Staring at murder; Garcia Torres officially charged - The Gilroy Dispatch: Search For Sierra

Sierra LaMar case Staring at murder; Garcia Torres officially charged

Plea hearing continued for MH man accused of kidnapping, killing Sierra LaMar

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Posted: Thursday, May 24, 2012 6:04 pm | Updated: 4:18 pm, Mon Jun 25, 2012.

Antolin Garcia Torres, 21 of Morgan Hill, was charged Thursday with murdering Sierra LaMar, 15, who has been missing since March 16.

The charge filed by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office includes a special circumstance of kidnapping.

Garcia Torres appeared at his scheduled arraignment hearing at the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice in San Jose where the charge was read. He stared straight ahead with his head down, and didn’t say anything as he was notified of the charge.

He did not enter a plea, and the hearing was continued to May 31 at the same courtroom. Garcia Torres remains in custody without bail. He was assigned an attorney from the public defender’s office.

Garcia Torres was arrested Monday night by Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputies on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering the 15-year-old Sobrato High School sophomore, after sheriff’s detectives as well as authorities from the FBI and other agencies had been watching him as a suspect for more than a month.

District Attorney Jeff Rosen read a statement about the charges outside the courthouse following the hearing.

“We will do everything in our power to seek the truth, and justice for Sierra LaMar,” Rosen said.

He added that while a murder charge makes Garcia Torres eligible for the death penalty, his office has not yet decided if they will seek that punishment for the suspect.

While Sierra’s body nor any other evidence proving she is dead has been recovered, authorities think she was murdered based on her lack of contact with any of her family or friends since she disappeared.

Rosen said the investigation into the alleged kidnapping and murder is ongoing, and his office will “devote all available resources to finding her body.” Sheriff’s investigators and volunteers continue to search for Sierra or her remains.

A large crowd of supporters of Sierra’s family, including a group of volunteers who have helped search for the missing teen since late March, gathered outside the courthouse after the hearing. Some carried large posters depicting Sierra’s face, with messages written on them such as, “Sierra we love u!”

“I have children, and a big heart, and I would love to have somebody to help me,” said Jennifer Stultz of San Jose, who has volunteered to search for Sierra for several weeks. “I’m not giving up hope that we can bring her home safe. I believe she’s alive.”

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. She declined to say in what form the DNA was recovered.

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.

Detectives had Garcia Torres under 24-hour surveillance since March 28, and arrested him Monday night at gunpoint outside the Safeway grocery store at Tennant Station, according to sheriff’s Sgt. Jose Cardoza.

And authorities do not think that Garcia Torres and Sierra knew each other before her disappearance, and do not believe they had any friends in common.

“The evidence establishes probable cause to believe that Sierra LaMar was forcibly kidnapped and murdered by Antolin Garcia Torres,” read a “statement of facts” submitted by the D.A.’s office at Thursday’s hearing.

And since Garcia Torres’ arrest, the sheriff’s office has received a flood of phone calls from potential witnesses and others who recognize the suspect. Cardoza said investigators have received about 30 calls a day from such witnesses, and some have provided “valuable information” to police.

Cardoza also urged private property owners, especially in rural areas, to continue searching the land, water shorelines, creeks, streams, wells, large containers and abandoned sheds or outhouse structures for any sign of Sierra or her remains.

Properties reaching throughout south Santa Clara County, to north San Benito and Monterey, and east Santa Cruz counties should be included in search efforts, Cardoza said.

Late Thursday, a woman’s body was found in a plastic garbage bag off the side of Dublin Canyon Road in Pleasanton, according to ksbw.com. There was no immediate indication that the dead female is Sierra.

Authorities also think Garcia Torres was the suspect in at least one event in a string of attempted assaults on women in the parking lots of both Safeway grocery stores in Morgan Hill in March 2009, the sheriff said.

In those incidents, a man approached three different women at night as they were entering their parked vehicles, or while they were sitting in the cars by themselves preparing to drive away. In one incident the suspect used a stun gun to attempt to subdue a woman after he entered her vehicle through the rear passenger’s door.

In another, he entered an 18-year-old woman’s vehicle in a similar fashion, and when the woman grabbed a pocket knife to try to defend herself he grabbed her hand that was holding the knife and placed it close to her throat, police said.

In all three incidents the suspect was frightened away by the screaming victims or passersby, and was unable to inflict serious injuries or assault, police said.

The sheriff did not say to which of the three incidents Garcia Torres is linked or how he is connected.

Morgan Hill police have already ruled out Garcia Torres as a suspect in a December 2009 unsolved sexual assault on Mission View Drive in northeast Morgan Hill, according to MHPD Sgt. Troy Hoefling.

In that incident, a woman was jogging along the road early in the morning when a man approached her from behind, on foot, and held a sharp object to her throat as he pulled her into an adjacent orchard and assaulted her, police said.

DNA evidence collected at the scene does not match that of Garcia Torres, Hoefling said. No suspects have been identified in that case.

One reason authorities 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.

The suspect’s car was confiscated by investigators April 7, Cardoza added. Detectives had also contacted him prior to his arrest, and at one point served a search warrant on his home at Maple Leaf RV Park in south Morgan Hill. Deputies took some of Garcia Torres’ belongings from the home for further investigation, but Cardoza did not identify those items.

Other surveillance tactics used since March 28 included a team of investigators who followed the suspect everywhere he went, Cardoza added. The sheriff’s office also had a stationary team at Maple Leaf, inside a trailer that took up residence at the RV Park.  

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.

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.”

And, he vowed, “We’re going to keep searching for Sierra until she’s recovered.”

Authorities think Sierra was kidnapped while she was walking from her north Morgan Hill home to catch a bus to school about 7:15 a.m. March 16. Her last contact with anyone was a text to a friend she planned to meet up with at school, where the two planned to compare homework and share makeup.

Garcia Torres’ DNA was on file in the county database from a prior arrest, though Cardoza did not specify which arrest. The suspect has been arrested at least twice by sheriff’s deputies in the past.

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