Where’s Sierra?

Volunteers review a map of their search locations Saturday morning as they prepare to head out of the new Sierra LaMar Search Center at the old Central High School.

Nearly two years after Sierra LaMar disappeared from her north Morgan Hill home, volunteers continue their search for the 15-year-old girl.
Meanwhile, the suspect accused of kidnapping and murdering her remains in custody, and investigators continue to follow up on leads suggesting where the victim’s current resting place might be.
Sierra’s father, Steve LaMar, 51, of Fremont showed up early morning March 8 at the Sierra Search Center in Morgan Hill to assist in the ongoing volunteer effort to locate the missing teen. He and Sierra’s mother, Marlene LaMar, have made a habit of attending the weekly searches, though Marlene was out of town and couldn’t make it. Sierra’s sister Danielle also joins the volunteers on occasion.
They join a core group of about 25 volunteers who have become “like a family” since the search effort started in late March 2012, according to volunteers on site Saturday.
The parents don’t go out in the field with searchers who scour rugged terrain that is often infested with ticks, bees and other pests. Instead, they show up early to join the group’s weekly prayer circle and a morning briefing on the day’s selected search sites. They remain at the search center while the volunteers are out, awaiting the results of the day’s pursuit for any sign of what happened to the girl who disappeared March 16, 2012.
“Before the public searches, we did a few on our own. But once it went public, it’s tough. You want to find something, but then you don’t want to,” Steve LaMar said during a search event.
Sierra’s parents also enjoy the relationships they have made with the volunteers from throughout the Bay Area who continue to show up every week, who Steve called “the bright spot in all this.”
“I’m surprised and grateful,” LaMar said. “I wouldn’t think these people would still be here” two years ago, even when hundreds of volunteers helped in the search during the early weeks of Sierra’s disappearance.
March 16 is the two-year anniversary of Sierra’s disappearance, and Steve said they’re not planning any special event or commemoration.
Authorities think Sierra was kidnapped while walking to her usual morning school bus stop near the intersection of Palm and Dougherty avenues. She was a sophomore at Sobrato High School when she disappeared.
A $35,000 reward – raised largely by donations – for information about Sierra’s whereabouts remains on the table.
Sierra had moved to Morgan Hill with her mother from Fremont about six months before her disappearance. Fremont is where Sierra had “a big group of friends,” her father said.
Sierra enjoyed cheerleading and was a “city girl” at heart who enjoyed fashion and makeup, Steve LaMar recalled.
“Spending time with her in San Francisco – she loved going there and shopping,” he said. “She was always kind of goofy with her friends.”
Two years doesn’t seem like a long time when thinking of these memories, but it feels like an eternity when thinking of the search efforts and the slow-moving criminal justice process, he said.
“Even though we were kind of educated and warned that it could take this long, it still is frustrating,” LaMar added.
In May 2012, Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Antolin Garcia Torres, 22 of Morgan Hill, on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering Sierra. He only recently pleaded not guilty to the charges – which make him eligible for the death penalty though prosecutors have not decided if they will seek that sentence – and remains in custody in Santa Clara County Jail with no bail.
His next hearing is scheduled for April 16 at the Hall of Justice in San Jose.
Despite the lack of a body, investigators are certain they have the right suspect. In the days after the arrest, Sheriff Laurie Smith disclosed that investigators found Sierra’s DNA in Garcia Torres’ car, and the suspect’s DNA on Sierra’s belongings which were discarded less than a mile north of her home.
“We want to find Sierra,” Smith said Tuesday. “We also believe we have overwhelming evidence and will get a conviction, and we need to find Sierra.”
Investigators have received “thousands” of tips in the case since March 2012 though that number has “dwindled”, according to Sheriff’s spolesman Sgt. Kurtis Stenderup. One recent tip led the sheriff’s dive team to search a pond in San Martin.
Smith said her office has not calculated the cost of the investigation that brought Garcia Torres into custody and still occasionally sends her staff out to follow up on tips, but she is conscious of remaining within her annual budget.
“When we do an investigation we provide the resources we think are necessary to do the very best job that we can do,” Smith said.
On Saturday, volunteers at the Sierra Search Center were preparing to search in the area of Parkway Lakes north of Morgan Hill, just on the west side of U.S. 101. The volunteers have been trained by law enforcement authorities to look for specific things like sinkholes, and to locate and bag “anything suspicious,” said Carla Ramm of San Jose, who has been searching for nearly two years.
Ramm and her French Mastiff Rocco, a certified therapy dog (and the unofficial “mascot” of the search effort), continue to search every Saturday. Ramm, a counselor with the Santa Clara County Juvenile Probation Department, enlisted some of her co-workers in the early days of the search.
Many of the volunteers who continue to participate, including Ramm, have seen violence in their families before.
“My sister was taken and murdered,” Ramm said. “We found her, and I want that same blessing for Sierra and her family.”
The initial search effort was coordinated by the KlaasKids Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by the father of Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped and murdered from her family’s Petaluma home in 1993, when she was 12 years old.
Gilroy resident Roger Nelson, volunteer coordinator, at the search center, said they still see at least one new face among the volunteers most Saturdays. He called these new volunteers as well as the regulars “true Bay Area heroes.”
“The people who walk in here could be any place else but they chose to support the LaMar family and bring Sierra home to her family,” Nelson said.
New volunteers and searchers are welcome every Saturday at the search center, 17960 Monterey Road. For information, visit www.findsierralamar.com.
Morgan Hill Bowl, 650 Tennant Station, will donate 25 percent of proceeds to the volunteer search for Sierra LaMar, 5 to 9 p.m. March 14. The donation will apply to patrons who present a flyer about the fundraiser, which can be printed at findsierralamar.com.