Sheriff’s upgrade sonar equipment to search for Sierra

Emma Spencer, from San Jose, decorates ribbons with Sierra LaMar's name Wednesday at the Sierra LaMar search headquarters at Burnett Elementary. Spencer has been volunteering since day one. "We get our comfort from her face smiling at us," says Spencer in

Santa Clara County sheriff’s investigators will be “wrapping up” a water search this week for Sierra LaMar or any evidence related to the kidnapping case, using new, high-tech sonar detection equipment that they have had access to in previous weeks.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Jose Cardoza said Monday the county’s dive team was at Chesbro Reservoir in west Morgan Hill, where they used the new sonar equipment starting last week.

The search is not related to a tip or any new evidence, but was ordered by detectives who wanted to see if the more advanced sonar devices would help in completing a more thorough search of the water ways, Cardoza said.

“They wanted to double check to see if anything at all could be identified or located,” Cardoza said.

The new $40,000 sonar system was recently purchased for the sheriff’s office by the sheriff’s advisory board, a nonprofit organization that raises money for police equipment purchases that the county would not otherwise be able to buy, Cardoza said.

The equipment was purchased both in response to the search for Sierra, a 15-year-old cheerleader, and the need to upgrade the older devices, Cardoza added.

The difference between the old side-scan sonar devices and the new equipment is “night and day,” Cardoza said.

The images taken from just below the surface of the water, while the device is being towed by a dive team vessel, are sharper, clearer and contain more detail than those taken by sonar devices in use only weeks ago, he said. The images are shot in high definition, and the equipment included an upgraded laptop computer on which the images can be viewed and analyzed on the go.

“The equipment we had, when we started doing water searches (for Sierra) in March, was 12 years old,” Cardoza said, and the age resulted in malfunctions and delays in previous waterway searches related to the case.

Sierra has been missing since March 16, when investigators think she was kidnapped while she was walking to her school bus stop near the intersection of Palm and Dougherty avenues.

In custody is suspect Antolin Garcia Torres, 21 of Morgan Hill, who was charged last month with the murder of Sierra, with a special circumstance for kidnapping the Sobrato High School sophomore.

His next hearing is July 31 in Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Jose.

Cardoza added that investigators have received more than 2,000 tips and leads from the public since Sierra was reported missing.

Investigators have not found Sierra’s remains. Volunteers continue to search for Sierra or any evidence related to her disappearance.

Organized searches take place every Wednesday and Saturday, starting at Burnett Elementary School in Morgan Hill.

Marc Klaas of the KlaasKids Foundation, which has provided search-and-rescue services to Sierra’s family since shortly after she disappeared, said about 60 volunteers showed up Saturday.

While the first such search efforts brought in hundreds of volunteers, Klaas said the current number has “held steady” the last few efforts. Having participated in scores of similar searches for missing people over the last 20 years, he added it’s common to see the numbers dwindle as time passes.

“People give up hope, or their interests change – there’s a variety of things” that contribute to such attrition, Klaas said. “But we’re almost 100 days in, and still drawing volunteers – that’s a hell of a response, still.”

The only evidence investigators have reported finding so far are some of Sierra’s clothing and her purse, which were allegedly found in an abandoned structure near the intersection of Santa Teresa Boulevard and Laguna Avenue March 18. Those items contained Garcia Torres’ DNA, authorities said. And investigators found Sierra’s cell phone March 17 just off the side of the road on Scheller Avenue, near Santa Teresa Boulevard.

Investigators say Sierra’s DNA was found in Garcia Torres’ vehicle.

Garcia Torres has not yet entered a plea to the charges against him.

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