What was supposed to be five days of hearings in the capital murder case against Edwin Lara stretched to 12, wrapping up Friday in Bend. The hearings included dozens of hours of testimony from nearly 50 people, and exhaustive argument. But it can all be boiled down to two questions: Was Lara’s apparent confession to the murder of Kaylee Sawyer legally obtained, and if not, is evidence found because of the confession also tainted?
That’s what Deschutes County Circuit Judge A. Michael Adler will spend the coming weeks deliberating.
Adler will first look at whether Lara requested an attorney before giving a six-hour statement to Oregon investigators. If he decides Lara did invoke his right to an attorney, Adler will have to determine if police would have inevitably found Sawyer’s body without the help of a map Lara drew during his statement.
If it gets to that point, Adler will have to also decide if the body would have been in the same state as when it was found July 26, 2016, or if it would have been found later and in a further state of decay. To decide that, Adler would request additional argument, he said in court Friday.
Adler declined to say when he will issue his ruling, but said he would do so in open court.
Lara, 32, is accused of killing Sawyer, 23, in the early-morning hours of July 24, 2016, while he was working as a security guard for Central Oregon Community College in Bend. He is charged with four counts of aggravated murder, the only crime punishable by death in Oregon. Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel is seeking the death penalty, and Lara is due to stand trial in October 2018.
Lara was arrested after allegedly going on a crime spree in California that included attempted murder, kidnapping and carjacking.
Defense attorney Thaddeus Betz said in his closing argument Thursday afternoon and Friday morning that the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office has to prove with certainty that investigators would have found Sawyer’s body and a car Lara left in Salem containing a clue to the body’s location without information he provided in his apparent confession. The clue was a note containing the number 18700. Sawyer’s body was located off the side of the road near the address of 18700 on state Highway 126 between Redmond and Sisters.
Betz argued first that it can’t be assumed the number would immediately be identified as an address. But, once it was, tools police testified they would use, such as Deschutes County’s property information database and Google, turn up five addresses with that street number in Deschutes County. Three are near COCC; one is in Deschutes River Woods, and the other is where Sawyer’s body was located. Betz argued investigators would likely check the COCC locations first because they were near the scene of the crime.
Betz also addressed an Oregon Department of Transportation road project that began on July 26, 2016, on the highway where Sawyer’s body was found. He said it is not certain anyone would have found Sawyer’s body the day the road project started, as work was stretched for miles along the road. Further, even though workers testified they look out on the side of the road for valuable items, they also testified they occasionally miss things, Betz argued.
And with each passing minute, insects, scavengers and temperatures in the 90s would have rapidly decomposed Sawyer’s body, destroying crucial evidence.
Deschutes County Chief Deputy District Attorney Mary Anderson hardly touched on the road project, despite ample testimony discussing how often ODOT workers were in the area, and how they would have easily spotted a body.
Rather, she argued the police were going to find Sawyer with or without Lara, and it was going to happen quickly.
“This evidence would have been found July 26, 2016,” she stated with confidence.
Anderson said the police — experienced, collaborative and smart — were focused on locating Sawyer’s body and arresting Lara. Lara’s experience as a security guard and his marriage to a Bend Police Department officer forced them to act quickly, as he possibly had more training and knowledge than the average violent offender.
“A desperate man, desperate times, and he had already killed someone,” she said.
Aside from the apparent confession, Lara had left clues and sent messages to law enforcement. He confessed to his wife, as well as his boss who was formerly a longtime Bend Police Department officer, according to court testimony. He called 911 in California and admitted to killing Sawyer. He allegedly kidnapped victims in Oregon and California and told them about killing Sawyer. He attempted to upload a video confession to Facebook. All that information was at the disposal of Central Oregon investigators, and they would have used it to find Sawyer the same day, Anderson said.
Police would have found Lara’s car, she argued, and seen the address in the note. They would have checked the Highway 126 location, where Sawyer’s body was visible from the guardrail, fully exposed.
“We know what law enforcement would do in that situation — they would start with the roadways,” she said.
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