Five months after Sierra LaMar disappeared from her north Morgan Hill neighborhood, experts leading the volunteer efforts to find the teen say they have a critical need for more information from sheriff’s investigators in order to “fine tune” their ongoing search.
Volunteers from Morgan Hill and surrounding communities, working with Sierra’s family and the KlaasKids Foundation, have done just about everything they can with the information they have, and they hope to enlist more communication this week from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office to turn the search into a “wonderful collaborative effort,” according to KlaasKids search director Brad Dennis.
“We’re at a physical and emotional level here,” said Dennis, who flew back to the Bay Area from his home in Florida this week to re-evaluate the search efforts. “There’s still a daughter that’s missing, and a family that needs closure, and we’re not getting any closer to that.”
At the Sierra Search Center at Burnett Elementary School Wednesday morning, Dennis praised the sheriff’s investigators’ work in identifying and arresting a suspect in Sierra’s murder and kidnapping, but the need to find Sierra or her remains is a crucially separate aspect to the case.
Since the arrest Antolin Garcia Torres, 21 of Morgan Hill, the lines of communication between the nonprofit foundation and law enforcement have “fallen off.”
“We can bring in a lot more resources if we’re given more information” from law enforcement, Dennis said, adding, “Our goal would be to reach out and make contact with investigators today and see what they’re willing to share with us.”
KlaasKids founder Marc Klaas said one example of how more information might help them is they could bring in their own water-searching teams to scour creeks and streams in the South County area.
For their part, sheriff’s investigators haven’t received any new leads or information on the case lately, according to Sgt. Jose Cardoza. He added that the sheriff’s office has worked with the searchers since they started their efforts, but investigators have not provided them any information that has not been released to the general public.
“We’ve never stopped working with the search teams,” Cardoza said. “I’m sure the investigators will continue to work with them.”
Cardoza added that because of the lack of recent leads, the sheriff’s office does not have any planned search efforts coming up, but they will follow up on leads if and when they receive any. The sheriff’s office scoured the earth and water during the first three months of the investigation, even using sonar equipment and sending in divers to reservoirs and other waterways throughout South County.
Sheriff Laurie Smith did not return a phone call before press time Thursday.
KlaasKids’ search director was directly involved in the search for Sierra in the initial weeks. His return to Morgan Hill represents somewhat of a turning point in the search.
“Brad Dennis will be putting a new set of eyes on the search, a fresh perspective based on knowledge and experience,” Klaas said Wednesday morning.
The volunteer searches have continually been “re-evaluated” in the nearly five months they have been searching for Sierra, who was reported missing March 16. KlaasKids searchers and volunteers have been looking for the Sobrato High School sophomore in a tightly organized effort since late March.
The need to fine-tune such efforts are common in searches for missing children, which is KlaasKids’ specialty.
“There’s always a constant need to come in and re-evaluate your priorities,” Dennis said.
That includes previous resets of the parameters of the search, which has expanded geographically in the last four months to a 20-mile radius.
Klaas, whose own daughter Polly was kidnapped and murdered at the age of 12 in 1993, called that radius “incredible.”
Sierra disappeared the morning of March 16, as she was walking to her school bus stop near the intersection of Palm and Dougherty avenues - about a half-mile from her home, according to authorities.
Arrested in May was Garcia Torres, who was charged with killing and kidnapping the 15-year-old cheerleader. Garcia Torres appeared in court days after his arrest for an arraignment, but waived his right to appear at his last hearing Aug. 10. He has not yet entered a plea.
Investigators have not found Sierra’s remains, but they think she is dead based on her lack of contact with anyone since March 16 and her lack of independent means of financial support. DNA evidence found in Garcia Torres’ car, and on some of Sierra’s possessions found shortly after her disappearance places the two together, even though they didn’t know each other beforehand, according to authorities.
The lengthy and ongoing search for Sierra is unique among previous searches for missing children conducted by KlaasKids. Generally such efforts are rarely “this active” five months after the child went missing.
Klaas credits the “loyalty and perseverance” of the unwavering volunteers who continue to return to the twice-weekly search schedule. “They’ve been through a lot,” including even some injuries suffered in the field, Klaas said.
The Sierra Search Center has sent out a total of 915 volunteer search teams since March, according to Dennis. Those teams represent nearly 9,000 individual searchers, counting each regular volunteer’s return.
Volunteer efforts continue every Wednesday and Saturday.
At the search center Wednesday morning, about 30 volunteers arrived before 8:30 a.m. On Saturday, about 80 volunteers showed up, according to Cecilia Ponzini, 60 of Morgan Hill, a volunteer who has helped with administrative work at the search center since March.
Saturday’s tally is a slight jump from the average attendance in recent weeks, which has seen between 40 and 50 searchers show up for each effort, said Ponzini, who has four children and five grandchildren.
“We need to keep hope alive,” said Ponzini. “I’d feel bad if I didn’t come. We just need to bring Sierra LaMar home.”
One volunteer who just recently started helping with the search for Sierra is Roland Barreras, 42 of Morgan Hill. Barreras’ son Jesse Saldivar, also a Morgan Hill resident, was murdered in Hollister just over a year ago at the age of 18.
Barreras was one of the first volunteers to arrive at the search center Wednesday, in his second week of searching for Sierra.
“It’s like a healing thing,” he said. “I was encouraged by the way the community helped me, and helped Tara Romero,” the 14-year-old Sobrato High School freshman who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Morgan Hill last November. “I’m inspired by the constant searchers that keep coming out. In unlikely circumstances, this community has come together, and I want to be a part of that and I know that’s what my son would want me to do.”
Sierra’s family have posted a $35,000 reward for information leading to the missing teen’s whereabouts.
U.S. Congressman Jerry McNerney of Stockton, who represents the 11th congressional district which includes Morgan Hill, will be at the Sierra Search Center for Saturday’s efforts, from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m.
Volunteers continue to raise money for the search efforts.
On Sept. 15, volunteers will operate an information booth about the search for Sierra at the “Hot Cars and Guitars” concert and car show at Bolado Park in Hollister, according to volunteer Barbara Hammarstrom of San Jose.
That event will feature Shane Dwight and Tommy Castro performing musical acts, as well as food and beverage vendors and camping.
The purpose of the Sierra search volunteers’ booth is to raise awareness and seek donations, Hammarstrom said.