Bend community still reeling from Kaylee Sawyer murder

Edwin Lara is accused of killing Kaylee Sawyer on July 24

Medical examiners confirmed a body found off Highway 126 was that off Kaylee Sawyer. July 28, 2016. (Camron Riemhofer via Facebook)

BEND, Oregon (AP) — He had everything going for him: a job and good career path in law enforcement in a scenic Oregon mountain town, the trust of his colleagues, a wife and a house. Then one recent night, police say, he killed a young woman.

Edwin Lara in his first California court appearance, July 29, 2016. (KOIN)
Edwin Lara in his first California court appearance, July 29, 2016. (KOIN)

Edwin Lara then traveled to the state capital, kidnapped another woman and took her to California, where he shot a man and carjacked a vehicle with three people inside, police allege. After a chase over 100 mph on the main freeway along the West Coast, the California Highway Patrol arrested Lara.

Many people in Bend, where Lara worked, are reeling. A former lumber town at the foot of the Cascade Range, Bend has seen its population more than quadruple over the past 25 years to 87,000. People are drawn by its sunny climate, its hiking, skiing, fishing and cycling opportunities and by its microbreweries.

It is a friendly town, but crime, even homicide, is nothing new. Bend averaged one murder or manslaughter per year since 1985, according to FBI statistics. Police say many were related to domestic violence.

There is no indication Lara knew the young woman he is charged with killing.

What many here find particularly disturbing are the accounts of an average resident going off the rails so completely. Lara was a public safety officer at Central Oregon Community College in Bend. His wife is a police officer.

“This is such a hit on so many levels,” said Aimee Metcalf, assistant director of college relations. “We always felt safe here, but when something like this happens, it hits everyone in their core. Even more distressing is that a campus safety officer was involved.”

A local newspaper, The Source Weekly, asked in a full-page article: “What prompted his alleged crime spree?” So far, there are no answers.

On July 24, soon after midnight, Kaylee Sawyer went for a walk after arguing with her boyfriend. They lived on the edge of the community college campus, which is shaded by tall ponderosas and boasts mountain views. Lara, uniformed and equipped with pepper spray, handcuffs and a ballistics vest, was working that night on a shift to end at 2 a.m., James Bennett, interim director of campus public safety, said in an interview.

The next day, Lara’s wife, Isabel Ponce-Lara, noticed that Lara was “acting out of the ordinary,” according to a statement she made to police in their hometown of Redmond, just north of Bend.

Ponce-Lara, who recently became a Bend police officer, told Redmond investigators she confronted her husband and that he broke down and told her he struck Sawyer with his patrol vehicle, killing her, and then panicked and hid the body.

Ponce-Lara said after Lara broke down, he grabbed his 9 mm Glock pistol and fled. Sawyer’s body was later found in a canyon about 8 miles west of Redmond.

Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel rejects Lara’s account. Hummel indicated to The Associated Press he has evidence to support the murder charge but cannot discuss it.

Circuit Court Judge Alta J. Brady has prohibited those involved in the case from talking publicly about it. Brady, asked for the reason for the order, said she “cannot comment in any manner on any pending case, nor can any other judge.”

Lara’s attorneys said they cannot comment, citing Brady’s order.

In Salem, 130 miles away, Lara is accused of taking 19-year-old Aundreah Maes at gunpoint after she got off work at a clothing store and drove with her to Yreka, California.

On July 26, police say Lara shot a man at a motel in that former gold-mining town, critically wounding him, and then carjacked a vehicle at a gas station with a woman and her two sons inside. He released them along Interstate 5 before being pulled over by the highway patrol.

In addition to the murder charge in Oregon, Lara is charged in California with attempted murder, kidnapping, carjacking and other offenses.

Many of the tenants at Awbrey Pines apartments, where Sawyer lived, are students and have been shaken by the killing, said Kim Ritchie, a manager for the firm that owns the complex. Parents have expressed concern.

“There’s definitely a change in the vibe,” Ritchie said. “This is a reminder for people to be aware of their surroundings and follow safe practices.”

Lara, 31, first served as a cadet with campus security while earning his associate degree in criminal justice at Central Oregon Community College, Bennett said, the head of campus public safety. He was later hired at an hourly wage and was on track to becoming a full employee.

“I can’t look into his mind and see what might have made him snap,” Bennett said. “All I can do is look into his history.”

But no answers are there. Lara passed a background investigation before being hired.

“He was a quality candidate,” Bennett said.

Bennett feels Lara “betrayed” his colleagues and profession, and it weighs heavily on him.

“This is one of the most difficult moments of my life,” Bennett said. “Our hearts go out to Kaylee’s family.”

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