MORGAN HILL -- The more than 100 people who had gathered in the early morning hours shouted "Find Sierra!" in unison as each released a red and white balloon into the air. The assembled crowd watched the balloons, every one with a personalized message attached to the string for missing teenager Sierra LaMar, slowly drift in the gentle breeze before vanishing into thick, low fog -- a sight that made the event even more somber.
And when the balloons were gone, volunteers began fanning out for yet another day of combing fields and hills in the hunt for Sierra. But Saturday's search was different from the regular weekend searches that have continued to attract a dedicated group of people to Burnett Elementary School.
This was the anniversary of her disappearance.
Those who had come hugged one another and fought back tears. All were there to show that the pretty, 15-year-old cheerleader with the radiant smile wasn't forgotten. In a way, she has become everyone's daughter.
"Today's balloon release is not the ending of anything," said Greg Quirke, pastor of the South Valley Community Church in Gilroy. "We're going to continue this until the mission is accomplished -- and that we bring Sierra home. We're not giving up until that day comes."
It was also a day to be reminded of the devastating anguish that the LaMar family has endured. Sierra's sister, Danielle, 22, struggled to keep emotions in check as she spoke of what it's
been like since the most important person in her life went missing.
"As much as I refuse for it to be real, it feels like I've been living in a bad dream for the last year," she said. "I wish more than anything that I could wake up and see Sierra sleeping in the bed next to mine."
Instead, there is no closure in a heart-tugging case that began March 16, 2012, when Sierra left home and never returned.
Antolin Garcia Torres was arrested May 21 and charged with killing the teenager. He remains behind bars in the Santa Clara County Jail. But nearly 10 months later, Garcia Torres, 21, still has not even entered a plea, and frustration is mounting among Sierra's friends and family.
Legal experts have said that a lengthy delay is not unusual in a case in which an investigation is still active and a body hasn't been found.
But Marc Klaas, whose own daughter Polly was abducted from her Petaluma home and murdered 20 years ago, captured the palpable anger Saturday when -- to rousing applause -- he urged the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office to put the death penalty on the table as a way to motivate Garcia Torres into talking.
"The reality is that none of this is really necessary," Klaas, president
of the KlaasKids Foundation, said of the weekly searches. "There is an individual sitting in the Santa Clara County Jail who has the answers. But on Saturday morning, when these people wake up at the crack of dawn, drink a cup of coffee, put their best face on and then come out here to search for this young girl, that individual sleeps in and somebody brings him breakfast. That's been going on for 10 months now."
Steve LaMar, Sierra's father, the next person at the microphone, said of Klaas' verbal prodding of the legal system: "Amen to that."
He and Marlene LaMar, Sierra's mother, spent most of a brief news conference thanking searchers -- many of whom they didn't even know a year and one day ago.
"Every one of you gives us hope as a family and comfort when we're in a lot of pain," Marlene LaMar said. "You give us the strength and backbone to hold it together."
Between 40 and 50 volunteers continue to come each weekend, and several said Saturday that they aren't going anywhere.
"My family will be here until this is resolved," said Lani Wilkins, of Fremont, who comes with his wife, Kelli, son Blake and his son's girlfriend. "We search orchards, fields, new construction sites. We go back to places where we've already been. We go where we think there's a chance to find something."
Klaas said he's never seen an effort like this one, which has totaled 1,000 separate search assignments and shows no sign of tapering off. There was a fundraiser Saturday afternoon in Fremont -- where Sierra lived before moving to rural Morgan Hill shortly before her disappearance -- to help keep the search center open.
After the balloon release, Robert Beasley, 53, of Morgan Hill, prepared to lead a team of nine back to a site near where they previously had searched.
His regular group, once strangers, has become tight-knit. They include Carol Salinger, 61, who lived next to Sierra in Fremont; Nichole Larson, 24, a recent transplant to Morgan Hill from Minnesota; and Al Perez, 77, of San Jose.
"The reason we keep coming every week is because we've become a big family," Perez said. "We all want a solution, and so far we have not found it. So we keep coming, rain or shine, cold or hot."
"Or rattlesnakes," Salinger added.
"And getting chased by yellow jackets," Larson said.
As they pored over a detailed search grid held by Beasley to plot strategy, others nearby were spraying on insect repellent.
"We'll leave no stone unturned," Salinger promised.
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.
HOW TO HELP
For more information about the search for Sierra LaMar, call 408-612-6628 or visit www.findsierralamar.com. ___