In a sudden move Tuesday, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office charged the man already accused of killing 15-year-old Sierra LaMar with three unrelated kidnapping attempts that happened in Morgan Hill in 2009.
Authorities from the DA’s office, sheriff’s office and Morgan Hill police have strongly hinted that the new charges were likely after Antolin Garcia Torres, 21 of Morgan Hill, was arrested for his alleged involvement in Sierra’s disappearance May 21, when Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith said evidence gathered from the suspect tied him to at least one of the incidents in which he is suspected of attacking three women in the parking lots of two Safeway grocery stores in Morgan Hill.
The DA’s office, in a surprise hearing, charged him Tuesday with three felony counts of attempted kidnapping during the commission of a car jacking in relation to the 2009 incidents, according to Sean Webby with the DA’s office. Although Garcia Torres was 17 at the time of the 2009 attacks, the court agreed Tuesday to charge him as an adult.
Garcia Torres already faces a possible death sentence for the kidnap and murder of Sierra, for which he was charged in May, though prosecutors have not said if they will pursue the death penalty. Sierra’s body has not been found, but authorities think she is dead based on her lack of contact with anyone since she disappeared.
The new charges were added to the existing complaint accusing Garcia Torres of murdering Sierra, Santa Clara County Deputy DA David Boyd said. The new charges could add up to 14 years, 8 months to any potential sentence Garcia Torres might receive from a murder conviction.
The 2009 incidents and new charges are unrelated to the disappearance of Sierra, who would now be 16 and has been missing since March 16.
Garcia Torres allegedly approached and randomly attacked three different women at night in the parking lots of the Safeway grocery stores over a two-week period in March 2009. He allegedly used a stun gun to attempt to subdue one of the victims, and overpowered another by turning a pocket knife she used to try to defend herself against her throat.
Police do not think Garcia Torres knew the women before attacking them. The incidents were widely publicized as authorities urged Safeway customers to be cautious when grocery shopping alone at night. Some Safeway shoppers at the time said they changed their shopping schedules because of the incidents.
Both Safeway stores posted composite sketches created by police – which were based on witness descriptions – on their front doors for several weeks after the kidnapping attempts.
Garcia Torres, who has worked at the Safeway store on Tennant Avenue, attacked the women by sneaking up behind them as they entered their parked vehicles. He then entered or tried to enter the vehicles and attempted to assault them. All three incidents were foiled by the victims or passersby before Garcia Torres could inflict serious injuries, police said.
The first two attacks occurred in one night, from 11 p.m. to 11:25 p.m. March 19, 2009 – first at the Safeway at 840 East Dunne Ave., and then at the store’s 235 Tennant Station location.
In the first attack, Garcia Torres attempted to enter the vehicle’s back seat, but the lone female driver locked the doors and drove away before he got in. In the second attack, Garcia Torres was able to get into the back seat after following a woman to her car from the store’s entrance. He punched her and used a stun gun on her before a passing motorist startled him and he fled on foot.
About 9 p.m. on March 26, Garcia Torres struck again at the East Dunne store’s parking lot, climbing into the back seat of a parked vehicle to attempt an assault on the 18-year-old Gilroy woman who was alone in the driver’s seat, police said. She attempted to defend herself with a pocket knife, but Garcia Torres allegedly overpowered her and used the knife to cut her slightly before her screams scared him away.
The victim in the first 2009 attack circulated a warning by e-mail to area women notifying them of the attack against her, and warning them not to shop at Safeway late at night or alone. Her e-mail, as well as numerous similar messages from local residents, circulated throughout Morgan Hill as anxiety over the attacks grew in 2009.
The victim could not be reached for comment before press time Thursday.
Authorities did not know who the suspect was in the three incidents until they collected Garcia Torres’ DNA earlier this year during the investigation of Sierra’s disappearance. Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith said in May – just after Garcia Torres was arrested on suspicion of killing Sierra – that the DNA evidence connected him to at least one of the Safeway assaults.
Sierra, 16, was a sophomore at Sobrato High School when she vanished from her north Morgan Hill neighborhood. She was a cheerleader for a San Jose cheer team, and previously at Washington High School in Fremont where she moved to Morgan Hill from about six months before she disappeared.
Authorities think she was kidnapped as she was walking to her school bus stop near the intersection of Palm and Dougherty avenues.
Investigators have said they found DNA in Garcia Torres’ vehicle, and on Sierra’s belongings discovered near her home that places the two together, though they did not know each other before Sierra disappeared.
Sierra’s family and volunteers continue to search for Sierra every Saturday, starting at 8 a.m. from Burnett Elementary School, 85 Tilton Ave. For more information on the search efforts, go to www.findsierralamar.com.
Anyone with information on the case can call the sheriff’s tip line 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..