By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A hard-laboring Los Angeles family from Ecuador is living out an international nightmare after their beautiful daughter, a student at Cal State L.A., who spent the summer volunteering in Ecuador, was found raped, murdered and decapitated last month outside a small town in her parents’ homeland.
Two days before she was due home in mid-September, the mutilated body of Daniela Lopez Lema, 26, was found in a wooded area, authorities say. Her body now lies refrigerated in a morgue some 4,000 miles away, as her devastated parents struggle with inept foreign police, potentially corrupt foreign officials — and the U.S. government’s arm’s-length handling of the controversy.
But Lopez Lema’s parents, Gloria Lema and Marcos Lopez, are struggling to cope with a murky foreign bureaucracy that has yet to provide them with any meaningful answers, and has thus far proved incapable of conducting a modern homicide investigation.
The last known time Lopez Lema was seen alive, she was leaving a wedding reception in Ecuador with her cousin Veronica, family members there say. According to family accounts, Lopez Lema wasn’t drunk. Her butchered body was spotted in a wooded area on September 10, another cousin, Yvonne Lopez, 30, tells L.A. Weekly.
“I never saw her with any boyfriend. She was very family-oriented,” Yvonne says. But according to Lopez Lema’s mother, her daughter told her about a man who had aggressively pursued her despite her disinterest. “This guy had another girlfriend,” Lema says. “So my daughter knows he had another girlfriend — she asked him, ‘Please leave me alone.’ ”
Yvonne Lopez, in disbelief over her cousin’s death, adds, “I don’t know what happened or why her death had to be so horrible. She didn’t have any enemies. That’s what bothers me the most — why would someone do that to her?”
The one piece of news the Lopez Lema family did receive has been too incredible for them to believe: They tell the Weekly that Ecuadorian officials have informed them that they must fork over fees, possibly thousands of dollars, in order for basic forensic and DNA tests to be conducted in the search for their daughter’s killer(s).
Her murder has been given a case number, according to the family, and Ecuadorian Judge Lenin Mayorga has been assigned to it. Initially, Lema says, she was told the Red Cross would cover the cost of forensic tests, but that has not happened. The American Red Cross in Ecuador has not responded to several e-mails from the Weekly, requesting comment.
A devoted daughter, Lopez Lema was on her way to becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree. Her mother shampoos hair at Joseph Martin Salon in Beverly Hills, and her father is a parking-lot attendant.
While her mother scrubbed the manes of A-listers — folks ranging from Brad Pitt to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — Lopez Lema was on hugging terms with the salon staff, including co-founder and den father Joseph Kendall. “She was a child when I first met her, 16 years ago. She was 10,” Kendall says. “Last time I saw her she was no longer a child. She was a studious, beautiful-looking girl, adored by everybody.”
Kendall recalled how close mother and daughter were, saying, “Gloria was so proud of her for all that she’d achieved.”
Lopez Lema worked as a sales associate for high-end luggage shop Tumi at Century City mall, and enjoyed making impromptu visits to her mother at the salon. Recalls Lema: “She got her hair cut over here — she was working close to [my] work and I’d give her $5 for lunch.”
A former co-worker of Lopez Lema’s, who heard the tragic news a few days ago, recalls, “She was the bubbliest girl. She was gorgeous. Her pictures don’t do her justice.”
The former co-worker, who remembers that Lopez Lema liked to pick up stray cats and dogs, says she possessed plenty of moxie, too. “She had a mouth on her,” she says. “You couldn’t take advantage of this girl.”
Lopez Lema’s former store manager, Samantha Schuman, 35, echoes those sentiments. “She was a street-smart girl,” stresses Schuman. “Sometimes there were guys she would go out with and she would get a weird feeling and she said she wouldn’t see them again. She had a strong sense of things.”
In 2002, Lopez Lema enrolled in business administration at Cal State Los Angeles, before switching to sociology in 2006, according to a university spokesman. With her junior year behind her, and having just broken up with a boyfriend, Lopez Lema joined a European-based group traveling through South America to teach underprivileged kids.