doesn’t believe police got the right suspect.

“He was a sweetheart,” said Torres, 20, who graduated from Central in 2010. “I don’t think he did it. If you had a problem he’d be there and talk to you. He was always there if you needed somebody to talk to.”

Outside of school, Garcia Torres “liked to work,” and spent a lot of time with his infant and girlfriend at the time.

“I would never have expected him to be any part of this,” Rochelle Torres 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, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie 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 two Safeway stores in Morgan Hill, on Tennant and East Dunne avenues in March 2009, Smith said.

The suspect, who was never identified or arrested, confronted three women on separate occasions near their parked vehicles at night time. Smith did not say which of the three incidents Garcia Torres was linked to.

Authorities say that Garcia Torres worked at both Morgan Hill Safeway locations, though he’s not worked there for about 18 months, according to employees. Other reports have said he was most recently working as a day laborer in San Jose and would travel Santa Teresa Boulevard, near where Sierra’s purse was found and where his red Jetta was spotted.

A retired FBI agent of 25 years said it is possible that a secretly and serially violent person could lead normal a normal life in public. Clint Van Zandt, who worked a number of kidnapping cases in his own career, said history and his own experience contain numerous examples of such suspects.

In a kidnapping case he worked on several years ago, a serial rapist authorities were investigating turned out to be an OB/GYN doctor.

Dennis Rader, the infamous BTK (bind, torture, kill) killer of Kansas whose reign of murder spanned nearly 20 years, was “ramrod straight” in public, a member of a local church and a former military man, Van Zandt noted. But Rader killed 10 people by strangling them to death.

“Many times we see people who lead multiple lives,” Van Zandt said.

While Garcia Torres should not be convicted before his due process, Van Zandt said DNA transference is “what you always want” when it comes to these types of cases. The fact that Garcia Torres’ DNA was found with Sierra’s discarded clothing, and her DNA was found in his car clearly places the two together.

“DNA doesn’t make mistakes,” Van Zandt said.

Less than a mile away from where Antolin lived in Maple Leaf RV Park, is the Tennant Station Safeway where he was arrested at gunpoint Monday night by  Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputies.

On Tuesday morning, several shoppers said they recognized Antolin or knew him from around Morgan Hill, a town of about 37,000 people.

Temo Esquovsa, 30, a Morgan Hill resident who works at Central High School as a bilingual liaison, said his wife, 21-year-old Miriam Esquovsa, took a Spanish class with Antolin her sophomore year at Live Oak High School.

“It’s pretty shocking, somebody so close from here doing that. My wife knew that guy. She never thought he would do something like that,” Esquovsa said.

He said Miriam, who graduated from Live Oak in 2009, remembered Antolin as a “normal, “kickback soccer player, and nothing more than that.”

“When I saw him on TV, I thought he was a gangster,”  Esquovsa said.

When asked if he thought LaMar could still be alive, Esquovsa’s outlook – like many other patrons entering and exiting Safeway on Dunne Avenue Tuesday morning – was a mixture of hope and sympathy tainted by reality.

“I hope so. My heart says no, but I hope she is,” he said.

Staff writer Michael Moore contributed to this story.

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