A month after missing teen Sierra LaMar vanished on the way to school, her hopeful mother shows up whenever volunteers gather before scouring the fields, creeks and back roads in search of the girl whose complete disappearance has mystified police and captivated the nation.
"Thank you for the presence of everyone in the room right now," says Marlene LaMar to the searchers who always begin their task with a group prayer. In recent days, the mother linked hands with three dozen volunteers.
Although the disappearance on the morning of March 16 of the outgoing 15-year-old with a passion for cheerleading, rap music, Twitter and the color pink has drawn sympathy coast to coast, little has emerged from the investigation to unravel the mystery of where she is. Detectives on the case are quietly putting the scattered pieces of evidence together like a problematic jigsaw puzzle, revealing little except to the girl's family.
The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office said that's simply how it does business. The agency does not provide details as they come up because detectives aren't sure how important each detail is, where it might lead them or what might happen, says department spokesman Sgt. Jose Cardoza. There's no telling what Sierra's kidnappers, if there are any, or reluctant witnesses might do if they knew how close investigators were getting.
"It could be any number of things," Cardoza says. "It could affect future searches and interviews, or
And that's just fine with Marlene LaMar, who says the Sheriff's Office updates her "pretty consistently" with inside information.
"It's about ultimately her safe recovery," says the mom who works hard to appear upbeat and positive. "They are issuing information without hindering the case."
On Saturday, nearly 400 volunteers searched in and around Morgan Hill for clues, but they found nothing significant, authorities said. The search was to continue on Sunday.
One of the most critical developments in the case occurred two days after Sierra vanished, when investigators retrieved her pink Juicy-brand bag with a neatly folded T-shirt and a pair of pants inside.
The development, while important, left unresolved another mystery. Because she was the last one to leave the house that morning, it isn't clear if Sierra had been wearing the T-shirt and pants inside the bag. She could have changed out of those clothes or planned to change into them after school.
"We still don't know what she was wearing," Cardoza said.
Investigators within three days had retrieved Sierra's cellphone and laptop and sent them with the pink bag to the county crime lab. They also started a search and rescue operation of the area's fields, roads, hills and huge reservoirs that hold much of Silicon Valley's water.
Still, the LaMar family wanted a wider search. They asked family friend Brian Miller to organize one.
"Sierra is 15 and I have three 15-year-olds," Miller said. "Sierra once did a sleepover at our house."
Miller and the LaMars contacted the KlaasKids Foundation, which was named after the 1993 kidnap and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma. The group sent experts to teach Miller and other locals how to recruit and train volunteer searchers. After a slow start, Miller said his team leaders can install 300 searchers into a field within an hour. The volunteers for the triweekly searches have come from across the Bay Area and beyond.
The multipurpose room at Burnett Elementary serves as volunteer headquarters. The campus sits near the greenbelt between north Morgan Hill and South San Jose, and it's not far from the LaMar home. Pink balloons, posters and photos of a smiling Sierra plastered on the walls give the place a cheerful, optimistic feel.
Volunteer Paul Reyes, 70, signed up Wednesday for his third search. Waiting for an assignment, he remembered the day from his childhood when he and a sister fought off a would-be kidnapper. He was 12 and picking prunes in Los Gatos.
"But that's not why I'm here today," Reyes said with a laugh. "I almost forgot about that a long time ago. I'm here because I have grandchildren and this shouldn't happen to anyone."
Marlene LaMar visits with the volunteers every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, the regular search days. It's easy to see the daughter's likeness in the mother. LaMar, who is half Japanese, has a beaming smile, straight dark hair and easygoing manner. She banters with volunteers, hugs them and even has a good rapport with the television news crews that show up for almost every search.
LaMar has returned to work but said she finds it hard to focus on the job, and difficulty falling asleep is wearing her down. The volunteer headquarters gives her an emotional boost.
"We miss her extremely, especially in the home," she said. "It seems real quiet. ... I never thought I'd say this, but we miss the rap music, we really miss her."
The investigation hasn't left the family unmarked. As the probe progressed, detectives announced that Steve Wayne LaMar, Sierra's father, is a registered sex offender, but was cleared in the case. Other family members agreed to lie-detector tests and were also cleared.
Ten days after Sierra disappeared, the Sheriff's Office took her off the missing persons list and approached the case as a kidnapping or worse. They brought cadaver dogs to the fields and scanned the surface of the reservoirs -- but no luck. Divers with sonar devices have checked deep under the water but so far have detected only logs and shadows.
Thirteen days into the search, volunteers found an empty box labeled "Handcuffs" and two used condoms nearby. Investigators sent the items to the crime lab and haven't reported on the analysis.
Three weeks after Sierra's disappearance, more than 3,000 volunteers -- including San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith -- have spent at least a day looking for her. Sierra's family set up a $10,000 reward.
Given the attention the case has drawn, hoaxes and cruelty were bound to emerge. On Wednesday morning, a rumor broke out in the volunteer center that DNA evidence had been found. A television crew broadcast the tidbit without verification.
Later the same day, a hacker broke into Sierra's Twitter account and sent a message, giving her family and 4,000 followers false hope, heartbreak and anger.
In the latest update that seemed to promise some hope, the Sheriff's Office announced new leads coming from the crime lab. But so far they have not described the evidence or indicated where the new leads might take the investigation.
Miller continues to put in 10 to 18 hours a day organizing searches for evidence he hopes will lead to Sierra's rescue.
"Every day that we don't find her, I'm OK with that," he said. "Every time we go out, we're improving the chances for Sierra to walk through the door."
Staff writer Chris De Benedetti contributed to this report. Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767.
March 16: Family reports the 15-year-old missing. Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office first considers the disappearance a "missing person."
March 17: Search and rescue unit finds Sierra's cellphone a few blocks east of her school bus stop. Investigators check the phone for leads before sending it to the county crime lab along with Sierra's laptop.
March 18: Search team finds Sierra's pink Juicy-brand bag with a neatly folded T-shirt and pants. Investigators tell the LaMar family and some volunteers about the discovery but don't make the information public for four days.
March 18: Boat teams begin searching surface of local reservoirs and ponds, but they discover nothing.
March 20: Sheriff's Office declares that Steve Wayne LaMar, Sierra's father and a registered sex offender, is not a suspect.
March 27: KlaasKids Foundation, established after the 1993 kidnap and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, organizes the first volunteer searches. Sheriff's Office now believes Sierra was abducted.
March 29: Volunteers find an empty box labeled "Handcuffs" and two used condoms, but detectives decline to comment in detail about the discovery.
April 4: Cadaver dogs join the search but do not turn up any evidence.
April 9: Crime lab continues analyzing Sierra's laptop, bag, phone, empty box and condoms.
April 11: Divers begin deep, sonar searches at local reservoirs. By now more than 3,000 volunteers, including San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, have joined the search for at least a day.
April 14: Motorcycle searches begin in remote hills. LaMar family offers $10,000 reward.
April 16: Crime lab reports new leads, but detectives decline to provide details.
by the numbers
For updates on the search for Sierra LaMar, donations and general information, go to www.findsierralamar.com.