Two renowned experts who have spent their entire careers profiling violent, shady criminals and analyzing human behavior say that Sierra LaMar’s likely kidnapper – or kidnappers – probably stalked the missing teen before grabbing her from the street outside her home, and the victim’s personality is the polar opposite of her captor’s – an attribute that could end up saving her life.
Clint Van Zandt is a retired FBI agent, hostage negotiator and a profiler in behavioral science. He agreed with sheriff’s investigators’ premise that Sierra was likely kidnapped or abducted, based on what he has read in the media about the case so far.
That includes statements from Santa Clara County Sheriff’s investigators that no evidence – including 100-plus interviews with people who know Sierra – indicates she is a runaway, that she did not have a troubled home or school life, that she made it out of the house the morning of March 16 when she disappeared, and no family members are considered suspects.
With a preface that he has “no inside knowledge or specific knowledge” of the case other than what he has read in the news, Van Zandt said that certain facts strongly indicate more than one kidnapper was involved, and if they’re not caught soon they might try to do it again.
“The odds are not in her favor,” especially considering the fact that no phone calls or ransom demands from any potential suspects have been reported, Van Zandt added. In similar kidnapping cases, if the crime hasn’t been solved within 48 hours, the “statistical probability” of the victim’s safe return diminish.
Sierra’s family has to hope the teen is “defying the statistics, that (the kidnappers) are holding her some place and she’s still alive and awaiting rescue, as opposed to the possibility that she was kidnapped, assaulted and disposed of, or murdered.”
On the other hand, Sierra might be able to save herself if she can use what appears to be her socially savvy personality in her favor, added Dr. Lillian Glass, a Los Angeles-based behavior analyst, body language and communication expert. This side of Sierra’s character is depicted in her many smiling pictures on her Twitter account and avid use of social network websites. Her friends have described her in recent weeks as “outgoing.” She was a cheerleader at Washington High School in Fremont, and after moving to Morgan Hill she quickly joined a new club squad in San Jose – the Black Diamond Elite team.
“Is she able to use her smarts or intelligence to appease (her captor) and calm the situation down, to befriend him? Maybe she can use her personality skills to win (over) and influence” the kidnapper, Glass suggested. “That’s going to have a bearing on how long she lives.”
Bus stop numbers key
A key fact in the investigation is whether or not Sierra had been the only child waiting for the bus at Palm and Dougherty avenues each morning for the entire five months she has lived in Morgan Hill, Van Zandt said. If another student or students had been waiting with her for the same bus, “she would be less vulnerable as a kidnap victim” for as long as the other riders were near her.
By the last few weeks before her disappearance, Sierra was the only student waiting for the bus, family and neighbors confirmed. So, Van Zandt noted, if the bus stop suddenly went from having a crowd one day to having a single passenger waiting the next, police should look for anyone who drives through that area regularly, and might have noticed the change in numbers at the bus stop.
“That would suggest somebody who lives, or works in the area, or passes back and forth (for any reason) may have seen there were two girls there (previously) and that may have been more challenging,” Van Zandt said. “But if he saw only one person there one day, that could suggest one of two things: a kidnapper who had passed the location enough to know she would be there – or it was totally fortuitous.”
A phone message left with the Morgan Hill Unified School District, seeking more information on how many students have used the bus stop in recent months, was not returned by Tuesday afternoon.
Police have said they think the kidnapper lives in or is at least familiar with Morgan Hill, due to the secluded area where Sierra lives and from where she was likely picked up.
If it was a crime of opportunity, and the kidnapper happened to be driving through the area by chance, saw Sierra walking alone and grabbed her on the spur of the moment, that would make investigators’ job more difficult, Van Zandt said.
Either way, the suspect has likely committed crimes, and perhaps even similar crimes before. That’s why, Van Zandt said, one of the first things police did was to begin interviewing registered sex offenders in the area.
“This may or may not be the first person they’ve taken in a case such as this,” Van Zandt said. The suspect’s past might not be limited to sex-related or kidnapping crimes, but could include offenses related to drug use as well. And if they’re not caught, Sierra’s kidnapping might not be their last.
“They might feel they got away with it, and they could do this again,” Van Zandt said.
The kidnapper – probably a male – is likely in his 20s to mid-30s, and “probably a loner type,” Glass added.
“Obviously, it’s an individual who can’t have normal relationships with people, and especially with women,” she said. “He has to go for a teenage girl. People interested in teenage girls often feel this is the type of young girl they could control.”
Folded clothing puzzles
Investigators have found little physical evidence so far. Sierra’s cell phone was found in a field about three-quarters of a mile from her home, off Scheller Avenue, March 17.
The discovery Sunday, March 18, of Sierra’s purse with folded clothing – namely a pair of pants, T-shirt and undergarments – inside the purse is baffling to both Van Zandt and Glass.
The items, which were found about two miles northwest of Sierra’s home off the shoulder of Santa Teresa Boulevard, are still being processed by the county crime lab, though investigators have determined the clothing belonged to Sierra. “A lot hinges on” whether the clothes found were those she wore out of the house that day, or if they were an extra change of clothes.
“She may have had some place she was going later that she may have had a change of clothes, and somebody kidnapped her and threw it out the window,” Van Zandt said.
However, if she was wearing the clothing at the time she was kidnapped and the suspect unclothed her, the evidence could suggest more than one kidnapper was involved, Van Zandt said.
“It is highly unusual that one person would be able to kidnap, take total control (of the victim), take her clothes off, tie her wrists and keep her from running for help,” he said. “I’ve never heard of (just) one kidnapper being able to” do all these things within two miles after grabbing their victim, added Van Zandt, who worked a number of kidnapping cases in his 25 years with the FBI.
Still, why the kidnapper or kidnappers would then “have the sense of time” to fold her clothing doesn’t make any sense, Van Zandt added. “If they had been tossed out (outside the purse) or jammed into the bag, and they didn’t want her to run because she wouldn’t run while nude” – this would be a more likely scenario, he said.
If the kidnapper folded the clothing, Glass suggested this could reveal an “OCD” or obsessive-compulsive side to the suspect’s personality, indicating a need to live by patterns – again suggesting the kidnapper might strike again.
Other information useful to solving the crime, which police have not released, would be whether the clothing found was conservative or “sexy,” Glass said.
Crime is “highly solvable”
Investigators haven’t ruled out the possibility that Sierra left intentionally, intending to return later that day or weekend, with someone she knew who, unexpectedly to the teen, had malicious intent.
But Van Zandt said even in that scenario there would have been “psychological leakage” of her intent prior to running away. Sierra was an avid user of the Twitter and Tumblr social network websites before her disappearance, and was a frequent user of her smartphone.
“It would be highly unlikely she would be able to make secret plans to disappear for a day, without there being evidence of those plans in social media transactions,” Van Zandt said.
Investigators have confirmed that nothing so far on Sierra’s social media accounts indicates she planned to run away even for a few hours, and there is no evidence she had a troubled life at home or school.
And while police don’t think social media played a role in Sierra’s disappearance, Glass isn’t entirely convinced. Someone who is not even a Facebook friend or Twitter or Tumblr follower of Sierra’s might have spent some time watching her online activity or digitally “stalking” her before contacting her. For example, the kidnapper might have learned from this activity that Sierra was a cheerleader and fashioned a “fantasy” about her, Glass said.
“They might have picked out that cheerleader type that they could never get when they were in high school,” Glass said.
Sierra’s abduction is a “highly solvable” crime, due to the same likely communication leakage, Van Zandt concludes. The kidnapper or kidnappers will be following the story closely in the news, or someone will notice or remember that they didn’t show up, or showed up late for work March 16. Especially if there is more than one kidnapper, it is unlikely even the suspects will be able to stay quiet about it forever.
“They’ll say something when they’re drinking or doing drugs with other people,” Van Zandt said. “They won’t be able to keep their mouth shut.”
The incident conveys once again an unfortunate or “horrible” lesson for parents and other responsible grownups, Glass said.
“Never let young girls be alone,” she said. “In this day and age, nobody can be left alone.”