Juli VanCleve was told repeatedly that a lawsuit wouldn’t bring back her daughter, Kaylee Sawyer, who was kidnapped and murdered by a former Central Oregon Community College campus security officer four years ago Friday.
But after COCC agreed to settle with VanCleve and the rest of Sawyer’s family for $2 million, she believes that in a way, the lawsuit brought her back.
“I’m now able to rest my daughter in peace, and everybody who has been responsible for this horrific crime has been held accountable,” VanCleve said. “I can mourn Kaylee, my daughter, and not Kaylee Sawyer, the murder victim.”
The public announcement Thursday of the settlement came one day shy of the anniversary of Sawyer’s murder on July 24, 2016.
Edwin Lara, the former COCC security officer, pleaded guilty in 2018 to murdering Sawyer, 23, and received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
In 2017, Sawyer’s family sued COCC and three college officials, alleging the college had fostered a culture that encouraged reckless behavior among its staff. Only one of the three college officials — Vice President Matt McCoy — still works at COCC.
Jason Kafoury, lawyer for the Sawyer family, expressed some disappointment at the amount of the $2 million settlement. The Oregon Tort Claims Act puts a cap on how much a public body, such as a community college, can be sued by an individual.
However, the $2 million settlement is more than the approximately $1.38 million tort cap COCC would pay if the case went to court. The college’s willingness to go over that limit is a tacit acknowledgement of its role in Sawyer’s death, VanCleve said.
“We’ll never hear them say that they did take part in this and had some responsibility for what happened to Kaylee,” she said. “But the amount that they settled for, that speaks for itself.”
The Sawyer family was also grateful that the drawn-out court case was finished, Kafoury said.
“Given all the uncertainty with COVID and the fact that there may never be a trial for a very, very long time, I think there was a lot of relief on the family that this, four years later, was finally resolved,” he said.
On the night of her murder, Sawyer was approached by Lara, who was wearing a COCC security uniform resembling an official police outfit, and driving a campus security SUV with plexiglass separating the front and back seats and auto-locking doors. He offered her a ride. Sawyer was held in the back of his vehicle, unable to escape, and driven to a secluded parking lot, where she was raped and killed. Her body was found in a ravine between Sisters and Redmond.
Sawyer’s murder led to the passage of “Kaylee’s Law” in the Oregon Legislature in 2019. The law mandates steps to ensure that campus security officers and their equipment do not resemble law enforcement and that officers don’t act in any law enforcement capacity.
In a separate statement Thursday, COCC President Laurie Chesley — who was not at the college when Sawyer was murdered — offered her condolences to the victim’s family.
“It is heartbreaking and senseless to lose someone so young who was just beginning to live her potential,” Chesley wrote. “COCC offers the Sawyer family and our community both our sorrow and our commitment to continued healing.”