"After what he did, not saying, not telling where Sierra is, and what happened, I hope it eats away at him, while he's in there, while he rots in prison."
-Steve LaMar, Sierra's father.
It was the 16th of March 2012. A Friday. Fifteen year old Sierra LaMar had school that day. She had arranged to meet a friend before class so that they could exchange homework and makeup.
Sierra would always be at home in the afternoons on week days when her mother Marlene got back from work. Sierra lived with Marlene and Marlene's boyfriend in Morgan Hill, California, United States. She had recently moved from Fremont to a semi-rural neighborhood near Morgan Hill. That day, the 16th of March, when Marlene got home after work, Sierra wasn't at home.
Marlene contacted Sierra's friends and school and discovered that she wasn't at school that day. Sierra was a student at Sobrato High School and always got the bus at the same time every day. She would normally leave her house at 7.15am to walk the few blocks to the bus stop to make it there for 7.24am, the time that the bus collected her at. The stop where Sierra got on the bus at was an unmarked stop and she was the only student who got on the bus at that stop.
When Marlene discovered she hadn't been at school that day she was worried. Everything that morning had been the same as usual, there was no indication that Sierra wasn't planning on going to school. She got up at 6am and started getting ready for school. Marlene's boyfriend had already left for work by that time and Marlene left shortly afterwards. Where did Sierra go?
Marlene reported Sierra missing. Police discovered that Sierra had posted a photograph of herself to social media at 7am and exchanged a text message with her friend at 7.11am arranging to meet at school before classes began. It looked like Sierra planned to go to school. But when police checked with the bus driver and students on the bus, they found out that Sierra did not get on the bus that morning. A search of her home revealed that by all accounts, it looked like she had left as normal and her clothing and books for school were missing. What happened between her house and the bus stop?
The day after Sierra was reported missing, a police canine tracked her scent from her house to half way down the street leading police to believe that she may have been abducted.
A search of the area was carried out and Sierra's phone was found in a field less than a mile from her home. On the Sunday, the 18th of March, Sierra's purse, school books and clothing were found in a shed in a field less than 2 miles from her home. The clothing was found covered in dirt stains and had a strong odor of human urine. The police believed the dirt stains were the result of her possibly being dragged while wearing the clothing. But even though they found Sierra's belongings, there was no sign of Sierra.
Forensic examination of the clothing found that there was DNA present that did not belong to Sierra. Police submitted it to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). That is the FBA database which stores DNA profiles created from federal, state and local crime laboratories in the United States. A search of it indicated a strong association between the DNA found on Sierra's clothing and the DNA of a man called Antolin Garcia Torres.
Antolin Garcia Torres
Police discovered that twenty one year old Antolin lived just 7 miles from Sierra's home and drove a red 1998 VW Jetta. A red car of a similar description was caught on surveillance camera near Sierra's home the day she went missing. Police seized the car on the 7th of April.
Police believed that due to the circumstances of her disappearance, Sierra was dead. Antolin was arrested and charged with kidnapping and killing Sierra despite her body never being found. He denied any involvement. Antolin pleaded not guilty.
The Prosecution told the Court they would be seeking the death penalty.That was not without risk. Their case was an entirely circumstantial one and they had to proceed with no autopsy, no murder weapon, no witness statements and no body.
It was the Prosecution's case that Antolin abducted and killed Sierra based on what they believed was a sexual motive. They told the Court that when Antolin was questioned in relation to Sierra's disappearance, he was the only person who brought up anything sexual in nature.
They also believed it was sexual in nature due to the fact that Sierra's clothing had been removed and nothing was missing. Sierra had all of her purse and monetary belongings intact, including her $5 in lunch money.
The Prosecution told the Court that a car that they believed was his car was not only caught on surveillance camera near Sierra's home the day she went missing but it was also captured on several surveillance videos close to the area where police recovered some of her belongings.
The Prosecution told the Jurors that Antolin would say that he had an alibi and that he was on a fishing trip the morning Sierra went missing but there were five hours that were unaccounted for that morning, for which he had no alibi and which gave him time to:
“execute his plan, to dispose of her body, to do unspeakable things to her.”
The Prosecution referred to the DNA evidence that was found. Sierra's hair was found on a rope in the trunk of his car. Further DNA was found on her clothing.
The Prosecution showed the Jury a video of Antolin being questioned by Investigators. When they asked him how his DNA was on Sierra's clothing if he never saw or met her, he said:
"I like masturbating, so, ha, that's it."
Antolin told the Investigators that he kept tissue or toilet paper in his car for masturbating. When he used the tissue, wherever he was parked, he would dispose of it by throwing it out the window and that was how the DNA must have been found on Sierra's clothing.
The Prosecutor told the Court that nobody had mentioned what the DNA that was found was to Antolin or anything to suggest that it was ejaculate that was found on Sierra's jeans.
The Prosecution told the Court that Antolin was also accused of kidnapping three other women and nothing was stolen from them either. The Court heard that in relation to those charges, Antolin worked in Safeway and he was charged with attempting to kidnap three women in a Safeway parking lot in Morgan Hill three years before Sierra disappeared. Antolin's fingerprint was found on the battery of a stun gun the attacker tried to use and dropped in one of the attacks.
It was the Defense's case that the Prosecution had failed to prove Sierra was even dead, let alone that Antolin had killed her.
The Defense suggested that Sierra may have simply run away. They told the Court that Sierra was unhappy about her recent move from Fremont with her mother and mother’s boyfriend and that she had links to the criminal underworld. They called Marcelo Palmieri, Marcelo teaches Spanish at Washington High School in Fremont, to testify. Marcelo testified that he had taught Sierra in September and October 2011 before she moved to Morgan Hill. When she moved to Morgan Hill, she changed school. Marcelo had told police that Sierra had visited his class "a few weeks" before she went missing. He said that she stopped by to visit a friend for about five minutes between class periods.
Sierra's friends from Fremont testified that Sierra had used marijuana and ecstasy. Sierra's friend, Shannon Foreman, told the Court that the day before Sierra went missing, she sent her a text message saying that she was "excited about going to Freemont and popping pills."
Shannon told the Court that she saw Sierra take ecstasy once or twice. Sierra's friends admitted that she was unhappy that she had to move to Morgan Hill.
The Defense argued that Sierra may have been abducted by drug dealers.
The Defense referred to the DNA that the Prosecution had presented. They argued that the evidence used by the Prosecution had been cross contaminated. In relation to the strand of hair that the Prosecution said was found on a rope in the trunk of Antolin's car, the Defense showed the Jury photographs of the rope taken when it was seized and there appeared to be no hair on it. The Court heard that the rope was left in the Sheriff's garage overnight in an unsealed bag before it was booked into evidence.
The Defense argued that sloppy preservation of the evidence meant that any DNA found on Sierra's clothing was the result of cross contamination. The Court heard that when Sierra's clothing was found in her purse, nine hair strands were booked into evidence and placed in an envelope, but only eight strands were still in the envelope.
They asked the Jury to disregard the DNA and hair evidence due to that.
The Defense also told the Jury that detectives failed to investigate a tip from a woman who saw a brown car that was weaving the day Sierra went missing.The woman saw the car pull over to the side of the road on the same street as Sierra’s bus stop was on.
The Defense further argued that the charge against their client in relation to the attempted kidnapping of three other women should also be disregarded as the lead sheriff’s detective in the case was the same lead detective in Sierra's case and he linked the 2009 unsolved attempted kidnappings of the three women from Safeway stores in Morgan Hill to the abduction of Sierra. They argued that another case he was involved in had to be tried again due to his mishandling of the evidence and his testimony could not be relied on.
In relation to the other charges he faced, the attempted kidnapping of three other women, his Defense team argued that even though the Prosecution stated that Antolin's fingerprint was found on the battery of a stun gun the attacker tried to use and dropped in one of the attacks, the fingerprint could have gotten there because Antolin worked at the Morgan Hill Safeway where the battery was purchased. He frequently re-shelved torn battery packages. His Defense team told the Court that none of the victims could pick out Antolin in a photo lineup.
Antolin did not testify at the Trial.
In their closing statements, the Defense told the Jurors that Sierra was a “distraught teenager, unhappy at home who ran away and could still be alive.”
The Prosecution argued that that was nonsensical as no hidden life had been uncovered and they told the Jury it would be unreasonable to think that if she ran away, she did so without telling any of her friends. They urged them to look at all the circumstances of the case from the plans she had made that day, to where her clothing was found and the DNA evidence.
Antolin was convicted of capital murder for the kidnapping and murder of Sierra. The Jury found him guilty of killing Sierra during the commission of a kidnapping, a “special circumstance” . Due to that , it was open to the Jury to sentence him to death or life in prison.
Antolin was also found guilty for Taser attacks and the attempted kidnapping of three other women.
Before the sentencing phase of Antolin's Trial began, the Defense immediately requested a new Trial. His attorneys questioned the credibility and truthfulness of the lead investigator. They argued that he mishandled evidence in another case and his testimony could not be relied on.
The Judge denied the motion.
Judge Zecher told the Defense that even if the lead investigator had been impeached, the outcome would have been the same as the fact that Sierra's DNA and Antolin's DNA were found in the same areas together, it would have led to a similar conviction.
At the sentencing phase of the Trial, the Defense argued for the lesser penalty, life in prison without parole. They told the Jury that Antolin may have been exposed to pesticides while growing up in semi-rural San Martin and that he had a troubled childhood. His mother, Laura Torres, gave a statement about what it was like for Antolin growing up. His father, Gabriel Hernandez, was an alcoholic and sexually abused his family members. The Jurors heard he is currently serving a life sentence for sexually abusing a female relative from age 5 to 14.
The Jurors heard that Antolin witnessed and experienced abuse from Gabriel when he was just a young boy.
Laura told the Jurors that her son was a
“loving and responsible son who took on a protective role in the family after his older brother Benny was lost to drugs, jail, deportation, and eventually death.”
The Jury opted not to sentence Antolin to death and instead sentenced him to life in prison. He was sentenced to 13 years and 8 months for his prior attempted kidnappings at a Safeway store.
Sierra's parents addressed the Court. Marlene spoke directly to Antolin:
"I find it incomprehensible to commit a heinous, violent crime-rape and murder of a child. You caused great pain to our family and yours. You have robbed Sierra of what God had planned for her, you can choose to make a choice and repent and tell us where she is. I think about her all the time,and what's been taken from me as a mother.
It's just hard to believe that this happened. I still wake up everyday thinking it's a dream, but it's reality.
You could end this and repent, and tell us where she is. What if she was your child?”
Judge Zecher ruled that Antolin was also required to register as a sex offender and told the Court that the reason for this was due to his masturbation admission and after the Prosecution argued that one of the main motivations to kidnap and kill Sierra was for sexual gratification due to the fact her items had not been stolen and her clothing had been removed. The Judge said:
“I believe that given the opportunity, Mr. Garcia would reoffend.”
After the sentence, Sierra's father, Steve LaMar, said:
"I would be lying if I didn't say I am disappointed in the verdict. He'll be able to live, Sierra won't. He'll be able to breathe. Sierra doesn't. He'll be able to eat everyday, see his family, and we don't have that. The crime I thought deserved the maximum sentence, not the minimum."
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