Things have changed tremendously since Sierra LaMar disappeared on March 16.
The green hills have given way to California gold, hikers and mountain bikers are more aware of the real risk of stumbling upon pot farms protected with booby traps and armed guards, and an effervescent teenage cheerleader may be reduced to remains.
The search volunteers got a major morale boost this past weekend. Sheriff’s deputies visited the search center to provide a series of specialized trainings. Their objectives were to ensure the safety of search volunteers, provide updated information on field evidence and give an overview of the Sheriff’s water search efforts.
Sierra’s volunteers received training on how to spot and what to do in the event that they stumbled upon a marijuana grove. The Sheriff's dive team described the methodology and hazards inherent in the ongoing reservoir searches and a representative from the coroner’s office outlined a grim new reality.
Given recent developments in and around Morgan Hill, this turned out to be a timely convergence.
It’s not easy to search for a missing child. That’s why we don’t let children under 18-years of age participate in our field searches. Back in March our volunteers were enthusiastic and hopeful amateurs. Today, more than three-months later, they are seasoned veterans.
They're no longer on trash detail, tagging every gum wrapper and discarded cigarette butt that crosses their path. Many have embarked upon a dozen or more searches.
They come to the Find Sierra Search Center grimly determined to resolve this case. They realize in their hearts and minds that the chances of finding Sierra awaiting rescue have diminished tremendously. Instead, they are looking for something else.
Pot Farms 101
Marijuana, or pot, is the most frequently used illicit drug in America. The majority of domestically-grown pot is grown on California public lands. The proliferation of medical marijuana in California seems to have emboldened those who cultivate the crop. Instead of locating their farms in remote and inaccessible areas as was done in the past, pot farms are popping up much closer to populated communities.
Since the sale of pot is so lucrative, growers take extreme measures to protect their crops, including booby traps and armed shootouts as was . This endangers hikers, picnickers, mountain bikers or anybody else who happens upon one of these illegal enterprises.
The 74-search volunteers that showed up last Saturday were given a crash course on Pot Farms 101. Signs of cultivation include litter such as food packaging, beer cans and empty containers of fertilizers or insecticide.
Well-worn human trails, cultivation supplies, check dams that act as reservoirs and black plastic irrigation pipes are also red flags that you may be encroaching upon a pot farm.
Search volunteers now know that they are to stop, take careful note and leave the area if they happen upon a pot farm. They will mark the location on a map, describe their observations of the area or any people or vehicles involved, note the date and time and then notify law enforcement.
Sometimes we all need to be reminded that we have the singular mission of finding Sierra.
Dive team members explained the methodology and hazards inherent in water searches. There is nothing glamorous about this work. The hazards are formidable as they trek in black water for any signs of a little girl. They get tangled in fishing lines and ropes. They stumble over old appliances, tires, even discarded cars.
Deputies explained how one diver will spot a point at one end of a rope while another diver holding the other end of the rope will circle an ever-decreasing circumference until they meet.
The fact that divers have covered 60-70 bodies of water, some more than once, under these tedious and treacherous conditions, is a testament to their tenacity.
The presentation from the coroner’s office was excruciating for many of our team members. A crash course in the recognition of human remains became a reality check for those clinging to the hope of locating Sierra alive.
We now know what a body would look like at this point in time. We now understand life, and death from new perspectives. We now realize that hope can take many forms. We now understand commitment to a greater cause in the context of a new reality.