The first time she saw the photo of the missing brown-eyed girl it mesmerized her. That was five years ago and it’s no different today.
“Her name is Sierra LaMar and she went missing relatively close to where I grew up in California,” University of Dayton rower Rosario “Rosie” Perez said Friday afternoon. “She was in high school — a kid about my age then — and she just disappeared.
“The first time I saw the missing girl poster our (high school) team was going to a lacrosse tournament in Gilroy. The poster was at the entrance to the complex and her story just really hit me. After that I followed the ‘Find Sierra LaMar’ Facebook page and everything. It was just so sad. And she’s still missing today. They have no idea what happened to her body.”
LaMar — a 15-year-old sophomore cheerleader at nearby Sobrato High School who soon became known as “Everyone’s Daughter” — went missing on a March morning in 2012 as she headed to the bus stop to go to school. A few months later, a 21-year-old high school dropout was arrested and charged with her murder. He denies involvement and his lawyers have dragged the case out for years. The trial is going on right now.
“That story really moved her,” Rosie’s mom, Monica Perez Burnett, said the other day. “The image of that girl really stayed with her. She was like ‘Gosh, something needs to be done about these types of things.’ And that has prompted her to want to go into the type career she’s pursuing right now. She wants to make a difference.”
Now a senior rower for the Flyers who is about to graduate with a double-major degree in criminal justice and psychology, Rosie Perez hopes to do just that.
So does her roommate and best friend, Danielle Foust, also a graduating senior, a standout on the rowing team and a criminal justice major as well.
“I didn’t have the typical college experience and I’m thankful for that,” said Foust, who could just as easily have been speaking for Perez.
Both of the 22-year-olds are top students and college athletes and in their four years at UD, one or the other has done everything from don a bullet-proof vest for a U.S. Marshals operation here to help in the investigation of a West Side homicide with the Dayton police to be part of drug raids and federal probation visits.
Perez and Foust, both of whom are headed into law enforcement careers after they graduate from UD in two weeks, already have been immersed in the field with a variety of hands-on internships during their college years.
Foust — who has interned with the district attorney’s office in Salt Lake City, Utah, Catholic Social Services and both the United States Probation Office and the U.S. Marshals Service in Dayton — has gone through a series of extensive applications and upon six months of academy training in Georgia and Maryland, is headed to a federal law enforcement position in Washington D.C.
Perez, who has prepped with various parts of the Dayton Police Department and has passed some prelim tests, hopes to join the Dayton police force or another in Ohio in the fall. She has gotten some real on-the-job training, be it working next to Chief Richard Biehl or in the field with a cold-case detective she especially admires.
Along the way she has ended up various police situations, including the investigation of a homicide last summer.
“It was my first dead body,” she said quietly. “What affected me most was the state of the house and the little kids who were living there.
“A middle-aged guy was shot by his girlfriend and they had three young children — 6 and under — who were living in horrible conditions. It was really sad for them. Now their dad was gone and their mom was going to jail for his murder.
“The youngest kid had a mental disability and he was asleep on the couch the entire time. When he woke up, he was really confused by it all.
“What really hit me was the little girl. She was playing with My Little Pony. And at that time my youngest sister was obsessed by My Little Pony.
“They were probably the same age. I looked at that girl and thought she could have been my sister. Here they were, two little girls in love with the same thing, but their circumstances were so incredibly different.
“It just makes you want to do all you can for people in situations like that.”
Rowing mirrors life
Perez grew up mostly in East Palo Alto, California, which, she said, had serious crime and poverty issues when she was born in 1995. Three years earlier it had the highest homicide rate in the nation according to a report in The Stanford Daily.
In recent years the crime numbers for the city — whose population is mainly Hispanic, but also has many African-Americans and Pacific Islanders — has subsided dramatically and there have been an influx of workers from nearby Google, Facebook and Amazon operations.
“When I was growing up there were drugs and gangs and drive-by shootings in our neighborhood, but I really knew nothing about that,” she said. “My parents and my grandparents, who we lived with, were very protective and they raised us pretty well. We weren’t involved in anything bad.
“I ended up at a private girls’ school because my mom taught music there. My direct family did really well actually. One of my cousins followed me here to Dayton, another graduated from Yale and another went to Harvard.”
When it came time to pick a college, she said she wanted to move away and looked at schools like Marquette and Creighton before choosing UD without ever setting foot on the campus. Her first day here was “move-in day” for freshmen.
Foust came to UD by a bit of happenstance, as well.
Growing up in Rives Junction, Michigan near Jackson, she looked at some in-state schools and then considered Bowling Green until someone suggested she look at UD if she was going to matriculate at an Ohio school.
She said she “fell in love with the campus” and once here she heard about the rowing program, which recruits most of its athletes with what Coach Mike Wenker called its “dorm storm.”
Members of the team canvas the dorms asking students if they’d be interested in trying out for the (non-scholarship) rowing team. They also put up posters and pass out handbills and that invitation intrigued Foust, who had been a three-sport athlete — basketball, soccer, cross country — in high school.
“But I couldn’t ever get her to go kayaking with me,” laughed her mom, Kris Foust.
The UD pitch struck a chord though, especially because prospects need not have rowed before.
“Rowing is a weird sport,” Wenker said with a laugh. “It’s one of the only sports you can start as an 18-year-old and maybe end up on the national team.”
Case in point was former UD rower Bernadette Marten.
“She’s the only rower in the (UD) Hall of Fame and after she graduated from college (Michigan), she ended up a world champion,” Wenker said.
Foust became one of the team captains this season and Perez had been an integral part in their eight-woman boat until she tore ligaments in her wrist a few weeks ago in the weight room. She’s also a budding power lifter who recently won her first competition
Along with representing the university in intercollegiate competition — the team competed in Pittsburgh on Saturday, is in Virginia today and the Atlantic 10 Championships are in New Jersey in two weeks — both women say the lessons and demands of the rowing team serve them well in other parts of their lives, including their law enforcement endeavors.
“It’s pretty demanding,” Kris Foust said of her daughter’s commitment to the sport. “They get up or 4 or 5 in the morning to train (on the Great Miami River) and then they go to classes and then get together for another workout later.”
She said it has helped Danielle become really regimented and disciplined.
But it’s not for everyone, said Danielle: “We started out with 25 girls freshman year and now we’re graduating with five. You really have to be committed. You’ve got to be able to work out every day and balance your time. You’re going to class and a lot of the girls are working and interning while rowing, too. And through it all you have to enjoy what you’re doing and that can be a very thin line.”
The lessons, though, are invaluable, she said: “I work out every day with a group of girls who have the same goals as me, the same passion as me. And that translates now to (law enforcement) where we work together … to better the community.”
Perez sees a correlation of what happens in the boat to what happens in life:
“With rowing, whatever you do, big or small, is going to affect every single person in the boat. Like if you are early or late (with your stroke) or your hand handle height is a little low or high, you’re gonna affect the next person, good or bad. And all that can be implemented into daily life.
“Everything you do — a kind gesture or something not so nice — is going to affect someone else.”
Kris Foust graduated from Michigan State with a criminal justice degree and before raising her family with husband Dan, she worked for the Michigan Supreme Court.
When Danielle took up the same course of study, Kris said she suggested her daughter “do several internships to find out what you like. See if you want to go in enforcement or social work or administration.”
Danielle did that and said she settled on enforcement as a way you might be able to bring about “a positive experience in someone else’s life.”
Rosie agreed and said she especially has her old neighborhood in mind: “Seeing things that happened there and the way some of the younger generation views the police made me want to do this all the more for those people in the rough environment. I think with my background — I’m Hispanic — I can connect two worlds together.”
Her mom — who has remarried, moved to North Carolina and now has eight kids total, including two sets of twins, ages 6 and 3 — said she takes special pride in her oldest daughter.
She said the other day someone from UD contacted her to put together some thoughts on Rosie for an upcoming rowing banquet.
“The words that came to mind were strength — she is extremely strong physically and mentally — and commitment. She’s a person of her word. People believe her. They trust her. When she says something, when she starts something, she sticks with it.
“I admire her for that. I tend to start something and then easily step out of it when it gets boring. Then I move on to the next thing. Not her. She doesn’t waver.”
Kris had similar praise for her daughter:
“Danielle is the oldest of our four kids. She’s got a younger sister at Bowling Green, a brother at Grand Valley (State) and another who’s a junior in high school. She’s been a great leader for them. She’s shown you need to put yourself out there — sometimes in an uncomfortable situation — and stand on what you believe. She’s taught them that when you’re at college, make the most of it. Do the very best you can. Do what you can to make a difference.”
That’s the same idea Rosie Perez had when she saw that missing girl poster several years ago and, in the words of her mom, said “something needs to be done.”
Now she’s doing it.