BEND, Ore. — Urge to Kill is a KGW podcast following the rape and murder of Kaylee Sawyer. After celebrating a bachelorette party in downtown Bend, Oregon in July of 2016, Kaylee disappeared in the middle of the night. The horrific details of her brutal rape and killing shook the residents of the quiet town in the Pacific Northwest. Her murderer would go on to terrorize several other families in a multi-state crime spree. He said he had the “urge to kill.” Our team sat down with all of his victims who were lucky to get out alive.
Edwin Lara sat with detectives from Redmond, Oregon and detailed exactly what had happened to Kaylee Sawyer. He drew them a map to where he had carelessly left her body.
Prosecutors and police alike believed they had a rock-solid case.
But that was until Lara's confession was thrown out by the judge.
“The bottom line is the court ruled that. And Laura had made a request for an attorney. The questioning that occurred after that was impermissible and we respect that rule,” Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel explained.
It felt like a crushing blow to the detectives who had made promises to Kaylee’s family, but they all moved forward knowing they had other evidence to convict Lara, including forensic evidence.
However, it turned out the confession was not the first hurdle in the case for DA Hummel. As a man who is morally opposed to the death penalty, he had to grapple with whether he would seek it in the case against Edwin Lara.
“Edwin Lara is the first person that I've prosecuted who has exhibited an urge to kill,” said Hummel. “It causes a kind of a chill in your body when you hear that you're like, ‘Wow, this is a different being that we are dealing with, this is a different person.’ and it kind of redoubles your resolve to do everything you can to deliver the best prosecution possible to ensure that somebody who has an urge to kill never walks the streets again.”
Hummel’s position as an elected official is to uphold the laws of the state, both the ones he agrees with and those he does not.
“When you think of the power that we give to government officials, the power to take life is absolute. And we get very few people that power," he said.
Ultimately, he sought the death penalty.
“There was no doubt. If this case wasn't worthy of seeking the death penalty than I, in essence, would have written the death penalty out of the law. And in Deschutes County, this case presented an example of the worst of the worst, the most egregious. If we are going to have a death penalty in Oregon, it’s meant for Edwin Lara.”
It was not an easy decision for Hummel. As he recounted the decision to the KGW Urge to Kill team, he was teary-eyed.
“I sat at that desk over there and when you sit and you have to decide whether to try to take someone's life, not many people have to do that. And I'm glad for them that they don't. But I also tell you it's a moment when you find clarity and you are resolute and you realize that this is why I was elected,” said Hummel. “I'm elected for the shoplifting cases. I'm elected for the trespassing cases. I'm elected when one of my staff wants to take a vacation day and they need to come in and see of I’ll approve the vacation and I'm elected to work on my budget. But when you are deciding whether to seek death in a case like this, man, that's why I was sitting at that desk. That's why I'm in this position. It’s heavy, weighty stuff. And I never doubted the seriousness of it and I gave it the attention it deserved.”
Despite all the deliberation on Hummel’s part, Lara did not receive the death penalty because nine months before his trial, he reached a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Many of Kaylee’s family members and friends were present in a Deschutes County courtroom to hear Lara's punishment.
Sitting in the front row were the detectives from the case, and just feet from them sat Lara in a charcoal suit with a black tie. He didn't make eye contact with the people in the room, especially with Kaylee’s loved ones as they get up to read their victim impact statements.
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This included Kaylee's best friend Naomi Sanzone. Her emotional statement illustrated just what losing Kaylee would mean for the future of all her loved ones.
“On the day we lost Kaylee, I lost so much more,” Naomi said. “She’s been my best friend since I was 13 years old. When we first met, she told me she had never had a best friend for more than a year. Every day I am reminded of her absence. Now as I get ready to plan my wedding, I fight an endless battle of tears. I can’t picture this day without the one person I knew would be at my side. Monsters really do exist. The nightmare is my life. The day we lost Kaylee, my heart was shattered into a million pieces and I know I’ll never fully be able to put it back together again because there is a piece left with her.”
Once Kaylee’s family had been given time to speak. Lara's attorney told the judge his client wanted to ask for forgiveness.
He did so in the form of a bone-chilling prayer.
“Today, I’ve seen your pain. Today, I’ve seen your hate. I don’t have much to say to you at this moment, a single prayer, that someday, something I would like to speak to whoever is willing to listen. God almighty who art in heaven, although he might deny, I’ll ask you to please, heal the hearts, all those broken hearts of this community. I ask you please heal the hearts of this family. Of everyone who is in this place today. And may Kaylee Sawyer rest in peace. Amen," Lara said.
Many of Kaylee’s family members left the court for the statement, unwilling to give him their time.
Judge Michael Alder then handed down Lara's sentence.
“I’ve lived in Bend almost 30 years and I’ve been a judge over 20 years. I’ve presided over many murder cases, both trials and sentencing,” said Judge Alder. “This case stands out for many reasons. I cannot recall any case in Bend that shocked the community to the extent this case has. I think the vulnerability of this victim, Kaylee Sawyer, under all the circumstances, walking alone on a college campus. Some dangerous area? No, a college campus in Bend Oregon. A campus safety officer stops to give her a ride. Extremely vulnerable. In the course of picking her up, you were not protecting her, you were acting as the predator that you were that evening. You saw this vulnerable young woman as someone you could prey upon. You can sugarcoat it all you want, that’s what you did. This is what shocks the community the most. And then of course what you did. The incredible brutality. I don’t recall another case like it.”
Lara pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated murder and one count robbery. He received life in prison with no chance of parole.
But detectives did not stop working Kaylee’s case when Edwin was sentenced.
Police are still actively searching for someone else who was believed to be involved in the case. During Edwin’s confession, he mentioned his cousin Melvin Mejia, who he refers to as "Vin."
Melvin may have been involved in helping Lara cover up the crime. Lara said Vin helped him move Kaylee’s body.
“The cousin’s a suspect in helping to dispose the body,” said Hummel. “The challenge is can we develop enough evidence to charge him? If we have enough evidence he will be charged and if we don’t, we won’t.”
His full name is Melvin Rosalio Perez Mejia. If you have substantial information that could lead to his whereabouts, call the Redmond Oregon Police Department at 541-504-3400.
Another person deeply impacted by Edwin’s actions was his now ex-wide Isabel Ponce-Lara. She filed for divorce in August 2016, weeks after Kaylee’s murder.
Not long after filing for divorce, Isabel also resigned as a Bend Police officer, ending a 13-month career in law enforcement. She said the following in her October 2016 resignation letter: “This decision has not been easy, but I have decided that it will be in the best interest for my career advancement and future development.”
Isabel has since moved from Redmond to Portland. Her life, no doubt, was destroyed by Edwin’s actions. But she’s not without criticism. Some people in the community, including law enforcement, have blamed Isabel for taking too long to turn Edwin in to police after he confessed to her. She didn’t call 911 immediately after Edwin left. Instead, detectives believe she waited several hours to go, in person, to the police station to report everything.
“The people that have an issue with her, that's the issue that she waited too long. Many people don't have an issue with her, but I've heard that from people that they think she waited too long,” said Hummel. “Are we talking hours? Six hours, two hours? No. From when Lara left, until when she went to the police station, there's less than an hour, I think 30 minutes or so.”
Hummel said not everyone would have reported their husband as Isabel did.
“Nobody knows how they will react if the love of their life comes home and says, I've done the unthinkable. The thought that you know, people can Monday morning quarterback and say, I immediately would have handcuffed that man and raced into the police or I immediately would have called 911. That's foolish because you haven't been in that situation," Hummel said.
However, according to detectives, Isabel left out key information during her interview with them. They said that initially, Isabel did not tell them that Edwin had family in the area. His mom and step-dad live in Redmond. This was crucial because Edwin ditched his car at their house and took one of their vehicles.
Investigators feel that Isabel’s omission cost them several hours in the early stages of their search. A detective told our team this: “To put the timeline into perspective, had information been provided in a timely fashion regarding his parents, we would’ve located his vehicle very quickly, as it was right down the street from his parents' house. In turn, we would’ve identified the vehicle he had taken from his parents' house and likely known about that vehicle prior to his abduction of Aundreah. With the resources we had available, it’s reasonable to assume we would have had a good chance to stop him before the attempted murder and carjacking and kidnapping in California.”
We asked Hummel about all of this too. We wanted to know why Isabel was never charged and if she intentionally misled investigators. Hummel responded with: “I’m aware of the allegations about Ms. Ponce. We investigated them and determined no crime was committed.”
The Urge to Kill team attempted to reach out the Isabel but she declined to be a part of the project.
The last thing we uncovered about Isabel was her cell phone search history shortly after the murder. She looked up the following topics: spousal privilege, whether spouses can be forced to testify against one another, and: "How can I avoid testifying against my husband."
And another fact we uncovered is that the only reason police figured out Edwin had family in the area and tracked down his getaway car -- is that a detective recognized Edwin’s name from a different case.
That detective was investigating Edwin’s step-dad, Jose Santos Flores-Cardenas, for sex abuse.
Jose was a pastor at a church in Redmond, and was accused of sexually abusing an underage girl in 2012. He was eventually charged with sex abuse, and after posting bond, he disappeared. A warrant was issued for his arrest in February 2019. If you have information about his whereabouts, call Redmond Police.
As Edwin spends the rest of his life behind bars, everyone involved in this case is left to wonder why he did it. What would make someone do something so heinous? It boils down to who Edwin is. Was this his first crime? Would he have become a serial killer?
One of Edwin’s former colleagues, Daniel Lashbaugh, described Edwin as reclusive, quiet and straightforward.
Investigators were shocked at his ego. During his confession, he asked to speak with the media to give his statement. When they found the presentation of the Railroad Killer in the shed where Kaylee’s blood-soaked belongings were, they brought in the FBI.
“The FBI was awesome,” said Detective Beckwith, “In helping us determine his kind of background all the way up through his childhood and some of his travel outside of the country.”
But there was no evidence he had committed any other violent crimes.
Hummel believed that Edwin would have become a serial killer if given the chance.
“I think most people nationwide who commit crimes, there are good people who have done a bad thing. You know, Edwin, Lara is an evil person. One of the few criminals who've seen in Deschutes County who are pure evil," Hummel said.
Next time on Urge to Kill:
Aundreah has a powerful message for Edwin as she tries to move on. Everyone is left to pick of the pieces in the wake of the tragedies that Edwin inflicted on them. And Edwin Lara's attorney has an interesting explanation for his crime spree.