Sierra LaMar: Anatomy of a Search Day 115

Anger and forgiveness have been on my mind lately. Not that I carry unfettered anger against any person, place, or thing. Indeed, my anger is directed toward those things that I cannot change. Neither do I want to forgive or be forgiven by anyone. Rather, it is in the context of the Sierra LaMar mystery that my musings wander. It is only a matter of time before the question so often asked of Sierra’s parents and sister, “How are you feeling,” morphs into “Can you let go of your anger”, and “Are you ready to forgive”.


I am inevitably taken to task for my failure to forsake anger and my unwillingness to offer forgiveness to Polly’s killer.  Such criticism is borne of inexperience and a lack of knowledge.  Losing a child, like having a child is an epiphany.  The miracle of birth underscores and highlights unconditional love like no other experience can.  When that connection is broken by unrestrained violence it becomes a boundless, cosmic betrayal that tests every emotional, spiritual and physical value.


Anger is not the negative emotion that is so often portrayed.  We need not deny or stifle anger.  Instead we can use anger to make the world a better place in which to live.  If used correctly and divorced of violence anger can be an enlightened agent of change.  I believe that anger motivated Gandhi, King, Mandela, and many other agents of change throughout history. These men were very angry about the injustice heaped upon their constituency and it was anger that drove them toward the peaceful strategies that enabled them to change the world and return the gift of equality to more than a billion oppressed humans.


There are those who suggest that we should forgive, that forgiveness makes us better people and that forgiveness is a necessary component of an evolving society.  However, to forgive for sins committed against others is presumptuous and disingenuous.  It would be like me forgiving Hitler for murdering six million Jews during World War 2.  Forgiveness for murder is not ours to give.  The only ones in a position to forgive murder are the victims and, by definition, the victims are dead, which makes murder the unforgivable sin.


Sierra LaMar: Anatomy of a Search Day 112

The Kitchen Ladies: MA, Loretta, Margaret, Vivian, Mary

Everybody loves the kitchen ladies because they take good care of the volunteers. They make sure that there is breakfast in the morning, and lunch in the afternoon. They always have a smile on their faces, they never complain, and they work very hard to ensure that everybody eats often and well. And really, don’t we all want grandma to serve us a well prepared meal after a hard day’s work?


For lunch today we had MA’s cheese enchiladas and pinto beans, tostadas, Roger’s spaghetti, Vivian’s stuffed bell peppers, green salad, fresh vegetables from Loretta’s garden and Vivian’s dessert buffet. Yumm!!!


I learned an important lesson about food and volunteers shortly after Polly was kidnapped in 1993. One day about a month after Polly disappeared; a television reporter named Doug Murphy, who was covering her case at the search center, directed my attention to the food line where the original kitchen ladies were facilitating lunch. When he said, “You know that if you stop feeding people they will stop coming,” I knew instinctively that he was right. “You have to feed volunteers,” he said. If they’re out looking for your daughter all day they need nourishment when they come in from the field.” Now we make sure that meals are covered whenever KlaasKids conducts a search for a missing person.

Polly Klaas Search Center

KlaasKids works with an online true crime forum called Websleuths to feed volunteers in the early days of the search. Our good friends at Websleuths pool their resources if they cannot find any local restaurants to donate breakfast and lunch. We usually go with pizza, sandwiches or burritos, because they’re affordable and delicious. However, once local businesses realize that we are conducting a serious search effort for a missing person in their community they almost always find a way to contribute to the food effort.


It’s really about more than providing nourishment though. There is a profound comfort quality to food that is universal. We associate it with friends, family, and fellowship. We anticipate a good meal. Hmmm! Sometimes I anticipate a mediocre meal, but that’s another story altogether. We experiment with recipes, and take solace in creating something that will stimulate the senses as it puts a smile on the faces of others. Food lets us forget trial, tribulation and stress for short periods of time and has the power to catapults our minds to foreign shores. It brings us together around dinner tables, restaurants and picnics in the park. Food helps to define our identity. A good meal can also be a solitary adventure, although it is always better to have somebody to share the love with.


When Violet and I first met Sierra’s family back in March we showed up at her mom’s house with a picnic meal. We knew that the family was freaked out about Sierra’s disappearance and wanted to remind them to eat and know that we really cared. Once we went inside we weren’t surprised that Marlene’s house was already full of meals donated by friends, neighbors and well-wishers. Food is comfort as food is love.

With Sierra’s family and the kitchen ladies

Like so many others they showed up early in the search effort and asked what they could do to help. They quickly gravitated toward the kitchen and started putting the pieces of their department together. During the first couple of months it was about rationing food prepared and donated by others. But more recently they have been anticipating volunteer numbers and doing much of the cooking themselves. They even make sure that there are no onions in the chili so that Danny can have some.


Theirs is not a thankless job because everybody loves food and everybody loves the kitchen ladies. However, it is a difficult task. Thus far 8,400 volunteers have helped to search for Sierra and none of them have gone home hungry. In fact, each and every volunteer has been served a filling and yummy meal. It may be a small gesture, but the kitchen ladies make sure that it is one from the heart.

Sierra LaMar: Anatomy of a Search Day 98

Genaro Garcia Fernandez & Antolin Garcia Torres

As the seasons change the fresh hope of spring yields to the dog days of summer, yet missing 15-year-old Sierra continues to elude our grasp. Unpicked summer fruit falls from trees, bushes and vines’, spoiling in the unyielding heat of late July, but it is the putrid stench of rotten fruit that commands our attention. A pair of child rapists, a father and his son, resides in the Santa Clara County Jail, protected from other prisoners who jeer, threaten and, given a chance, would possibly slit their throats.


The father, Genaro Garcia-Fernandez, crimes spanned a decade, as he lurked within the walls of his home sweet home and serially raped his pre-teen daughter with regularity and certainty. His boy, Antolin Garcia-Torres, preferred a blitzkrieg strike against unsuspecting females. He’d rather prowl for victims in a supermarket parking lot at night or the blustery storm shrouded early morning roads in his hometown of Morgan Hill, CA.


He was a good student though. His father’s crimes taught him that it is best to strike in isolation and to leave no witnesses behind. In a rational world, one would hope that the son would atone for generational perversion by coming clean with his God and the authorities. Unfortunately, the psychopath is not rational: his only God is instant self-gratification; and the authorities will only learn the details that advance his needs. Now, it is only a matter of time before the sins of the father establish the foundation for the defense of the son.

Danielle, Marlene, Krystine & Violet

Enough about the dark side: the Sierra search has demonstrated that hope reigns eternal, and that the powers of good can triumph over the power of evil. On Saturday, more than 70-volunteers showed up to search for Sierra. The morning prayer circle gave thanks for the cloudy skies and temperature that hovered in the low sixties. As usual, the search teams left hopeful that this would be the day that the case was resolved. In the meantime, we prepared for the child ID Program, requested by Sierra’s mother Marlene, which was scheduled from 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.

Making Kids Safe

The KlaasKids Print-A-Thon has traveled the country since the mid 90’s. We have fingerprinted and photographed more than 1,000,000 children without charging a family for the service or data basing personal and private information. We provide a suite of child safety tools in hopes of providing families with information they can share to avoid a victimization in the first place. However, if there is an emergency we provide a 9-point plan on what to do in case of an emergency.


The weather did not fully cooperate. When the teams returned later in the afternoon, the skies were blue, the sun was beating down and we had fingerprinted and photographed more than 130 children. It is our hope that we have provided young families with a viable path to child safety. Unfortunately, Sierra’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Sierra LaMar: Anatomy of a Search Day 91

Car Wash

Car wash baby!!! Last Saturday the Sierra Search Center better resembled the Sierra Social Center. 70 search volunteers signed up to find Sierra. They ate a good nutritious breakfast and set out in the rapidly warming day to see if they could finally crack this case. For all intents and purposes, it was shaping up as another routine day in the search for the missing teenage girl whose pretty, smiling face looks back at us from virtually every telephone pole and storefront window in Morgan Hill.


The car wash began at 10:00 a.m. under the supervision of Sandina and Cassie, two teenaged search center regulars. Plenty of kids showed up to help, and Sierra’s dad Steve brought soap, sponges, and towels. Cars began arriving right on time so the kids broke up into teams: two teams washing and two teams drying.


The amazing kitchen ladies passed out: no, wait, they didn’t pass out, they distributed some donated ice cream bars to the kids washing cars. Many declined and worked through the increasing heat. We even had to force some of the kids to take a break for lunch. Danny Domingo and Peggy Chou, Violet and Marlene LaMar joined in to help out. While they were no match for speed, their efficiency and good humor put them right in the groove. Returning searchers put their cars in line before debriefing. By the time the last car passed through the lot at around 3:00 p.m. more than 100 had been washed and $1,300 had been raised.


Roger’s Birthday Party

As this was going on a monster birthday card was being distributed among the volunteers. Longtime volunteer and search team briefing ace Roger Nelson was about to have a birthday party and he didn’t have a clue. When the cake and card were presented to him with a barely recognizable rendition of happy birthday he had the most bewildered look on his face, but accepted his surprise with grace and good humor. Then he ate two pieces of cake.


Unification Project

Finally, Danny and Peggy posted their unification project on a rare blank space on one of the auditorium walls. Volunteers who had only met in passing could finally put a name to the face. They were also able to learn why we had been brought together for this higher calling. The unification project will continue to grow until we find Sierra. Collectively I like to think of the auditorium walls as the walls of wonder, because in the face of harsh reality, they scream a message of hope and redemption.


KlaasKids Print-A-Thon

Next week we continue our team building with a free Child ID Program. KlaasKids will provide this valuable free service in the Search Center auditorium between 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. We have providing Print-A-Thon’s throughout the country since 1994. Thus far we have fingerprinted and photographed more than 1,000,000 without ever charging a family for the service or data basing any personal or private information. Because we use the most sophisticated equipment we can capture viable fingerprints on children as young as 4-months old. We are hoping that the community turns out in large numbers because this valuable service provides a comprehensive suite of child safety tools at no cost. It will also give everybody an opportunity to see the walls of wonder for themselves.

Little Girl Lost

Lisa Irwin

It’s a high stakes, middle of the night gambit that has little chance for success. You can silently and carefully observe the house and its residents all you want. You can become familiar with patterns, but a house full of kids can never be totally predictable. Flashlights are to be avoided as much as possible so your eyes can become accustomed to the dark, lest you step on toys and sleeping pets. Forget about windows and fences, even a gymnast would have trouble conquering those obstacles with a child in tow. And even the fingers of a skilled locksmith cannot control the volume of the tumblers as they succumb to his practiced touch, nor the distinctive click of the door as the perp and his prey disappear into the darkness.


It’s a scenario that has supposedly played out far too often lately. 11-month-old Lisa Irwin wasn’t in her crib on the morning of October 4, 2011 so her mother called the Kansas City, Missouri 911 emergency line. A few months later, on December 17 in Waterville, Maine 2-year-old baby Ayla Reynolds father called 911 to report that she had been kidnapped from her bedroom the night before. 6-year-old Isabel Celis father reported his daughter missing from her Tucson, Arizona home at 8:00 a.m. on April 21, 2012. Finally, 6-year-old Sierra Newbold’s mother made an emergency call at about 7:30 a.m., on June 26, to report that her daughter was missing from her bedroom.

Ayla Reynolds


Unfortunately, I’m all too familiar with the pattern. In 1993 my Polly was snatched from her bedroom. Because there were witnesses and because of a dogged investigation Polly’s killer now sits on California’s death row. Almost a decade later, on June 5, 2002 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City, UT bedroom. Miraculously, 9-months later Elizabeth was recovered alive not 20-miles from her home. Her kidnappers are now serving life sentences behind bars.


In both of these cases family members who were initially under intense scrutiny were quickly removed from the list of possible suspects because we truly cooperated with the authorities. Polygraph exams were administered, multiple interrogations were conducted and witnesses were questioned.


Isabel Celis

With the exception of Sierra Newbold, whose broken and abused body was found discarded in a ditch near her home shortly after her mother called 911; the other children have not been located.  Some believe that the girls have been sold into sexual slavery. However, when 1.6-2.8 million runaway children live on the mean streets of America on a given day, and are easily found in medium to large cities throughout the United States, why would traffickers risk everything to steal an infant in the dead of night?


Others speculate that the children are victims of revenge, or that their disappearances are payback for drug debts. While revenge kidnappings do occur, they are much more common as plot devices in action novels than in real life. As drug cartels ramp up levels of violence, including kidnappings for drug debt, there has not been a ransom demand in any of the cases cited above.


Sierra Newbold

Closer to home rumors circulate that “bad” uncles are responsible for the girl’s disappearance. Unfortunately, predators do not exist in a vacuum. They have relatives and families. Predatory relatives can go undetected for decades or even avoid detection altogether. I know of many families that have been victimized by one of their own. However, these men tend to commit crimes of convenience. They wait until they are alone with the victim, when they think that they can avoid detection, and then they strike; oftentimes with lethal violence. They don’t sneak into the house in the middle of the night – because they don’t have to.


Typically, the parents of kidnapped children would move heaven and earth to recover their kids. That is what the Klaas and Smart families did. We worked with law enforcement; we pestered the media and embraced our local communities. But, more than anything else, we never gave up hope. Instead, we did something every day that would move the case forward. Some might say that we were annoying.

Polly Hannah Klaas

However, baby Lisa’s parents lack of cooperation with the Police is almost as well documented than the disappearance of their daughter. According to the Police the three adults that were in the house the night that baby Ayla vanished have not been forthcoming with details of her disappearance. In Tucson, Child Protection Services ordered Isabel Celis father to move out of the house that he shared with his family and cease all contact with his other children. It is still too early in the game to judge Sierra Newbold’s case. Hopefully, it will not linger without resolution as have the others.


I have no idea if these parents are involved in their children’s disappearance. What I do know is that one of the most challenging and difficult scenario imaginable is being replicated far too often throughout the country. That these cases remain open must also strike fear in the hearts of neighbors and friends. If such brazen criminals are freely roaming our neighborhoods and the authorities are unable to solve the cases, then all children remain at risk.


Elizabeth Smart

If you are concerned that your children may not be safe in your home I offer the following suggestions. Lock your doors and windows at night. Purchase surveillance equipment from a home security specialist. Get a big, loud dog that is easily disturbed during the night. Know where your young children are at all times and don’t leave them by themselves. Work with your neighbors to create an effective neighborhood watch program so that you can work together to protect each other’s children and property. Know your neighborhood. Show your children the safe places to play and areas to avoid like dark stairwells and alleys. The more you know about your neighborhood the safer your family will be.

Sierra LaMar: Anatomy of a Search Day 85

Things have changed tremendously since Sierra LaMar disappeared on March 16. The green hills have given way to California gold. Hikers and mountain bikers now run the real risk of stumbling upon pot farms protected with booby traps and armed guards. An effervescent teen aged cheerleader may be reduced to remnants.


The search volunteers got a major morale boost this weekend. Sheriff’s deputies visited the search center to provide a series of specialized trainings. Their objectives were to ensure the safety of search volunteers, provide updated information on field evidence, and give an overview of the Sheriff’s water search efforts.


Sierra’s volunteers received training on how to spot and what to do in the event that they stumbled upon a marijuana grove.  A representative from The Coroner’s office outlined a grim new reality and the Sheriff’s dive team described the methodology and techniques utilized in the ongoing reservoir searches. Given recent developments in and around Morgan Hill, this turned out to be a timely convergence.


It’s not easy to search for a missing child. That’s why we don’t let children under 18-years of age participate in our field searches. Back in March, our volunteers were enthusiastic and hopeful amateurs.  Today, more than 3-months later they are seasoned veterans. They are no longer on trash detail, tagging every gum wrapper and discarded cigarette butt that crosses their path in the field. Many have embarked upon a dozen or more searches. They come to the Find Sierra Search Center grimly determined to resolve this case. They realize in their hearts and minds that the chances of finding Sierra awaiting rescue have diminished tremendously. Instead, they are looking for something else.


Marijuana (pot) is the most frequently used illicit drug in America. The majority of domestically grown pot is grown in California public lands. The proliferation of medical marijuana in California seems to have emboldened those who cultivate the crop. Since the sale of pot is so lucrative, growers take extreme measures to protect their crops, including booby traps and armed shootouts as was demonstrated in the Santa Cruz mountains only last week. Instead of locating their farms in remote and inaccessible areas as was done in the past, pot farms are popping up much closer to populated communities. This endangers hikers, picnickers, mountain bikers or anybody else who happens upon one of these illegal enterprises.


The 74-search volunteers that showed up last Saturday were given a crash course on pot farms 101. Signs of cultivation include litter such as food packaging, beer cans, and empty containers of fertilizers or insecticide. Well-worn human trails, cultivation supplies, check dams to act as reservoirs and black plastic irrigation pipes are also red flags that you may be encroaching upon a pot farm. Search volunteers now know that they are to stop, take careful note and leave the area if they happen upon a pot farm. They will mark the location on a map, describe their observations of the area or any people or vehicles involved, note the date and time and then notify law enforcement. Sometimes we all need to be reminded that we have the singular mission of finding Sierra.


Dive team members explained the methodology and hazards inherent in water searches. There is nothing glamorous about this work. The hazards are formidable as they trek in black water for any signs of a little girl. They get tangled in fishing lines and ropes. They come across old appliances, tires, even discarded cars. They explained how one diver will spot a point with one end of a rope while another diver holding the other end of the rope will circle an ever decreasing circumference until they meet. That they have covered 60-70 bodies of water, some more than once, under these tedious and treacherous conditions is a testament to their tenacity.


The presentation from the Coroner’s office was excruciating for many of our team members. A crash course in the recognition of human remains became a reality check for those clinging to the hope of locating Sierra alive. We now know what a body would look like at this point in time. We now understand life, and death from new perspectives. We now realize that hope can take many forms. We now understand commitment to a greater cause in the context of a new reality.