After a suspect was arrested in connection with the disappearance of 15-year-old Sierra LaMar, the community’s reaction has ranged from shock to relief to sorrow.
As news circulated that Antolin Garcia Torres, 21 of Morgan Hill, was arrested and charged Thursday with murder and kidnapping, students at Sobrato High School where Sierra was a sophomore, were shaken.
Sobrato junior Austin Lunn, 17, said Tuesday that the latest news has had a profound effect on the student body.
“A lot of people were broken down about it,” Lunn said. “There was actually a girl that left my first-period class crying. A lot of people were already emotionally shocked by this.”
The news rattled parents in town as well.
“As a parent, I was very relieved when I heard. I just hope that Sierra LaMar’s alive and that they find her alive,” said Claudia Orozco, 36, mother of two girls who attend Sobrato.
Freshman Adriana Talerico, 16, said she was hoping Sierra would be found alive.
“I was surprised,” she said. “I didn’t think that he killed her, but I guess it looks that way. I was really hoping they’d find her. We all were.”
Talerico said she takes precaution when she goes out, and she doesn’t feel as safe as she did before Sierra’s kidnapping. Her parents tell her to be careful and always walk with others.
Sobrato parent Amy Porter-Jensen’s 15-year-old daughter was close friends with another student who succumbed to violence recently – Tara Romero, 14, who died in a drive-by shooting in west Morgan Hill Nov. 4, 2011. Romero was a freshman at Sobrato.
“These kids have had to deal with more tragedy in the past six months, than I had to deal with my entire adolescence,” Porter-Jensen said. “We, as a community, need to become involved all the time, not just when these tragedies occur.”
The school district sent out a statement that Sierra’s disappearance has caused “great anguish among students and staff,” and the district has assigned additional counseling staff to help students and faculty at Sobrato.
MHUSD Superintendent Wes Smith spent early Tuesday morning at Sobrato. He said he wants to do what’s in the students’ best interest – to listen to their thoughts and concerns.
“We’re squarely focused on the school, and her classmates … by their nature, teens are vulnerable and we want to help them,” Smith said.
Community Solutions, a nonprofit that provides support and social services to families in need, was on campus Tuesday, making students and teachers aware of the opportunities to talk about what’s happened or find support in some way.
Smith called the search efforts and local law enforcement “impressive” and he expressed how proud he was of the community of Morgan Hill for how they’ve pulled together during tragic times.
Last November, Sobrato was grappling with the death of Romero, now, the school is facing another possible murder in its community.
“Sobrato, and all of our campuses, pulled together. I’m really proud of that campus,” Smith said.
“This is a community concern. We all have to do our part. We have to be observant and tight-knit and say we’re not going to allow this to happen,” Smith said.
The superintendent, who was hired in November 2009 and who has three children at MHUSD schools – including a teen at Sobrato High – said he and his wife have been extra vigilant in talking with their children about safety.
“Kids, as we were as kids, are going to want to stretch their legs,” Smith said. “It’s important to grow and mature, but to keep them safe. Talk about safety tips, about going out at night … about going in groups as opposed to alone … not getting into strangers cars,” he said.
Meanwhile, outside the two Safeway grocery stores in Morgan Hill where the series of unsolved assaults happened more than three years ago – one of which employed Garcia Torres up until about 18 months ago – shoppers reacted to the arrest and the suspicion among authorities that Sierra is dead.
Lachelle Ourricariet, 20, said she thinks it’s great that they found a suspect, although the murder allegation disheartened her, as it crushed her hope that Sierra is still alive.
“We wanted to hold on to any little glimmer of hope, and this news kind of squashes it,” Ourricariet said.
She recognized Garcia Torres right away from his booking photo.
Ourricariet has a 9-year-old sister who is a student at Paradise Valley Elementary School. Sierra’s disappearance shook her up.
“I mean, this could have been her. This could have been anyone.”
She is glad that investigators arrested someone because it seemed to the public that they were not making a lot of progress. This shows that they were working hard all along, she said.
And they continued that work Wednesday, as sheriff’s divers searched Uvas Reservoir west of Morgan Hill. Meanwhile, volunteers searched Wednesday, but Saturday’s search is canceled.
The photo of Garcia Torres “creeped her out.” As soon as she saw the picture, she felt she recognized him from being a regular shopper at Safeway. “He looked like he was smirking almost in that picture, and that angered me.”
Guy Jew, 72, a Morgan Hill resident of 30 years, said the chances of finding LaMar alive are “pretty slim, because of the length of time that has passed.” Police and volunteers should “absolutely” continue searching, Jew added, in order to provide “closure for the family” and to help move the investigation along.
When Morgan Hill resident Tom Rivera, 24, heard of the arrest Tuesday morning, “it came as a shock, because it was somebody that was right beneath the community’s nose.”
Rivera, who participated in two of the volunteer searches for the missing teen, said he thinks there’s a chance LaMar could be alive – “but that’s wishful thinking,” he said, with a downcast expression. “I’m hoping the parents get closure.”