Kaylee Sawyer, 23, was a Central Oregon Community College student who was murdered by campus security guard Edwin Lara, on July 24, 2016. Sawyer’s body was found days later off Highway 126 in the Dry Creek area of Redmond, Oregon, and her death was ruled a homicide by blunt force trauma, KATU reported at the time.
Sawyer’s story was the subject of an NBC Dateline episode this month, reigniting interest in the case.
Here’s what you need to know:
Sawyer Was Killed Early in the Morning & Lara Was Arrested A Few Days Later
Sawyer was last seen shortly after 1 a.m. on Sunday, July 24, 2016, near her apartment building close to her college campus. Her family filed a missing persons report with Bend police later that same evening, according to KGW8.
By Tuesday, Lara was in police custody and facing a preliminary murder charge, and Sawyer’s body had been found. Lara was arrested in northern California while on a crime spree that involved multiple carjackings, a kidnapping and a shooting.
According to court documents cited in the KGW8 report, Lara told his wife, Isabel Ponce-Lara — who was a new police officer in Bend — that he’d accidentally hit and killed Sawyer with his patrol car and dumped her body afterward. Ponce-Lara reported what her husband told her, providing investigators with a key break in the case. When officers searched the Laras’ home, they found Sawyer’s purse and shoes, a blood-stained rock — later determined to be the murder weapon — and a clump of hair, as well as blood on his work boots, Chilling Crimes wrote.
By that time, Lara was on an interstate crime spree, kidnapping a woman in Salem, Oregon, and bringing her to California, then shooting a man in the stomach at a Yreka, California, Super 8 Motel before stealing a car at a gas station close by. The car had three people inside, and Lara forced one of the children to drive the car at gunpoint while the owner of the vehicle was left behind at the gas station and called 911, KGW8 reported. The family was later dropped off unharmed, and Lara was arrested after a car chase.
Lara initially pleaded not guilty but later changed his plea to guilty of aggravated murder and robbery in order to avoid the death sentence, Bend Source reported. Investigators found evidence that Lara attempted to rape Sawyer, but sexual assault charges did not stick, as explained in a report by Central Oregon Daily:
… according to Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel, once Lara’s initial confession was thrown out, sexual assault became harder to prove. He also noted that Lara refused to plead guilty to sexual assault as part of his plea deal. Hummel said they’re [sic] main goal was to get a life sentence so they decided with the family to not pursue a sexual assault conviction in order to avoid a less harsh sentence.
After entering his guilty plea, Lara was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. As for the crime spree Lara embarked on after killing Sawyer, a federal grand jury in Eugene, Oregon, charged him with “one count each of kidnapping and carjacking, and two counts of using, carrying, and brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon.
Lara pleaded guilty to the federal carjacking and kidnapping charges, and in April of 2019, he received a second life sentence.
Sawyer’s Family Sued the College After Her Death & a New State Law Was Passed Regarding Campus Security
Sawyer’s family sued Central Oregon Community College (COCC) in July 2017, stating that Sawyer accepted a ride from Lara, who was on duty, because she believed she could trust the campus security officer. However, once Sawyer was in the back of the vehicle, she was stuck in the cage and the doors didn’t open from the inside, KATU reported.
The lawsuit argued that COCC did not adequately check Lara’s background and that their campus security vehicles and uniforms too closely resembled those of Bend police. The family’s attorneys, Jason Kafoury and Tim Williams, said Lara’s red flags should have been evident to COCC and that the college knew he had a “fascination with dead bodies,” the outlet reported. Williams said:
COCC had the opportunity to discover that Lara once plotted a murder and struggled with an urge to kill most of his life. This tragedy will forever resonate in the heart of our community.
In 2020, the college and Sawyer’s family reached a settlement, with COCC agreeing to pay $2 million to her family. Since her death, the state of Oregon has also passed Kaylee’s law, which implemented major changes with campus security across the state.