An arrest has been made in the disappearance of Morgan Hill cheerleader Sierra LaMar, and Santa Clara County authorities are confident they have the right man.
Antolin Garcia-Torres, 21, was taken into custody at about 6 p.m. last night outside the Morgan Hill Safeway store where he works. The arrest was the result of constant surveillance authorities had on their suspect from March 28 to the time of his arrest. Additionally, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith said, there is both direct and circumstantial evidence that connects Garcia-Torres to the crime.
What authorities don’t have is a belief that the 15-year-old is still alive. Garcia-Torres has been formally charged with one count of kidnapping and one count of murder.
“We have evidence that leads us to believe and we have probable cause to believe that he has committed the murder and kidnapping,” Smith said in a news conference this morning. “We’re charging him with murder. It’s very difficult to come to that position where we believe that she’s not alive.”
According to authorities, Garcia-Torres attended Central High School, a continuation school in Morgan Hill. Investigators have not identified a connection between the suspect and LaMar and firmly believe it was a stranger abduction, despite the fact that Garcia-Torres lived within miles of the LaMar home.
Smith would not reveal the type of DNA evidence investigators obtained that connected Garcia-Torres to the crime, but noted that it was found early in the investigation along with some of LaMar’s belongings.
“The discovery of Sierra’s cell phone, clothing, what she wore that day, and her personal belongings have contributed to our belief that Sierra is the victim of murder,” Smith explained. “It was the clothing that was really instrumental in finding the suspect.”
This is not Garcia-Torres’ first brush with the law. He was charged with resisting arrest in 2009 and authorities recently connected him to at least one physical assault that same year. It was these crimes that landed Garcia-Torres’ DNA into the database, ultimately helping investigators in identifying him as their suspect. According to Smith, Garcia-Torres’ DNA was found in her bag, evidence that was located by search teams just days after her disappearance. The lab results for that evidence came back on March 28, and the suspect was under 24-hour surveillance from that point forward. But that is not the only connection between suspect and victim.
“We have physical evidence linking Sierra to [Garcia-Torres’] vehicle,” Smith said.
The vehicle, a red Volkswagen Jetta, was identified as the suspect vehicle and impounded by police on May 7.
Despite the early identification of Garcia-Torres as a person of interest in the case, he wasn’t the only suspect at first. Smith said investigators had been looking at a number of suspects early on in the case including dozens of registered sex offenders. Among those interviewed was LaMar’s father, Steve, a registered sex offender himself who was ruled out early on.
As of this morning, authorities are not any closer to locating the missing girl. Hours of interviews with Garcia-Torres have not included her potential whereabouts. Smith said the arrest is not the end of the case.
“Our focus right now is continuing to search and look for Sierra and we hope we reach a successful prosecution on the person who did this.”
The process will likely include a search for more evidence. Smith said no murder weapon or blood was ever recovered. Meanwhile, she thanked the community for their support and efforts in the search, the part of the investigation that had always been open to the public.
“I’m absolutely confident in what we’ve done. Our detectives have done an amazing job. The community outreach was been wonderful … what the volunteers have been doing, what the search and rescue team has been doing is searching for Sierra, not investigating the case.”
Smith also praised the investigators and the help received from the U.S. Marshals Service, the FBI and its Behavioral Analysis Unit. She also noted that LaMar isn’t the only disappearance investigators are looking into right now.
“Since January 2011 alone, there are 43 missing juvenile females that have never returned home,” she said. “You wonder if any of those were actually abductions also.”
Members of LaMar’s family were also present at this morning’s news conference. They expressed gratitude and hope.
“I would like to thank the community outreaching to find Sierra and all their time and efforts that have gone into this. Their prayers,” Sierra’s mother Marlene LaMar said. “We continue to pray until she is found. Our search is still not going to end. As a mother, I still am hopeful because her body has not been found and that gives me hope.”
She also had words for Garcia-Torres.
“I do have a plea to the perpetrator to please, please give the information that you have to lead us to Sierra to help end this nightmare. I would like you to come forward and say where she is. I’m not giving up hope. I believe there was a reason she wasn’t found, so we’re not giving up on that.”
Sierra’s father echoed that sentiment. “We still need to find her.”
CrimeVoice: Sierra LaMar likely abducted