MORGAN HILL -- For months, Sierra LaMar's mother couldn't bring herself back to the intersection of Dougherty and Palm. She would break into a sweat, her heart would race, she could barely breathe. This was Sierra's school bus stop, the place the 15-year-old was heading early that foggy March morning when she vanished.

But this week, one year after Sierra's disappearance, Marlene LaMar took a Xanax and a deep breath, then stepped out of her car and walked up to the quiet corner surrounded by farm fields just south of San Jose. Bouquets of dead flowers littered the earth. A weather-beaten poster of Sierra, the smiling cheerleader, clung to a telephone pole.

Marlene LaMar, March 13, 2013.
Marlene LaMar, March 13, 2013. (Gary Reyes)

"I just think about her coming to the bus stop every day never thinking anything like this would ever happen," said LaMar, her eyes welling with tears.

It has been an anguishing year, with tragedy compounded by another heartbreak, vivid dreams of her daughter and a gut-wrenching move from her home that put most of Sierra's belongings, including her Marilyn Monroe posters and zebra-striped bedspread, into storage.

Still, LaMar agreed to pose for a photo here, hoping that someone might see it and remember something, anything, that could help bring her daughter home. Her only solace, if it's possible for a mother who lost her daughter to find any, is at the search center in Morgan Hill, a place that "nurtures my soul," she said, where every Saturday about 40 volunteers still search the culverts and gullies and orchards and fields.

The one who police believe knows Sierra's whereabouts isn't talking. Prosecutors and sheriff's investigators say Antolin Garcia Torres, a 21-year-old stranger who worked odd jobs and lived just seven miles away in Morgan Hill, abducted and killed her. They have found no body, no blood. But her clothes, purse and cellphone were discovered days later tossed into two fields nearby. Garcia Torres' DNA was found on her clothing, authorities say, and her DNA was found in his Volkswagen Jetta.

After the DNA match, sheriff's deputies followed Garcia Torres for weeks, hoping he would lead them to Sierra's body. During interviews after his arrest, he did not confess.

"He was not going to tell us," Sheriff Laurie Smith said in an interview this week. "We used every technique that was legal."

Missing for a year

The case of the teenager with the long, dark hair and beautiful smile drew national attention after she disappeared March 16, 2012. About 750 volunteers showed up the first week to help search, including former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. It was the kind of crime that is so vile, so repugnant, that Garcia Torres is kept in protective custody at the Santa Clara County Jail, away from inmates who don't treat child-killing suspects kindly.

Maybe if Garcia Torres was thrown into the general jail population, "that would bring answers very quickly," said Marc Klaas, who has been a key part of the search for Sierra and whose daughter, Polly, was kidnapped and killed nearly 20 years ago.

"How cruel," Klaas said. "On top of everything else he's done, he allows the family to sit out there with these great unanswered questions."

Threatening the death penalty might serve as a powerful motivator as well, Klaas said. The District Attorney's Office, however, has yet to decide on that. Prosecutors still are going through mountains of evidence and investigative reports. A message left with Traci Owens, Garcia Torres's defense lawyer, wasn't returned this week. The suspect has yet to enter a plea on the murder charge. His next hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. April 4.

Marlene LaMar displays a keychain her daughter gave her. Marlene was heartbroken when she misplaced the keychain, but recently found it.
Marlene LaMar displays a keychain her daughter gave her. Marlene was heartbroken when she misplaced the keychain, but recently found it. (Gary Reyes)

Another heartbreak

In the meantime, Marlene LaMar is trying desperately to hold on to threads of hope. She had already been divorced from Sierra's father, who joins the searches on weekends. Her older daughter, Danielle, who is studying at Sacramento State, struggles with nightmares of what might have happened to her sister. And months after Sierra vanished, LaMar and her boyfriend split up. They had shared a home with Sierra around the corner from the bus stop.

"I felt abandoned, really abandoned," she said. "He was a major support system, in addition to my family. It was a very difficult period. It's still difficult. There's still healing."

They had only recently moved from Fremont to the rural area near Morgan Hill so Sierra could go to a better high school, LaMar said. That day started typically, as LaMar left early for her job as an occupational therapist in Fremont. Sierra was awake and getting ready for school when her mother left. When LaMar came home that afternoon, the house was dark, and Sierra, whom LaMar expected to find making a snack, was nowhere to be found. A frantic search began. Sheriff's deputies swarmed the neighborhood. Her belongings were found in the fields within days, the DNA was matched within weeks, and by May, just two months later, Garcia Torres was under arrest.

Since then, LaMar said she feels like the legal case has been stagnant. Ten months after Garcia Torres' arrest, no plea has been entered.

"Once the proceedings start, then I feel that maybe he will open up," she said, and they can find her daughter. "I don't feel it's productive to have a delay like this. I feel that the victims have been put thoroughly on hold."

Grief's powerful grip

Deputy district attorney David Boyd understands LaMar's frustration. But this phase of the process especially, he said, "is designed almost exclusively to honor the constitutional rights of the defendant, and that's very difficult for anyone who has had a family member taken away."

For LaMar, time hasn't helped her grief. She couldn't bear to stay in the same home, not here, but packing up without Sierra was agonizing.

LaMar had wanted to keep Sierra's room just as it was so if, by chance, she was still alive and could run from her abductors, she would know how to get home. "Even though I had her things, I didn't have her," she said. "I felt lost."

Now, LaMar keeps Sierra's cheerleading bag in her car, just where Sierra left it. Once in a while she pulls out a sock and breathes in her daughter's scent. Last month, she found a Disney key chain between the car seats, a gift from Sierra that said, "I (heart) mom."

Sometimes, LaMar dreams that Sierra is home, that they walk together through the old school cafeteria that has been transformed into the search center.

In the dream, Sierra is too traumatized to speak. But she's listening as her mother points out the hand-drawn posters and letters taped to the walls, and to the box of bracelets and pendants that people have made for Sierra, for the day she might return.

"We're so anxious to show the love that's all over the walls, you can just feel it," LaMar said of her dream. "It seems so real."

Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.