SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A jury on Tuesday found a man guilty of abducting and killing a 15-year-old Northern California girl whose body has never been found despite hundreds of volunteers searching through woods and marshlands for months.
The San Jose, California, jury will reconvene May 16 to determine whether Antolin Garcia-Torres, 26, should be sentenced to death for the killing of Sierra LaMar. Sierra disappeared in 2012 on her way to school in Morgan Hill, a rural community is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of San Jose.
"Nothing will take away the pain and sorrow we experience every day," Marlene LaMar, Sierra's mother, told reporters outside court. "But it gives us peace as a family to know this isn't going to happen to another child."
Sierra's family and friends packed the courtroom Tuesday to hear the verdict. Marlene LaMar said she was apprehensive that the jury would have trouble finding Garcia-Torres' guilty since there was no body.
She wept when the verdict was read.
"We felt very confident about the evidence we had," Santa Clara County prosecutor David Boyd told reporters outside court when asked about conducting a murder trial without a body.
Boyd declined further comment, noting the trial is still ongoing. He will argue for the death penalty when jurors reconvene next week for the penalty phase of the trial, a proceeding that could last weeks.
Sierra disappeared on her way to a high school bus stop on the morning of March 16, 2012, and a search was launched that afternoon after she failed to show up for class. Police tracked and found her cellphone in a field near her home the next day.
Two days later, Sierra's purse, school books and clothing was found near a shed in another nearby field. Investigators say the mud on her clothes suggests she was dragged by her assailant.
Garcia-Torres was arrested after his genetic material was found on her pants. Garcia-Torres had been required to submit a DNA sample to police when he was previously arrested on an unrelated assault charge.
Investigators found a strand of Sierra's hair on rope found in the trunk of Garcia-Torres's car. Video surveillance also captured him leaving his trailer park on the morning of Sierra's disappearance, but he couldn't account for his whereabouts until six hours later when he cashed a check, investigators said. He said he was fishing alone.
Garcia-Torres' attorney Alfonso Lopez told jurors that Sierra may have runaway because she was upset that she was moving from Fremont to Morgan Hills because of her parents' divorce. Morgan Hills is about 70 miles (116 kilometers) south of San Francisco.
Garcia-Torres was also convicted of trying to kidnap three women from a Safeway supermarket parking lot in Morgan Hill late at night in 2009. Prosecutors say those failed abductions show Garcia-Torres is a predator.
Garcia-Torres lived about 7 miles (11 kilometers) from Sierra's house in a trailer he shared with his mother, girlfriend and young daughter. He previously worked at Safeway where the three attempted abductions occurred.
Garcia-Torres attorney Alfonso Lopez declined comment outside court.
Investigators say Sierra and Garcia-Torres did not know each other and that he randomly decided to abduct and kill her.
"We obviously will never get Sierra back," Steve LaMar, her father, said of the guilty verdict. "It's not closure, but it's a good first step."