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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.

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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."

Bend / Central Oregon / Government-politics / News / Top Stories
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Arielle Brumfield

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

Barney Lerten

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

Comments

26 Comments

  1. security needs to dress like security, not police, and the police need to wear police uniforms, not military. The cities do it, and this is why the college did it as well as other places that use that type of security

        1. I get what a crazy person is, police uniform or security uniform or not. You’re really trying to make an argument that a change in uniform would have changed how Edwin Lara would have acted or how this young woman reacted? Wow, that make literally zero sense.

    1. re: DT.. by the military you mean the swat team..or riot teams.. that have to defend themselves.. and hopefully go to family.. you mean those guys? Extremely rude! I sure hope you never need the swat team.. or better yet ask them to put on their shoes and see how it really is I dare you.. before you go spouting off saying they don’t need military gear.. B.S.!

  2. We’re cheap here. The rest of the country values a life at about 7-10 million dollars. Then again, we’ve got lives like BGHW and the like to consider. That’s got to drive the numbers down.

  3. “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.”

    Is the COCC “Public Safety” Department’s well paid department head who had to be aware of the above still employed at the college? If so, why?

    It is only recently, very recently, that the State Supreme Court struck down the Oregon Legislature’s $500,000 non-economic damages cap. The Court “found the cap violates the remedy clause of Article 1, section 10, of the Oregon Constitution.” Had the Court not done so the Sawyer family would have been held to $500K rather than the $2MIL COCC was forced to ante up as opposed to going to trial.

    Even so, one third of that sum goes to attorney fees as described in the article.

    In 2018, the City of Bend refused time and again to come to a settlement regarding the wrongful death of Michael Tyler Jacques, “tazed” no fewer than three times within seconds by BPD Ofc. Scott Schaier and now retired Ofc Marc Tisher. Schaier then wildly, per his own interview with investigators, and no fewer than three witness taken videos of the killing, fired five 9mm rounds at Jacques who was still buckled into the driver’s seat of his stationary van. Only two of those bullets struck the victim. Upon arrival investigators were sent out to search for anyone else who was near the scene that night who may have been hit by Schaier’s other three high velocity bullets.

    Jacques had been pulled over for a traffic complaint and possible DUII. It only took 19 seconds after the officers left their patrol vehicles to take his life. The video evidence is chilling to watch.

    So much so that after the City viewed it, as provided by the Jacques family’s attorney in a last ditch effort to avoid her client having to go to court, it immediately agreed to settle. $500K was the cap at the time; another $233K was agreed to for attorney fees incurred by the Jacques family, the remainder expenses likewise incurred. Sum total? $800,000.

    However, in the Jacques case, her attorneys, out of moral outrage and sincere compassion, reduced their fee from 40% to 33% so Tyler’s mother could realize an additional $100,000 in damages.

    Marc Tisher, already in the medical retirement pipeline prior to his role in the death of Tyler Jacqes, never returned to work. Officer Schaier, with one federal civil rights lawsuit already under his gun belt while an officer in Las Vegas (payout of $105,000 by his agency after trial), is now running for Deschutes County Sheriff.

    “Our potential exposure could have been significantly more,” Sisolak said. “You try to minimize it as much as you can, and we have done a lot to minimize the claims…It’s a cost of doing business.”

    https://lasvegassun.com/news/2013/apr/22/zorro-strikes-again-metro-pays-105000-lawsuit-cost/

    Of Michael Tyler Jacques, former Bend Police chief Jim Porter, in an official email sent to a member of the Jacques family on December 24, 2019, said this –

    “So many terrible things happened to Tyler, his conviction, imprisonment, the assaults and torture he endured in prison and the nightmares he lived with after getting out. His self-medication with controlled substance to fight off the demons that haunted him. It’s a testament to Karen’s love and refusal to give up that helped Tyler survive as long as he did. I have no doubt all Tyler was processing on that evening was there is another man in a uniform, at my door and that was a threat based upon his past experiences and he went to the same fight or flight response of survival as Scott. While Scott and Mark had no way of know Tyler’s fears, they had also justified fears on that encounter.

    “If I had a magic wand, I would unwind Tyler’s conviction, direct him into probation and counselling, what we now call restorative justice. But none of us have a wand, or any magic, we can only try to forgive, except everyone involved is in a way is a victim and the only person out all of us no longer suffering from that encounter two years ago is Tyler sadly.”

    It would be interesting to know if anyone in a position of authority at COCC has sent or said anything even close to as heartfelt, compassionate, and understanding of a family’s loss of a loved one to the Sawyer family.

    RIP, young lady, RIP.

  4. Funny tho….all these outfits that employ police departments and the departments themselves all decry the violence….until the police get busted being involved in it after they say they don’t practice it and all their unions denounce ANY sort of police reform. Soon as they get exposed, the hush money starts flowing near immediately. How about the Deputy and that was busted with his knee on the neck of the DRW broad? It was going to be swept under the rug….ooops…I mean “investigated”. Has anybody from the media asked how that’s going? Or even is it going?

    1. Not sure what planet you’re from but here on Earth there is a thing called insurance. The Bend community and COCC don’t pay a dime out of their pockets, get a clue.

      1. There is a thing called a deductible and if you don’t think you are paying then you don’t understand how insurance works, so I think you need to get a clue!

  5. So they settled for more than they could have possibly lost at trial? Great lawyer. Does insurance cover any part of this or are they just giving away our money?

          1. In my experience, it does not necessarily mean that. The insurance company is concerned only with covered losses and policy limits. If the claimant seeks relief outside of covered limits, and offers to settle for an amount above covered limits, the insurer is obliged to communicate the offer to the insured. If the insurer is willing to pay the full amount, and the insured is unwilling to pay the difference, the insured may be held liable for any such additional amount ultimately recovered, as well as additional defense costs.

              1. Sorry, when I said “the insured is willing to pay the full amount” I meant to say “the insured is willing to pay the full covered amount”. Please forgive the error.

  6. When my daughter died I received calls from 3 different attorneys asking if they could sue someone for me. I suggested they pound sand, I didn’t figure 1/3 or any settlement would bring her back or make her death any easier on me or mine.

  7. I see a lot of comments on Kaylee’s law and campus public safety from people outside of the profession. I was a deputy sheriff for about 5 years and due to budget issues I looked for something more stable career wise. Our local state university in Klamath Falls was hiring, so I applied and got hired. I’ve been there almost 20 years, and so I know the laws and rules governing higher ed public safety.

    First and foremost, Kaylee’s law changed the ORS for the 7 public universities. ORS 352.118 allowed the 7 state institutions to commission officers with police authority, and back in 2001 when I was hired you were required to attend an DPSST police academy, which was 5 weeks. When I completed that academy, I had 20 weeks of academy training – 5 weeks for Campus Public Safety, 5 weeks for basic corrections and 10 weeks for basic police. The commissioned officers only had police powers while on campus in the performance of their duties.

    The Oregon DPSST eventually stopped teaching the academy for campus officers, and decided instead that 8 hours of procedural law was as good as 5 weeks of academy training. Again DPSST made that decision. Additionally they stopped keeping our training records, so we had to start keeping our own.

    I point all this out to say that COCC public safety NEVER had any police authority granted by Oregon law. They are a community college, not a state institution. When Kaylee’s law was being debated, DPSST, the legislature, the Bend police chief, the Deschutes DA and others ONLY talked about Edwin Lara’s horrible act; they didn’t bring up a slew of cases throughout the state of campus officers running amok. One man, a psycho predator, became representative of an entire profession of men and women who dedicated themselves to keeping YOUR students safe while on campus. COCC has had a long history of issues, and Kaylee’s law should have focused on them, not on the entire public safety profession at universities.

    To close, I have dedicated my life to serving my campus community, and as a commissioned officer I put on whatever uniform they ask me to wear with pride. I am not perfect. No officer is. But a vast majority of campus officers do their jobs with passion and dedication, just like most police officers.

    The one common thread I have heard from all the parties involved is that campus officers are poorly trained. First off, there is no way the Bend police chief, DPSST, Kaylee’s family or the Deschutes DA can possibly know the background of all officers working at each college and university, so to say they are poorly trained is inaccurate. But what if, as in my case, I have had 20 weeks of academy training done by DPSST themselves? If I am poorly trained, then wouldn’t the problem rest with DPSST’s training? Kaylee’s law, however well intentioned, lowered the bar instead of setting it higher for all campus officers. And COCC, using authority never granted them by law, ensured that officers doing the right things get their hands tied. But that is just my opinion

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