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Kaylee Sawyer’s mother speaks out on $2 million settlement of COCC lawsuit

(Update: Adding video)

'She had 23 amazing years, and I want that to be remembered, not the 20 minutes with the defendant'

BEND, Ore., (KTVZ )-- After a long, difficult and emotional journey for the family of Kaylee Sawyer, the $2 million settlement reached in a civil lawsuit against Central Oregon Community College grants them some significant closure.

NewsChannel 21 spoke Thursday with Juli VanCleave, Kaylee's mother, who said she was surprised to find so much relief from the settlement.

"In a way, it has brought her back to me," she said. "Everyone that had a hand or role in this horrible thing that happened to her has been punished."

"I finally feel that I am able to grieve my daughter, the loss of my daughter, and she gets to drop that tag of 'Kaylee, the murder victim,'” VanCleave said.

But Van Cleave also said the a year after the passage of Kaylee's Law, the effort to make sure such a tragedy never happens again is not finished -- and this is just the beginning.

She shared that many people feel there are still more changes to be made at COCC, and right now, the college has a magnifying glass on them.

“I would like to see COCC campus security really look like campus security," Van Cleave said. "I know they have made many changes with that, but I do hear from people that the environment is still there.”

COCC released a statement regarding the settlement, saying they acknowledge the profound loss that Sawyer's loved ones continue to experience because of her death, and it is heartbreaking and senseless to lose someone so young who was just beginning to live her potential.

The amount of the settlement is close to Oregon's cap on wrongful death claims against local public bodies of about $2 million.

VanCleave said her family was awarded over the amount of the cap, and she believes in part that it's COCC's way of taking accountability for their role.

“There's a cap that can be awarded, and COCC paid more than what that cap was," VanCleave said. "So in a way, I feel like they were acknowledging their role in this. They will never come out and say they had a role, but I think the settlement award that we got says it for them.”

She said the family plans to use part of the settlement to continue KK's Readers, a program she started that provides books for kids in head start and early education programs. VanCleave said they hope to expand the program out of state, to give children more books.


Earlier story:

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – Nearly four years to the day after Central Oregon Community College student Kaylee Sawyer was brutally murdered by a security officer on the Bend campus, the school has agreed to pay $2 million to settle a federal civil lawsuit for its role in her killing, the family’s attorneys said.

The 23-year-old had been offered a ride by Edwin Lara, on July 24, 2016, in his police-like patrol car that had a “cage” separating the front and back seats, and doors that could not be opened from the inside. He took her to a secluded spot, where he raped and fatally bludgeoned her.

Lara soon fled the area, then abducted a Salem woman, who drove him to California, where he was caught and arrested the next day. He later was sentenced to life in prison for a murder that rocked the Central Oregon community.

The federal civil rights lawsuit, filed against the college by Sawyer's family a year after her killing, also named Lara, then-COCC President Shirley Metcalf and other officials. It also alleged several state law claims, from assault and battery to professional misconduct and wrongful death. The case was scheduled to go to trial in September.

Among other claims, the lawsuit, amended earlier this year, alleged the college failed to do an adequate background check on Lara and was providing officers with uniforms and vehicles made to resemble police.

That was a key element in legislation known as Kaylee’s Law, signed a year ago, that was sought by her father and stepmother, Jamie and Crystal Sawyer, and sets out standards for campus security officers and their vehicles, to better differentiate them from police officers.

“This tragedy was not unforeseeable,” family attorney Tim Williams said of Sawyer’s killing.

He noted that in previous years, students, professors and Bend Police Chief Jim Porter had told COCC officials that the campus Public Safety Department “was acting outside of their legal authority and that tragic events could result.” He said the school even paid for an internal safety audit that recommended major changes to the conduct and appearance of the campus public safety officers.

But “COCC did nothing,” Williams said, still equipping their officers with police-like uniforms, pepper spray, ballistic vests, body cameras and handcuffs.

COCC issued a statement Thursday morning on the settlement:

"On July 24, 2016, twenty-three-year-old Kaylee Sawyer was abducted and brutally murdered on the campus of Central Oregon Community College (COCC) by a former campus public safety officer. This tragic event devastated Ms. Sawyer's family and friends, and shook the Bend community.

"In the years that followed, Kaylee Sawyer's Estate filed litigation against the College and three of its administrators. Last Friday, with the assistance of a mediator, the parties have reached a settlement calling for the payment of $2 million to the Estate and termination of the litigation.

"COCC acknowledges the profound loss that Kaylee Sawyer’s loved ones continue to experience because of her death; it is heartbreaking and senseless to lose someone so young who was just beginning to live her potential. The college offers the Sawyer family and the Bend community its deepest sympathy and commitment to continued healing."

Much testimony about what might have avoided the tragedy came out in Lara’s criminal proceedings, but Williams said the civil lawsuit uncovered more evidence of “serious red flags” regarding Lara.

He said members of the COCC Campus Public Safety Department “knew of Lara’s fascination with dead bodies, that he showed to numerous people at work nude photographs and pornographic videos he filmed of himself and a woman he was having an affair with, his mannerisms so alarming that one female cadet refused to ride in the same car as him, and his lying about once being a police officer in Honduras where he saw bodies 'all chopped up.'”

“COCC had the opportunity to discover that Lara once plotted a murder and struggled with an urge to kill most of his life,” Williams said, adding, “This tragedy will forever resonate in the heart of our community.”

The attorneys noted that Kaylee's mother, Juli VanCleave, created the children's book club, KK's Readers, as a reminder of her daughter's love for Dr. Seuss.

"Many signs and bumper stickers honoring Kaylee are still visible throughout Bend," they said.

As for the other named defendants, Williams said all but Lara were defended by the college and its insurance policy. "The settlement resolves all claims made against those defendants," the attorney said.

"While we could have let the claims against Lara stay active, he has no assets and will be in prison for the rest of his life," Williams said. "Thus we agreed to dismiss those as well, as they could not be economically prosecuted. Sure, we would win, and win big, but it would cost the family time and resources to do so, and there was no way to recoup that expense, given his conviction and lack of assets."

The settlement of the case, reached Friday, is subject to probate court approval, which Williams said is expected.

The amount of the settlement is close to Oregon's cap on wrongful death claims against local public bodies of about $2 million.

"Kaylee's family deserves better, but Oregon's Tort Claims Act limits damages a jury can award in this type of wrongful death case," Sawyer family attorney Jason Kafoury said.

"Victims of law enforcement abuse and their families face these limits as they push for justice," Kafoury added. "We invite the press to scrutinize these limits and ask hard questions of our legislators to justify why such caps should even exist."

One-third of the $2 million settlement will go to attorney fees, Williams said -- "literally thousands of hours of work, by the way. But I’d give every dollar back, and then some, if it would bring Kaylee back to the family."

To those who may question the large sum, Williams said, "I’d point out that the only way to effect change is to bring these kinds of suits. Had we not, colleges across the nation wouldn’t pay much notice. However, holding wrongdoers liable is the only way to effect real change. Most entities’ attention begins and ends with their pocketbooks."

Article Topic Follows: Crime And Courts

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Arielle Brumfield

Arielle Brumfield is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Arielle here.

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Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.


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