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Man Convicted of Murder in Case of Missing Calif. Teen

"It's a long time coming — justice is served," Sierra LaMar's dad, Steve LaMar said

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Parents of Sierra LaMar, the Morgan Hill teen who went missing while on her way to school five years ago, said they left the Santa Clara County Superior Court with a semblance of peace Tuesday after a jury unanimously found their daughter's killer guilty. Marianne Favro reports.

    (Published Tuesday, May 9, 2017)

    Parents of Sierra LaMar, the Morgan Hill teen who went missing while on her way to school more than five years ago, said they left the Santa Clara County Superior Court with a semblance of peace Tuesday after a jury unanimously found their daughter's killer guilty.

    The jury will meet May 16 to consider whether to recommend the death penalty for Antolin Garcia-Torres for killing and kidnapping 15-year-old Sierra who disappeared March 16, 2012 on her way to the bus stop near her mother's Morgan Hill house. Her body was never found.

    Pin-drop silence gave way to a collective gasp and then tears as the jury held Garcia-Torres responsible for Sierra's murder. "Justice has been served," a volunteer who searched for Sierra — one of the more than 750 who have spent hundreds of hours looking for any sign of her — whispered inside an emotionally-charged courtroom once the verdict was read. The jury also found Gracia-Torres guilty of attempting to kidnap and carjack three women in Safeway parking lots in 2009. 

    “Nothing will take away the pain and the sorrow that we experience every day and we will continue to experience for the rest of our lives,” said Marlene LaMar, Sierra’s mother. “But truly we’ve been praying for the chapter to have this type of ending: justice.”

    Marlene LaMar commended the 12-person jury for making the "right decision."

    "It gives us peace as a family, knowing that this is not going to happen to another child and that they can't get away with something like this," she said. 

    Marlene LaMar and her husband, Steve, wept in the Hall of Justice courtroom when the jury's decision was read aloud. Outside the court, flanked by a bevy of reporters, they fought back tears.

    "This is a long time coming," Steve LaMar said. "It's bittersweet. We don’t have Sierra and that’s the bitter part."

    When asked if the verdict provided the family closure, Sierra's father said it would help them heal, but "there's no closure."

    Danielle LaMar, Sierra's sister, agreed.

    "We'll obviously never get Sierra back so it's not closure, but it is a good first step," she said.

    Friends, family, volunteers and curious San Jose residents lined up as early as 7 a.m. to get into the courtroom for the verdict to be read two hours later in Department 40. The courtroom in which Judge Vanessa Zecher presided was packed — with tissues being handed out to those who needed them — as was an overflow room.

    Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen was in the courtroom alongside members of Garcia-Torres’ family and volunteers who helped search for Sierra, some of whom were strangers to the family when the teenager went missing, but have now become part of their support system.

    “DNA is DNA and it’s everywhere, pointing at him," Kelli Wilkins said before the verdict was announced. "There is no doubt in my mind and I don’t believe in any of the other searchers’ minds that he’s guilty of this and he needs to pay the price."

    The volunteers, who Steve LaMar thanked for investing "200 percent" in trying to find Sierra, said they don't plan to halt their efforts just because Garcia-Torres has been deemed guilty.

    "Our purpose is to bring Sierra home," Douglas Tollis stressed.

    The jury deliberated for about 10 hours before reaching a verdict, following a 13-week long trial.

    Sierra's family and friends sobbed when Garcia-Torres was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder. 

    For his part, Garcia-Torres — clad in a light blue dress shirt, pants, and a tie — displayed no emotion, briefly talking to his lawyer before the verdict was handed out. He sat calmly, a courtroom sketch artist noticed. A handful of bailiffs are typically present during such court proceedings, but on Tuesday, six were stationed throughout the room, with one standing right behind Garcia-Torres.

    When the jury's decision was revealed, a member of Garcia-Torres' family shook his head, seemingly in disagreement. The group left the courthouse without offering any comment, even after being chased by reporters, while Sierra's family and friends hugged each other, prosecutors and volunteer searchers, and made public statements in front of dozens of cameras.

    "It gives us some form of relief," Steve LaMar said. "It’ll never take away our grief. That’ll be with us forever. But today is what we wanted, and we’re happy."

    LaMar's school books, purse and clothing were found near a shed in a field about two miles from her home a couple of days after her disappearance.

    Police arrested Garcia-Torres, 26, two months later after investigators found his DNA — taken during a previous assault arrest — in her handbag. They also found Sierra's DNA in his red Volkswagen Jetta and one of her hairs on a rope found in the trunk of his car.

    Prosecutors said they believe Garcia-Torres is a predator and that his kidnapping attempts of other women helped him prepare for Sierra's abduction and murder. Garcia-Torres pleaded not guilty to charges of trying to kidnap and carjack three women in 2009 as they returned to their cars late at night in Morgan Hill parking lots.

    The jury on Tuesday unanimously found him guilty of trying to kidnap Annette Walters, Cynthia Lundy and Eva Orozco. 

    Sheriff's officials have said Sierra and Garcia-Torres did not know each other and that they believe her abduction was a random act of violence. Garcia-Torres lived about 7 miles from LaMar in a trailer he shared with his mother, girlfriend and young daughter.

    Investigators said surveillance cameras and witnesses put Garcia-Torres' car near the area where authorities believe Sierra disappeared.

    At a news conference Tuesday, prosecutor David Boyd succinctly said: "We felt very confident about the evidence that we had."

    Garcia-Torres' attorney, Alfonso Lopez, disagreed.

    He didn't speak publicly on Tuesday, but argued in a closing statement last week that the prosecution's case was built on "shame evidence," and that without a body, prosecutors could not prove Sierra is even dead. Lopez suggested the teen is a runaway.

    He also tried to cast doubt on the physical evidence, arguing that the DNA and hair may have been corrupted by investigators and crime laboratory technicians.

    Reflecting on the trial, Marlene LaMar said, "We had to relive this nightmare. It was pretty bad. It was actually more detailed and difficult to hear the details. It was horrific to hear it."

    Toward the start of the trial, prosecutors played a recording of a distraught Marlene LaMar's 911 call when she realized Sierra was missing. 

    "That just helped me realize the pain, the angst is still there," she said.

    On the heels of this long and painful journey, Marlene LaMar said her family will never be the same again. "I'm glad to hear that he won't be released into the streets ever again," she said of Gracia-Torres. When asked if she wants the death penalty for him, she said; "No comment."

    Sierra's sister Danielle, especially, is unable to move on from the loss of her sibling, she said.

    "She suffers everyday, every minute. There's reminders everywhere of Sierra. It's been a hardship for us," she said.

    "It's not closure, it's something," Danielle said.

    Tatiana and Barbara, who like Sierra went to Washington High School in Fremont, remembered their friend as a happy, funny "ray of sunshine," who had cool taste in music. "She knew about The Weekend, before any of us knew about The Weekend," they said.

    In the aftermath of losing Sierra, all her friends grew closer, the pair said. They've become each others' family.

    On the flip side, though, Tatiana accused Garcia-Torres of robbing them of the innocence of childhood and "sense of safety." Even now, five years later, she refuses to leave home without pepper spray, and her mother and sister always know where she is, thanks to the Find My Friends app. Having seen the underbelly of the "real world" so young, Tatiana said she is constantly "terrified of what could happen."

    "I look behind my shoulder a lot more than I would've," she admitted. "I think he took a lot away from us — more than people understand."

    Waiting for the verdict to be read on Tuesday was "nerve-wracking," she said, and kept her awake all night. "It was pretty horrifying." 

    But even after learning that Garcia-Torres was guilty of murdering Sierra, Tatiana said she can't "wish death upon anyone."

    "I think the death penalty is too easy," she said. "I hope he rots in jail, but I don't think he should die for what he did."

    To that, Barbara simply added: "I just want him to say something."

    Channah Foreman also mourned the death of her best friend, who, like her, would have been 20 years old this year.

    "I'm almost graduating college and I didn’t even get a chance to graduate high school with her," she said. "It is very hard to see my life without her. It would be so much better if she were here."

    NBC Bay Area's Bob Redell, Marianne Favro and Michelle Roberts and The Associated Press contributed to this report.