Just shy of the one-year anniversary of a suspected murder that shocked Bend residents and local law enforcement, much remains unknown about the death of Kaylee Sawyer.
After five full days of testimony in the murder case against suspect Edwin Lara, some new information has come to light, but key details remain unknown.
At stake is whether key evidence — including Sawyer’s body — will be admissible at trial.
Lara, 32, is accused of murdering Sawyer, 23, on July 24 after encountering her while working as a security guard at Central Oregon Community College, where he also studied criminal justice. An immigrant from Honduras, Lara had no criminal history of any significance. At the time of Sawyer’s death, Lara was married to a woman who had recently been hired as an officer for the Bend Police Department. He himself had aspirations to become a police sergeant, he told investigators following Sawyer’s death. Now, he is charged with four counts of Oregon’s most severe crime — aggravated murder — and faces the death penalty.
About two-dozen witnesses testified last week during five days of hearings in which Lara’s defense team was trying to keep Lara’s apparent confession to police — and any associated evidence — inadmissible in his scheduled October 2018 trial. The hearings continue Tuesday and are scheduled to go through Thursday. They will then resume over a day or two in September, after which Deschutes County Circuit Judge A. Michael Adler will issue a ruling.
Sawyer was last seen in the very early hours of July 24 after participating in a bachelorette party in downtown Bend. While her boyfriend was giving her a ride home, the two got into an argument.
Rather than follow him to their apartment, Sawyer walked off. The two exchanged some texts, but conversation stopped around 1 a.m.
How Sawyer may have encountered Lara and how she died are unclear. In the days following Sawyer’s death, Lara told many people he killed her accidentally with his car, according to court testimony. However when investigators inspected the vehicle they did not find evidence to support that theory.
Lara is also charged with a count of aggravated murder for allegedly attempting sexual assault in the commission of a murder. Details of that allegation have not been discussed in court, though testimony has suggested Sawyer’s body was only partially clothed when found.
More information is likely to come starting Tuesday when court proceedings resume. Adler has ordered that at least significant portions of Lara’s alleged confession be played in court.
The defense team is arguing Lara’s apparent confession should be thrown out because statements he had made about talking with an attorney were apparently ignored by the Tehama County jail staff prior to the interrogation. Defense attorneys say the information Lara gave them was improperly obtained, and the evidence collected as a result of that information — including Sawyer’s body — should also be inadmissible at trial.
The Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office says Sawyer’s body would have been found soon anyway, likely by workers on a road project that started July 26 on the stretch of U.S. Highway 126 between Redmond and Sisters where Sawyer’s body was found.
If Adler rules in favor of the defense, there’s still a heap of evidence against Lara.
Aside from his statements to Central Oregon investigators, Lara admitted to killing Sawyer to several people over the two days following her death, according to court testimony. Further, Sawyer’s bloodied possessions were found in a shed behind Lara’s house, along with a bloody rock. Blood was found on his work car and on his work boots.
While evidence against Lara has been clearly laid out, the motive for allegedly sexually assaulting and murdering a stranger has yet to be touched in court testimony. The two sides that have been painted of Lara — a young man seeking a career in law enforcement, or a man who told people he had an “urge to kill” — conflict. They also make the alleged murder that much more terrifying, said Eric Beckwith of the Redmond Police Department, the lead investigator on the case.
“We realized early on that this was what we would call a worst-case scenario,” Beckwith said on the stand.
Following Sawyer’s death, Lara is suspected of wrapping up and dumping her body, then blackmailing his cousin to help him move it to a second location, according to court testimony. Police allege he then drove to Salem and kidnapped a 19-year-old woman at gunpoint as she got off work at Ross Dress for Less.
Police say Lara then drove to Yreka, California, where he broke into a motel and attempted to steal a car from an elderly man. When the man called for help, Lara allegedly shot him in the chest and left him for dead, although the man survived.
Lara is then accused of running to a nearby gas station, where he allegedly carjacked and kidnapped three people. He then allegedly engaged in a high-speed police chase before surrendering, requesting to speak with Central Oregon law enforcement and allegedly confessing during a six-hour interrogation.
Beckwith made a comment to Lara during the interrogation about possible other crimes he committed, as if it was inconceivable Lara could have started his criminal life in such shocking fashion.
“I don’t think you are a bad guy,” Beckwith told Lara in the interrogation. “I think this thing has spun completely out of control.”
A year later, the case is still perplexing to many. It’s held the attention of locals for the past year but has also attracted national eyes, as People Magazine was rumored to be calling attorneys on both sides of the case and published a story about the killing Wednesday.
Several law enforcement officers testified over the past week that in their combined dozens of years on the job, they have never encountered something quite like this.
On Thursday, Beckwith said the case presented unusual elements because Lara was working in a form of law enforcement and was married to a cop. After telling his wife, Isabel Ponce-Lara, that he accidentally killed Sawyer by striking her with his car, Lara left the couple’s Redmond home with a 9 mm handgun while making suicidal comments, Ponce-Lara told police.
Beckwith testified that because of Lara’s experience with law enforcement, when interrogating him he decided to lay all of his cards on the table. Trying to use rudimentary interview techniques would be “insulting” to someone like Lara, he said.
While much has been said about the case over the past week, the core details of Sawyer’s death, including a possible murder weapon, have not been discussed.
Testimony is set to resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Deschutes County Circuit Court.
— Reporter: 541-383-0376, firstname.lastname@example.org