The family of Kaylee Sawyer is suing Central Oregon Community College, alleging the college fostered a culture that condoned or encouraged reckless behavior by campus security staff, one of whom is charged with her murder.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Eugene on Monday, the first anniversary of Sawyer’s death.
Edwin Lara, a former COCC security officer, is charged with four counts of aggravated murder in Sawyer’s death. Police allege Lara, 32, encountered Sawyer, 23, while working for the college in the early hours of July 24, 2016, then kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered her.
The lawsuit states COCC officials — including president Shirley Metcalf, vice president Matthew McCoy and then-public safety director James Bennett — “created a culture of superiority and a sense of being above the law among COCC’s Campus Public Safety Department, creating a danger to its students and public in general.”
The lawsuit says the college did this by giving their officers policelike uniforms and cars, handcuffs, bulletproof vests and permission to detain and interrogate suspects as well as perform citizen arrests. The campus safety officers are not police officers and are granted the authority by the Oregon Legislature only to enforce campus policy, such as parking violations.
COCC campus safety policies have been questioned by Bend Police Chief Jim Porter and Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel since January 2015, nearly eight months before Sawyer was murdered. Hummel previously has said COCC officers were impersonating police officers, and if the college did not change its policy, he would file criminal charges. COCC recently finalized an agreement with the city of Bend in which the college agreed to change its public safety officer uniforms, remove police lights and cages from its security cars and at least temporarily suspend the practice of performing citizen arrests.
The lawsuit filed this week lists 12 claims for relief, all of which have financial damages to be determined at trial.
The lawsuit gives a detailed account of Lara’s alleged encounter with Sawyer, including many details that have never been made public. The criminal case is shrouded in a gag order and attorneys on both sides have been careful to brush over details of the murder during court hearings.
Tim Williams, the Sawyer family’s attorney, declined Tuesday to state where the information in the lawsuit came from, other than to say his office did an extensive investigation and his claims are well-sourced.
While Williams said he is aware the criminal case’s gag order does not apply to him, in attempt to follow the spirit of the order he declined to comment further.
According to testimony in Deschutes County Circuit Court earlier this month, Lara confessed to local investigators after being arrested July 26, 2016. He first told them he hit Sawyer with his car and ran over her accidentally. He then gave a second version of events, the details of which were specifically excluded during court testimony, which lasted eight days. However, the prosecution spent hours attacking his initial version of events, including calling witnesses that testified Lara’s vehicle showed no evidence of hitting a person.
The lawsuit says Sawyer was on the COCC campus after getting into an argument with her fiancée while he gave her a ride home from a bachelorette party. Sawyer was intoxicated and walking around the college — where she was a registered student — to cool off. At about 1:30 a.m. on July 24, Lara saw Sawyer, approached her and offered her a ride home, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit states that Sawyer agreed because Lara was wearing a law enforcement uniform, and that Sawyer likely believed Lara was a Bend Police Department officer.
According to previous court testimony, Lara was using a COCC security vehicle that had a police-style cage in the back of the car to separate the front and back portions. The lawsuit says that when Sawyer initially agreed to get in the car, she would not have been aware the car was outfitted with a cage and that the doors would not open from the inside.
The lawsuit also says Sawyer could have been more likely to accept a ride from Lara, had she understood he was campus public safety, because the college encourages students to take rides from campus security personnel when they feel unsafe traveling on their own.
Once in the car, Lara accused Sawyer of being a prostitute and propositioned her for sex in exchange for money, the lawsuit states. When Sawyer declined, Lara first asked for and then demanded her purse.
Sawyer, at this point crying, handed the purse over, the lawsuit states. Lara then went through it and realized her phone was not in the purse, and demanded her phone. In response, Sawyer started screaming, tried to escape from the car and reached through the cage in attempt to activate lights and sirens to attract attention, the lawsuit says.
Lara told her to “shut up” and then got out of the car, opened a rear door, fought past Sawyer’s kicking legs and strangled her until she lost consciousness, the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit says Lara then got back in the car and drove to a secluded parking lot — B12 — at the top of the campus. According to court testimony, Lara told several people, including Central Oregon police officers, that he killed Sawyer in lot B12. Crime scene investigators found a scene consistent with a murder when they inspected lot B12 after Lara called a coworker to tell him lot B12 was a crime scene.
During the drive up to the parking lot, Sawyer regained consciousness and started screaming and reaching through the bars of the cage, according to the lawsuit. When Lara reached lot B12, he pulled Sawyer from the car and forced her to the ground and again strangled her until she lost consciousness, according to the lawsuit. She quickly came to, prompting Lara to grab a large rock and strike Sawyer in the head with a rock, knocking her out, the lawsuit says.
Lara then dragged Sawyer out of the parking lot and up behind some brush where he undressed her and raped her while she came in and out of consciousness, the lawsuit alleges.
An Oregon State Police forensic scientist recently testified in court that she found drag marks with drops of blood leading from the parking lot up to an area behind brush and a boulder where there was signs of stagnant blood that soaked into the ground, and blood splatter on a boulder that indicated someone very close to the ground was bludgeoned multiple times.
The lawsuit states that after the rape, Lara grabbed a larger rock and struck Sawyer multiple times in the head, killing her.
During a search of Lara’s house, police found Sawyer’s bloodied purse and shoes in Lara’s shed. Inside the purse they found a bloody, grapefruit-sized rock with hair stuck to it.
During this alleged murder, the lawsuit claims, “Lara acted with privileges granted to him by defendants COCC, Metcalf, McCoy and Bennett.”
When reached Tuesday, COCC declined an interview but issued a statement from Metcalf, the COCC president.
“This was a senseless and horrific crime,” Metcalf’s statement reads. “We share in our community’s sense of loss over Kaylee Sawyer’s death. As educators, we seek to create a better future for young people, and to see a life cut short this way is heartbreaking.
“We are reviewing the lawsuit details. In the meantime we offer our most sincere condolences to Kaylee’s family and friends.”
The lawsuit states that in addition to fostering a culture within the campus public safety department that led to Sawyer’s death, college officials were negligent in hiring and continuing to employ Lara.
The lawsuit states Lara previously plotted to murder his former girlfriend’s uncle, and that college officials either knew this information and declined to take action, or should have known the information.
The lawsuit also says Lara assaulted two women while on duty, and that COCC dismissed the reports of the assaults, failed to investigate the claims, made no policy changes, continued to employ Lara and allowed him to use the security vehicle with the cage — something the lawsuit says Lara was fond of.
The lawsuit also states that other COCC employees claimed Lara exhibited “unusual behavior” which caused them to question his ability to do his job safely. The lawsuit also says Lara had failed several psychological evaluations while applying to work for one or more law enforcement agencies.
The Bend Police Department said application records going back two years indicate Lara did not apply for a job during in that time. The city of Redmond was not able to immediately determine whether Lara applied to work at the Redmond Police Department within the past three years, which is how long the records system goes back. Deschutes County was unable to immediately check what jobs Lara had applied for with the county, if any.
Williams said he would have preferred to file the lawsuit after the criminal matter had wrapped up. However, the October 2018 trial date is after the statute of limitations runs out on several of the claims. Because of that, he opted to file the lawsuit sooner rather than later as to not poison a jury pool.
However, the lawsuit is straightforward in its allegation that Lara acted with privileges granted to him by COCC.
“If COCC did not engage in the policies, customs or practices above, Kaylee Sawyer would have not been placed in the harm alleged above,” the lawsuit states.
— Reporter: 541-383-0376, firstname.lastname@example.org