Published in the May 24 – June 6, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

Sierra LaMar will never come home. The body of the 15-year-old Sobrato High School cheerleader who vanished on her way to school five years ago has never been found and might never be found. But justice was served May 9 in a Santa Clara County courthouse when a jury after a 13-week trial found Antolin Garcia-Torres guilty of the kidnapping and murder of the teenager. He also was convicted of three additional counts for the 2009 attempted kidnappings of three adult women in the parking lots of two Morgan Hill supermarkets.

The outcome of the case can never fully bring peace to the LaMar family and the hundreds of volunteers who for nearly two years tirelessly searched for Sierra through the ranches, farm fields and wild lands of the South Valley region. “Justice is served here for us today, justice for Sierra. That gives us some form of relief,” Sierra’s father, Steve LaMar, told reporters outside the courthouse after the verdict was announced.

Sierra’s sister, Danielle, added, “Obviously, we’ll never get Sierra back, so it’s not closure. But it is a good first step. And the jury did the right thing.”

Garcia-Torres pleaded not guilty in February 2014 to the four charges. The district attorney believes he abducted Sierra and killed her on the morning of March 16, 2012, when she was walking to her school bus stop at the intersection of Dougherty and Palm avenues north of Morgan Hill. DNA material on Sierra’s clothing (a pair of her jeans which were found in a nearby field) and in Garica-Torres’s 1998 VW Jetta (a strand of her hair on rope) provided evidence of his involvement in her disappearance.

His defense attorney, Al Lopez, had the nearly impossible job of convincing the jury that Sierra ran away from home that day. He suggested to the six men and six women in the jury box that she dabbled in drugs, or might be sexually interested in girls, or had a strained relationship with her mother. No doubt based on the verdict, they remained unconvinced that an outgoing and popular girl would voluntarily leave her friends and family and disappear into the night, tossing her cell phone and never texting or emailing them during the past five years.

The on-going search for Sierra formed a family out of the many people who came together for her. Among them was Roger Nelson, a Gilroy resident who dedicated nearly all of his Saturday mornings to help Steve and Marlene LaMar find some support in their search for their daughter. Nelson was driving back home from San Jose March 26, 2012, when the thought hit him he must join the search for the missing teenager.

“I said, ‘Enough, enough, I’m tired of being on the sidelines,’” he told us in a story we published after a year and a half of the on-going searching. “I want to help out and participate like everyone else here. Let’s bring her home.”

He immediately drove to the newly-opened Sierra LaMar search headquarters at what was then Burnett Elementary School (now Central High School) in Morgan Hill and offered his assistance. Like many volunteer searchers, Nelson gave hundreds of his hours organizing teams before they went into the field.

The hope of one day finding Sierra’s remains kept him and other volunteers searching in what has been called the longest continuous search for one individual in U.S. history.

“They’re very devoted,” Nelson told us. “There’s a great spirit of cooperation and coordination, and I’m very proud to be a part of it.”

We along with many South Valley residents are inspired by the volunteers searching for one of our region’s own children. We saw how the volunteers became attached to the case — many times for personal reasons dealing with their own stories of loss. We saw how they grew to become what Marlene LaMar called “pretty much an extension of our family.”

And now that family has found a small sense of relief with the jury’s verdict of guilty.

The process of sentencing Garcia-Torres start May 16. That period will no doubt take an emotional toll on the LaMars and the volunteers. But families stick together. They never give up. They’re there for each other in difficult times as well as the good times. The penalty phase is expected to take a month or more because the defense and prosecution in the case will need to convince the jury why they believe the 26-year-old man should or should not be given life in prison without the possibility of parole — or a death sentence.

We hope Garcia-Torres will consider during this emotional time the pain he caused the LaMars and the entire South Valley community. The family and the volunteers have struggled with the lack of closure for the past five years following Sierra’s disappearance.

We know it’s not likely, but we hope that Garcia-Torres will reveal where he placed the Morgan Hill girl’s body. Perhaps during the sentencing process, he might show to the public some trace of true humanity and allow the LaMars and everyone else to finally give Sierra the decency of a proper burial.

The teen will never come home again. But she’s still a person. And she deserves the respect of finally laying forever in peace.