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A sister patiently waits for justice

The body of Brenda Sierra, 15, was found in San Bernardino National Forest in 2002. The whereabouts of her killer, however, are still a mystery. Fabiola Saavedra keeps hoping for a break in the case.

September 11, 2009|Corina Knoll

Late at night, when the sky seems ominous and Fabiola Saavedra is curled up in bed lost in the past, her head fills with images of frantic searches down dark alleys, fliers posted in store windows and Polaroids of a lifeless face.

By morning, the ghosts are gone and Fabiola, 32, wakes up, kisses her husband and drives her two children to school. She heads to her job as a case manager at a senior citizens' care center, where she greets clients and laughs loud and smiles big and makes lunch plans.

"I cry for her," she says, the memory of her sister Brenda never far away. "But I have to move on."

Sometimes, she tries to imagine what it would feel like if detectives called to say they had solved the mystery. Brenda was 15 when she disappeared on her way to school nearly seven years ago. Fabiola tells herself there is always reason to hope for a break in the case. DNA technology has advanced and the Los Angeles County supervisors recently renewed a $150,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.

Four different teams of detectives have worked the case over the years. They have all said the same thing: Finding the killer is a priority. Fabiola has always believed them.

So she waits.

::

Brenda Sierra tugged on a black backpack, slipped on a pair of brown Doc Martens, pushed open the metal screen door of her home and began walking north on Leonard Avenue in East Los Angeles.

The sophomore was on her way to catch a ride with her best friend, Ashley Salgado, to Schurr High School in Montebello. It was just after 7 a.m. on a Friday morning -- Oct. 18, 2002 -- and the walk to Ashley's was less than five blocks.

When she didn't arrive at the maize-colored house on Harding Avenue, Ashley and her mother assumed Brenda had found another ride or decided to stay home.

A teacher mistakenly marked her in attendance and it wasn't until she failed to show up for a hair appointment that something seemed amiss. Brenda would not have skipped the opportunity to have her blond highlights retouched. Since her quinceanera less than three months earlier, she had been meticulous about her hair and makeup.

So when L.A. County sheriff's deputies reacted mildly to the missing persons report that night, Fabiola began her own search.

She called Brenda's friends and asked about her at restaurants, parks, laundromats. She organized family members, telling them to check hospitals and knock on doors. When night fell, she drove around in her gray sedan, stopping at alleys to nudge sleeping bodies or peer inside cars filled with dark shadows.

On Saturday, Fabiola prodded her family: (italics) Check trash bins, talk to shop owners, stop kids on the street. Someone has to have seen something.(end italics) She made fliers with Brenda's school picture and began canvassing the neighborhood.

The next day, she notified the media and repeatedly called the sheriff's station. In desperation, she sought the help of a friend's mother who claimed to have psychic abilities. Brenda was being held captive, the woman said.

On Monday morning, Fabiola's street was lined with TV crews. There had been a report of a body found in the woods in Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains. Fabiola did on-camera interviews, then got a call from detectives who asked her to go with them to San Bernardino County to look at photos of the body. The thought made her insides turn.

"Why me?" she asked. "Why not my mother? One of my two brothers? They're strong."

"No," they said. "You're the strong one."

Fabiola was the first child born to Rafael and Imelda Sierra in Zacatecas, Mexico. Jaime arrived two years later. Maria came next. Then Brenda. Then Rafael Jr.

At 10, Fabiola found herself the second mother in the household.

By then they were living in East L.A., another immigrant family in a neighborhood where the rumble of the freeway was the soundtrack and the Maravilla gang the performers.

While her parents worked, Fabiola filled in the gaps -- making breakfast, changing diapers, reading books. Brenda latched on to her as a toddler, crawling into Fabiola's bed at night and refusing to leave.

When Fabiola became pregnant at 16, she worried that 6-year-old Brenda would think less of her. So Fabiola finished high school, became a medical assistant and married her boyfriend, Sergio Saavedra. The two moved with their daughter into an apartment on Leonard Avenue.

The rest of the Sierras followed, renting a home a few houses away. The quiet block on the border of Montebello felt safe, an upgrade from their previous neighborhoods. Fabiola gave birth to a son three years later.

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