Sierra LaMar’s family and the returning volunteers continue to hold out hope that the missing 15-year-old will be found, and they think keeping the case in the public eye is the best way to preserve that hope.
That was the point of a vigil held at Morgan Hill’s civic campus courtyard on Peak Avenue Wednesday night. Attended by more than 100 volunteer searchers, as well as friends and family of the missing teen, the event was also a fundraiser as volunteers sold battery-powered luminaries for $5 each.
Participants gathered in a circle surrounding a grassy area in the court which is adjacent to both current and former City Hall buildings and the Morgan Hill Library. After Sierra’s parents and some of the searchers spoke about the tragic disappearance of the Sobrato High School sophomore, attendees placed their luminaries on the ground spelling out the word “HOPE” in lighted letters about 20 feet by 40 feet.
“Everyone here has really made a difference,” Sierra’s mother Marlene LaMar, a 51-year-old occupational therapist, said. “Each day is still difficult.”
Sierra has been missing since March 16. Authorities think she was kidnapped while walking to her school bus stop near the intersection of Palm and Dougherty avenues in north Morgan Hill. They also think she was murdered, even though her remains have not been found.
Antolin Garcia Torres, 21 of Morgan Hill, was arrested in May and charged with kidnapping and murdering Sierra. He remains in custody, and has not yet entered a plea.
Chicago resident Jennifer Koziel flew to the Bay Area for the second time since Sierra’s disappearance just to help the search efforts. This time she helped organize the Wednesday night vigil.
“You can do a lot of little things (to help) that add up to something big,” Koziel, 33, told the crowd.
Those “little things” include just sending cards and well-wishes, or just stopping by the Sierra search center on Tilton Avenue on a Wednesday or Saturday to give Sierra’s parents a hug, Koziel said before reading a poem she wrote about Sierra.
She said Wednesday that she felt her efforts to search “weren’t enough,” and so she went a step further by putting together the vigil, whose purpose was to raise awareness of the case and to “light Sierra’s way home.”
Among those attending the vigil were Sierra’s friends from her former school, Washington High School in Fremont. Sierra moved to Morgan Hill from Fremont, with her mother and mother’s boyfriend, about six months before she disappeared.
Claire Gallegos, 16 of Fremont, has known Sierra for about “three or four years,” since they attended Centerville Junior High together. She said Sierra has “a lot of friends” at Washington High.
“We’ve all come together for Sierra,” Gallegos said before the vigil started. “Everybody’s been really supportive.”
Sierra was a cheerleader at the time of her disappearance, and she had just started cheering for San Jose Black Diamond club squad when she moved to Morgan Hill. Gallegos added she and Sierra danced together in Fremont.
Volunteers who have helped search for Sierra since late March, when the KlaasKids Foundation was enlisted by Sierra’s family to help find the 15-year-old, have said the search efforts have formed a bond among the volunteers. Curtis Konno, 52 of Sunnyvale, who has helped search most Saturdays since Sierra disappeared, confirmed that sentiment Wednesday.
“It’s a strong volunteer effort, and it’s a family that I look forward to seeing every week,” said Konno, who has two teenagers of his own.
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith attended Wednesday’s vigil to support the family and the volunteer searchers. She said she was impressed with the crowd.
“This is an unbelievably great community,” Smith said. “It’s heart-wrenching what happened. I’d like to find Sierra, and I’m really happy we have a person in custody. But it’s been a real tough case for us. We all have children, and we would never want this to happen to anyone.”
The sheriff added that investigators continue to receive tips about where Sierra might be, and authorities continue to search the South County area. On Wednesday, investigators returned to some reservoirs to follow up on previous searches there, and to remove some vehicles submerged in the water that were found during previous searches. Those vehicles are unrelated to Sierra’s disappearance, Smith said.
Investigators also invite area residents to offer advice on where else to search for Sierra, Smith said.
“We want to hear it all,” she said. The sheriff’s office tip line is still open to report leads and tips on the case, at (408) 299-2311 or (408) 808-4431. Tips can also be sent by e-mail to [email protected], and via the sheriff’s office website at sccgov.org/portal/site/sheriff.
No new information about the case has been released by authorities since Garcia Torres was charged in May.
Earlier Wednesday, at the Sierra search center at Burnett Elementary School, KlaasKids Foundation founder Marc Klaas said the searchers could still use more information from investigators to help refine their search efforts. Sheriff’s investigators have said they have not released any information about the case to the searchers that they haven’t released to the general public.
A few weeks ago, KlaasKids’ search director Brad Dennis flew to the Bay Area to “re-evaluate” the search strategies and methods, and convince the sheriff’s office to provide more information to searchers in order to focus their efforts.
But Klaas said investigators have declined to offer any other information that might lend better insight into the missing teen’s whereabouts, even though the volunteers don’t know what that information could be.
Still, the foundation figured out other ways to refine the search, including sending volunteers on “scouting” missions to target and re-target specific areas, Klaas said Wednesday.
They have also pinpointed areas where the water table or levels of bodies of water might have changed since they were last visited, and gone back to search those areas again, he said.
“But we could be more focused with new information” from investigators, Klaas said.
On Wednesday morning, just more than 20 volunteers showed up to search, though Klaas said the search center has averaged about 40 volunteers each Wednesday.
Terry Griswold of Morgan Hill has returned to the search center for the last four months, helping register volunteers, she said.
“I’m a mom, and a nana, and I’m retired,” said Griswold, a grandmother to two small children. “(Sierra’s case) just grabbed at me, and I just wanted to do something.”
Volunteer search efforts continue at Burnett Elementary, 85 Tilton Ave., every Wednesday and Saturday. For more information, go to findsierralamar.com.
Klaas, whose daughter Polly Klaas was kidnapped and murdered in 1993, said Wednesday that of the hundreds of missing children cases in which he has provided search services, none of the search efforts have persisted as long as the search for Sierra, which is approaching the six-month mark.
“As long as the family maintains hope, and the community is still showing support, the searches will go on,” Klaas said.