After 18 months, Edwin Lara, a former Central Oregon Community College security officer, took responsibility Monday for murdering Kaylee Anne Sawyer, 23, bringing an end to what’s been called one of the most shocking and brutal crimes in Deschutes County history.
Lara, 32, answered “guilty” when Judge A. Michael Adler asked how he pleaded to charges of aggravated murder and robbery.
He now heads to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility to begin his life sentence without the possibility of parole. He has been ordered to never attempt to contact Sawyer’s family.
The plea deal was the result of “extensive” negotiations between the state and Lara’s attorneys, Adler said.
Lara was promised the state would not pursue the death penalty if he pleaded guilty to aggravated murder.
In his plea, he admitted to holding Sawyer in the back of his security vehicle, where he strangled her, then killed her by crushing her head with a large rock.
He did not admit to sexual abuse, despite forensic evidence and a taped confession.
In October, Adler tossed that confession, which was made in a California county jail without a lawyer present — Adler said the confession was inadmissible.
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel praised his two chief deputy district attorneys, Mary Anderson and Steve Gunnels, who handled the case and were able to secure a conviction despite losing that key piece of evidence.
“We would have preferred to get him for the sexual assault component. We know he did it,” Hummel said. “But it wouldn’t have changed the sentence, so we had to ask if it was worth putting the victim’s family through a trial with the risk that he may not get a true life sentence. We decided that it wasn’t.”
Hummel called the case the worst he’d seen in his 22 years practicing law in Deschutes County.
Monday’s sentencing hearing was packed with emotional testimony from family, friends and co-workers of Kaylee Sawyer.
Sawyer’s mother, Juli Walden VanCleave, was the first of them to speak Monday.
“Kaylee Anne Sawyer is my firstborn. The moment I first held her, I understood what love at first sight was,” she said. “She was an amazing daughter, big sister, granddaughter and friend. She touched so many in her short life, and continues to live on in all the memories that are shared.”
Sawyer had two younger brothers. She worked at Awbrey Dental Group in Bend and hoped to one day become a dentist.
Friends and family didn’t hold back in their statements in court, calling Lara a “deranged rapist,” a “sociopath” and a “failed campus cop.”
Several told the court they would administer the death penalty personally if given the chance. Family friend Doug Gray described a graphic scenario in which he would take Lara to the desert, where the “eagles and the coyotes and the maggots will eat (him) alive.”
The last person to testify at Monday’s hearing was the victim’s father, Jamie Sawyer, who said he was “a man broken into pieces.” He said investigators advised him against viewing his daughter’s body after it was finally found in a ravine between Sisters and Redmond.
He was told rock strikes to his daughter’s face had rendered her “unrecognizable.”
He pounded the witness stand as he concluded his remarks, insisting her example wouldn’t be forgotten: “Her name was Kaylee Anne Sawyer.”
Adler said Lara’s abuse of his position of trust as a security officer, and the brutality of the crime itself, make the crime stand out in his tenure on the bench.
“I cannot recall another case in Bend that has shocked the community the way this case has,” Adler said.
In the early morning of July 24, 2016, Sawyer, 23, was walking near her apartment on the campus of Central Oregon Community College, which she attended as a student. She encountered Lara, who was dressed in a law enforcement-style uniform and driving a dark patrol vehicle with a Plexiglas cage separating the front and back seats and auto-locking doors.
A lawsuit filed by the family against COCC states Lara recognized Sawyer was intoxicated and propositioned her for sex. When she refused, he strangled her to the point of unconsciousness, drove to a secluded spot on campus where he sexually assaulted her and, ultimately, crushed her head with a large rock, according to the lawsuit. Lara is accused of committing a variety of other offenses on a two-day flight from the law that ended on the side of a Northern California highway after a high-speed chase.
Relatives expressed resentment Lara hadn’t admitted to sexually abusing Sawyer.
The charge of robbery comes from Lara demanding and taking Sawyer’s purse when she was locked in the back of the campus security vehicle.
“Robbery — because he took a green purse?” said Jim Walden, her grandfather. “Kaylee fought for her life, her dignity, not for a green purse. Robbery, well, that’s partly true. That scumbag robbed our Kaylee of many things. He robbed her of ever being whatever she wanted to be. … He robbed her of her life. So yeah, I guess ‘robbery’ somehow fits.”
Naomi Sanzone, Sawyer’s best friend, said she no longer desires to have children because she now knows “monsters exist.”
“Not only did I lose her, I lost a part of myself,” Sanzone said. “I don’t remember what it feels like to be truly happy anymore.”
Lara has charges pending in Siskiyou County, California, related to his alleged crime spree and flight from police. Federal criminal charges are also pending related to Lara’s alleged crimes crossing state lines. He has already agreed to plead guilty in those cases.
The Sawyer family’s attorney, Tim Williams, said the civil lawsuit against COCC will now proceed.
Hummel said with Lara now convicted, his office can address Lara’s cousin, who allegedly helped him dispose of Kaylee Sawyer’s body.
On Monday, Lara wore a dark suit, a trim beard and slicked-back hair. He stared ahead during much of the victim testimony, which included a song written by a friend in tribute to Sawyer.
When given his chance to speak, Lara faced the gallery.
“Today I have seen your pain. Today I have seen your hate. I don’t have much to say to you but this prayer.”
He then called out to God with his eyes closed and raised his voice: “Please heal the hearts of everyone in this community … May Kaylee Sawyer rest in peace.”
To this, Walden, her grandfather, uttered an expletive and walked out of the courtroom. “He can ask us for forgiveness all he wants. But that’s God’s job,” Walden said. “I just wish I could have arranged the meeting.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, email@example.com