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A Year of Futile Waiting

The East L.A. family of a 15-year-old still hope for an arrest in her killing. A reward may be renewed.

October 22, 2003|Jose Cardenas | Times Staff Writer

A year to the day after Fabiola Saavedra identified her youngest sister's body at a San Bernardino morgue, she stayed home from work so she wouldn't have to explain her tears to colleagues.

Saavedra stayed home Monday, one in a series of grim anniversaries this month for the family from East Los Angeles.

Her sister, 15-year-old Brenda Sierra, disappeared Oct. 18, 2002, as she walked to Schurr High School in Montebello. The following day, she was found dead from blunt trauma to the head off a rural road in San Bernardino County.

During the past year, 26-year-old Saavedra, the eldest sibling in the family of five, has juggled her role as emotional pillar for her family with calls to investigators to keep the focus on her sister's case.

"Every single day, I think of her," Saavedra said. "What hurts more is to not know who did it."

The one-year anniversary of Sierra's disappearance was marked by a vigil Friday. At a house near the East Los Angeles house where she lived, more than 100 classmates and neighbors held candles and prayed.

Saavedra tearfully pleaded for someone to come forward with information that might solve the case.

"A year has gone by, and nobody has had the courage to say anything," she said. "This time it was my sister. Next time it could be someone else."

San Bernardino County sheriff's detectives, who are leading the investigation, believe that Sierra was kidnapped or voluntarily got into a vehicle near Whittier Boulevard and School Avenue.

From the beginning, investigators believed the key to finding the killer might be a tip. To that end, Supervisor Gloria Molina secured an unusually high reward of $150,000. The offer expired in July.

On Tuesday, Molina said she was frustrated with the lack of progress and said detectives were relying too heavily on the possibility that a witness would come forward.

"You don't have the attention that should be spent on this case," she said. "I'm really, really disappointed that, a year later, I cannot tell a community to feel safe."

She said she would be receptive to reactivating the reward, "but they better have something tangible."

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has played a supporting role because the body was found in San Bernardino County, but detectives there have assisted with leads, said Lt. Henry Romero.

San Bernardino County detectives "have come to our office and interviewed potential witnesses and suspects," Romero said. "Unfortunately, we haven't gotten the break that we need."

Chip Patterson, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, said the investigation had intensified in the past month and that detectives were focused on a "group of people."

"It is a very active investigation, I can assure you," he said. "There's a lot of this case that we can't discuss publicly, and that includes elected officials."

Patterson said San Bernardino County sheriff's detectives believed it could be a valuable tool to solve the crime.

"If the reward is no longer being offered, we think that is very unfortunate because ... a reward like that can be instrumental," Patterson said.

In the last year, Saavedra and her family moved out of East L.A. -- in part because they don't know who the killer is.

For guidance in dealing with the police and media and for moral support, Saavedra has relied on Erin Runnion, whose 5-year-old, Samantha, was kidnapped outside her home in Orange County and later found dead in a forest.

The two women exchange phone calls during special days such as the victims' birthdays, Saavedra said.

As in the Runnion case, Saavedra longs for an ar- rest.

"It's not going to change my missing her," Saavedra said. "But at least I would have some kind of understanding of why."

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