Police arrested a man in connection to the disappearance of Sierra LaMar who has prior arrests and has been linked to at least one incident in a string of unsolved assaults against women in 2009 at two Morgan Hill grocery stores.
And the community’s reaction to the arrest so far – gauged from shoppers in front of those two stores and the school Sierra attended before she was kidnapped – ranged from surprise to relief to sadness.
Antolin Garcia-Torres, 21 of Morgan Hill, was arrested Monday night by Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputies on suspicion of murder and kidnapping in connection with the March 16 disappearance of the 15–year-old Sobrato High School sophomore.
Garcia-Torres’ first court date is scheduled for Thursday at South County Courthouse in Morgan Hill, according to sheriff’s Sgt. Jose Cardoza.
Sheriff Laurie Smith said at a press conference Tuesday that DNA evidence found with Sierra’s purse and clothing, which were found off the side of the road about a mile northwest of her home days after she was reported missing, linked Garcia-Torres to the crime. The sheriff also reported that Sierra’s DNA was found in the suspect’s vehicle.
The red Volkswagen Jetta that investigators released pictures of earlier this month, which was associated with the teen’s disappearance, belonged to Garcia-Torres, authorities said.
The suspect and Sierra did not know each other prior to the teen’s kidnapping, Smith said.
Detectives have had Garcia-Torres under constant surveillance since March 28, and arrested him Monday night at the Safeway grocery store at Tennant Station. Police arrested him without having found Sierra’s body, a weapon or any definitive proof that she is dead, Smith said.
However, they had enough evidence to get Garcia-Torres in custody where he can’t harm another victim, Smith said.
The suspect is currently being held in Santa Clara County Jail without bail.
“Public safety is our primary concern,” Smith said.
Garcia-Torres attended Morgan Hill Unified School District’s Live Oak High School, before transferring to Central Continuation High School in 2010, but did not graduate, according to Julie Zintsmaster, MHUSD executive secretary.
The school district sent out a statement that Sierra’s disappearance has caused “great anguish among students and staff,” and the district has assigned additional counseling staff to help students and faculty at Sobrato High School.
The staff is also working with Community Solutions to support the students, who have access to counselors “as often as they need throughout the day,” according to Superintendent Wes Smith.
“We have also hired substitutes who can cover for our staff members if they need to speak to a counselor,” Smith said in a press release. “Counselors can even visit classrooms and speak to groups of students if necessary.”
Sobrato Principal Debbie Padilla said students and the community should focus on the positive impact that Sierra had on those around her.
“We have witnessed the strength and determination of her family to seek justice,” Padilla said in a memo to school staff. “Loved ones, friends, and complete strangers have rallied around our school community. We will continue to use our pain to make a positive difference in our community.”
Detectives have interviewed the suspect at least once since his arrest, and Smith said those proceedings produced “some value” to the case.
The sheriff did not specify what kind of DNA was found on Sierra’s discarded belongings or in the suspect’s car, but it was “enough to link him” to the crime.
“We have a lot of circumstantial evidence,” she said, acknowledging that such cases are difficult to prosecute.
Cardoza added that the sheriff’s dive team this week will return to some of the reservoirs and waterways in the South County area that they’ve already searched in recent weeks. The divers will first return to Uvas reservoir and use side-scan sonar devices to detect any questionable items on the lake bottom over the next few days.
One reason they waited until more than two months after Sierra’s disappearance to arrest Garcia-Torres is that it took a long time to process forensic evidence gathered from his car, Smith said.
Sierra’s parents, who also spoke at the press conference Tuesday, said they remain hopeful that Sierra is alive, and will continue searching for her as the dive team and volunteers continue to do so as well.
“We continue to pray that she’s found,” Sierra’s mother Marlene LaMar said, adding that “certain things” that her daughter probably had with her when she left the house the morning of March 16 were not found in the suspect’s vehicle. She did not specify what those items were.
To the suspect, she said, “Please give us the information you have to lead us to Sierra and end this nightmare.”
Sierra’s father Steve LaMar, speaking to the community, “We still need your support to bring Sierra home.”
Another volunteer search conducted by friends of the family and the KlaasKids Foundation will take place tomorrow starting at 8 a.m., at Burnett Elementary School, 85 Tilton Ave.
KlaasKids founder Marc Klaas said he has a good idea how Sierra’s parents feel, as he went through a similar experience when his daughter Polly was kidnapped and murdered in 1993 and police arrested a suspect before finding her body.
“The family very much believes, without proof, that Sierra is still alive,” Klaas said. “(Garcia-Torres) does not have a murder conviction in his history. They’re going to believe she’s still alive, and waiting for them to come and get her. It’s exactly how I felt, very strongly.”
But he vowed, “We’re going to keep searching for Sierra until she’s recovered.”
Authorities think Sierra is dead due to the fact that she was “very social” but has not contacted anyone since March 16, when she sent a friend a text message about 7:11 a.m. on her way to school.
Plus, some of the discarded belongings of Sierra’s that were found near her home in the days following her disappearance – including her cell phone and medication – were probably not thrown away by her voluntarily, Smith said.
Garcia-Torres has at least two prior arrests – one for interfering with an officer, for which he was convicted, and a felony assault that was not prosecuted, Smith said.
Furthermore, he is also linked to at least one incident in a series of three assaults on women in the parking lots of Safeway stores in Morgan Hill, on Tennant and East Dunne avenues, Smith said.
Those attempted assaults which were “not completed” occurred in March 2009. The suspect, who was never identified or arrested, confronted three women on separate occasions near their parked vehicles at night time. The suspect entered the vehicles and locked the doors and attempted to assault the women. He was scared off by passersby or the victim’s resistance in all three incidents.
The suspect used a stun gun on one of the victims, and punched another of the female victims in the string of assaults. Smith did not say which of the three incidents Garcia-Torres was linked to.
Police produced an artist’s rendering of the suspect shortly after the Safeway attacks, and even recovered his stun gun, but the crimes were never solved.
Garcia-Torres is not a registered sex offender, Smith said.
Though early on in the investigation into Sierra’s disappearance, authorities had a number of suspects in mind, they now think Garcia-Torres is the only suspect to the crime.
Smith added that since January 2011, 63 missing female children have been reported in Santa Clara County and have not returned home, highlighting the importance of placing suspects like Garcia-Torres in custody.
“We put a lot of resources into (Sierra’s case) but it was worth it,” Smith said.
Sobrato students react
Outside Sobrato High School, some students’ take on the arrest and, more poignantly now the likely murder of Sierra, indicates the school district’s augmented counseling services might come in useful.
“I was surprised. I didn’t think that he killed her, but I guess it looks that way. I was really hoping they’d find her. We all were,” freshman Adriana Talerico, 16, said.
“Some people were crying and writing messages to her parents about her.”
Talerico said she takes precaution when she goes out, and she doesn’t feel as safe as she did before Sierra’s kidnapping. Her parents tell her to be careful and always walk with others.
Sierra was a sophomore at Sobrato. She transferred to the school when she moved to Morgan Hill with her mother and mother’s boyfriend from Fremont. She attended Washington High School in Fremont previously.
Sobrato junior Austin Lunn, 17, said Tuesday that the latest news has had a profound effect on the student body.
“A lot of people were broken down about it,” Lunn said. “There was actually a girl that left my first-period class crying. A lot of people were already emotionally shocked by this.”
The news affected other parents in town as well.
“As a parent, I was very relieved when I heard. I just hope that Sierra LaMar’s alive and that they find her alive,” said Claudia Orozco, 36, mother of two girls who attend Sobrato.
“I was surprised (with the arrest),” Orozco added. “I don’t believe he’s the only one behind this, because of the reports I hear. It doesn’t sound like it.”
Safeway shoppers react
Outside the two Safeway grocery stores in Morgan Hill where the series of unsolved assaults happened more than three years ago – one of which employed Garcia-Torres up until about 18 months ago – shoppers reacted to the arrest and the suspicion among authorities – confirmed for the first time today – that Sierra is dead.
Lachelle Ourricariet, 20, said she thinks it’s great that they found a suspect, although the murder allegation disheartened her, as it crushed her hope that Sierra LaMar is still alive.
“We wanted to hold on to any little glimmer of hope, and this news kind of squashes it,” Ourricariet said.
She recognized Garcia-Torres right away from his booking photo.
“I recognize the dude from shopping at Safeway.”
Ourricariet has a 9-year-old sister who is a student at Paradise Valley. Sierra’s disappearance shook her up.
“I mean, this could have been her. This could have been anyone.”
She is glad that investigators arrested someone because it seemed to the public that they were not making a lot of ground. This shows that they were working hard all along.
The photo of Garcia-Torres “creeped her out.” As soon as she saw the picture, she felt she recognized him from being a regular shopper at Safeway. “He looked like he was smirking almost in that picture, and that angered me.”
When asked if he thinks LaMar could still be alive, 27-year-old Adam Rodgers, a Morgan Hill resident of two years, replied “I don’t know … now that they caught him, it’s going to be interesting. It’s good that police officers have something to go off of now.”
Tim Mason, 48, a Morgan Hill resident of 12 years who participated in several search parties for LaMar, said as long as the police haven’t found LaMar’s body, there’s still a chance the teen could be alive.
Guy Jew, 72, a Morgan Hill resident of 30 years, said the chances of finding LaMar alive are “pretty slim, because of the length of time that has passed.” Police and volunteers should “absolutely” continue searching, Jew added, in order to provide “closure for the family” and to help move the investigation along.
When Morgan Hill resident Tom Rivera, 24, heard of the arrest this morning, “it came as a shock, because it was somebody that was right beneath the community’s nose.”
Rivera, who participated in two of the volunteer searches for the missing teen, said he thinks there’s a chance LaMar could be alive – “but that’s wishful thinking,” he said, with a downcast expression. “I’m hoping the parents get closure.”
While the kidnapping and possible murder of LaMar “sure is sad” and “terrible,” Hillary Duarte, 22, of Morgan Hill, feels law enforcement’s efforts should be more spread out instead of funneling extensive time and man power into one specific case.
“They should use their resources more evenly,” said Duarte.
Duarte, who said she has a number of friends that are victims of domestic violence, said police officers should still look for (LaMar) but allocate more resources to checking in on domestic violence complaints, “as it might make a difference” in keeping tabs on men who demonstrate abusive behavior patterns towards women.
“I’m hoping the DNA evidence pans out the way they think it will, so they can follow this through for justice,” added Robin Tokiwa, 50, a retired San Jose police officer and Morgan Hill resident.
As a parent and former police officer, Tokiwa has made it her mission to educate children and parents in Morgan Hill to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.
Tokiwa found that Sierra’s case hit especially close to home, as her daughter graduated from Sobrato last year.
“We never know who our neighbors really are. We never know what can happen.”
The day after Sierra went missing, she noticed there were still children waiting alone for the bus stop – just a short jaunt away from where Sierra was kidnapped.
“These children are our treasures. Just because this case is hopefully resolved, it doesn’t mean the danger is gone. As parents we need to be aware and guarded with where we let them go.”
Speaking as a former police officer, Tokiwa guessed that Garcia-Torres has known he was under surveillance for some time. Sheriff Smith acknowledged at the morning press conference that the suspect “may have believed he was under surveillance,” and investigators contacted him more than once during the investigation.
When asked why she thinks Garcia-Torres stayed in Morgan Hill this long with a high profile investigation all around him, Tokiwa said, quietly, “Let’s just say, we don’t usually catch the smart ones.”