SAN JOSE, Calif. – Police are intensifying their search for a Northern California teen missing for more than two months after arresting a man on suspicion of her murder and kidnapping.
Since 15-year-old Sierra LaMar disappeared on March 16, volunteers and authorities have searched fields, open spaces and reservoirs near Morgan Hill, a semi-rural community of 40,240 on the fringes of Silicon Valley. The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office announced Tuesday that searches in reservoirs and waterways in the area will begin once again this week.
Antolin Garcia-Torres was arrested on suspicion of Sierra's kidnapping and murder Monday, after authorities said her DNA was found in his red Volkswagen Jetta and his DNA was found inside her bag.
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith said the victim and Garcia-Torres did not know each other, and her abduction was believed to be a random act of violence.
"We believe this is the worst type of crime, a stranger abduction of a young girl," the sheriff said at a news conference attended by Sierra's family.
Investigators found Sierra's pink, Juicy Couture-brand handbag with clothing and a cellphone along the side of the road within two miles of her home shortly after her mother reported her missing in March.
Garcia-Torres, 21, was linked to the case after his DNA — taken during a previous assault arrest — was linked to clothing found in the bag, authorities said. He was not charged in the previous case.
Garcia-Torres was arrested Monday — more than two months after Sierra's disappearance prompted hundreds of volunteers to turn out for searches and authorities to conduct more than 12,000 hours of investigation.
Sierra was last seen leaving her home in Morgan Hill to go to school, and authorities believe she was kidnapped while walking to a school bus stop.
Her mother, Marlene LaMar, said the family is holding out hope that the teen is still alive. She pleaded with Garcia-Torres to disclose her whereabouts.
"Please, please give the information that you have to lead us to Sierra to help end this nightmare," LaMar said.
Laura Torres, the mother of Garcia-Torres, said her son was not involved in the abduction. Torres told the San Jose Mercury News that she asked him before he was arrested if he had any contact with Sierra and he said no.
Torres also said her son called her after his arrest and said he needed her to be strong to help take care of his wife and child.
Garcia-Torres, also of Morgan Hill, had been under 24-hour surveillance since March 28. His vehicle was seized on April 7. The DNA evidence used to arrest him also links him to at least one assault in March 2009, Smith said.
The incident involved a Taser, and the victim managed to get away, Assistant Sheriff Pete Rode said, declining to provide more specifics.
Garcia-Torres declined an interview request by The Associated Press, and it was unknown if he has retained a lawyer, said Sgt. Jose Cardoza, a sheriff's office spokesman.
Authorities had other suspects under surveillance while investigating the disappearance of Sierra but focused on Garcia-Torres after he was interviewed several times prior to his arrest at a Morgan Hill supermarket where he used to work, Smith said.
"Right now, we believe he is the only person responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Sierra," Smith said. "These are very difficult cases to prosecute a homicide when you have not found the victim, but it has been done and I think we have adequate facts, in fact, strong facts to believe that she has been murdered."
Marlene LaMar isn't convinced that was the fate of her daughter.
"I'm not giving up hope. Her body hasn't been found," she said. "I believe there's a reason why she wasn't found."
Early in the investigation, a sheriff's deputy quickly put together the pieces on the disappearance that helped shape the course of the probe that involved about 100 local, state and federal officers, Rode said.
"He said, 'This is not a normal missing child, this is not a runaway, this is not, 'She's over at the mall with her boyfriend, she's with a relative,'" Rode said. "Some instinctive thing just kicked in in him and we went from there."
Garcia-Torres wasn't arrested after his DNA first surfaced in March for numerous reasons, including the possibility that he might lead authorities to Sierra, Rode said.
"At some point, I'm sure he became aware that we were watching him," Rode said, noting that Garcia-Torres was monitored going to work, at home and hanging out with friends.
Garcia-Torres' arrest came after lab results determined Sierra's DNA was in his car, Rode said.
"You don't want to lose him, but at what point in time do you risk having him flee and leave the state and possibly the country?" Rode said. "We did not want to take that chance."
Garcia-Torres could be arraigned as soon as Thursday.