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When Lopez Lema decided to go to Ecuador, her father wanted to make sure she would be provided for. “My wife and I give her whatever she wanted,” Lopez states. “She had a credit card and I told her I pay for the credit card, no worries.”
Lopez Lema left Los Angeles on May 21 and faithfully phoned her mother daily. Her stay was supposed to end on September 3, but she was enjoying herself — so she made the fateful decision to stay several more days. “She was happy,” says Lema. “ ‘Mama, I like it here. I want to stay here.’ And she told me she wanted to stay and finish her school there.”
Lopez Lema’s father spoke to her about attending his niece Mariella Lopez’s wedding. “She said ... ‘I’m going to the downtown to my city. Father, don’t worry.’ ”
She extended her return date to September 12, but suddenly, on September 8, her daily phone calls ended. “The next day, I called to the home and to the cell phone and she didn’t answer me,” her mother says.
The savage crime has left Lopez Lema’s family paralyzed with grief. Her brokenhearted father, 59, can barely do his job. He works for Jones Auto Park, and in recent months suffered a heart attack. His only daughter played bedside nurse. Through tears, Lopez says, “She was all of my heart. I never thought something would happen to her.
“I can’t explain — I don’t know why, my body is hurt,” he sobs. “Sometimes I think I’m going crazy. This is my life, my daughter.”
No arrests have been made, and the family is being told that Ecuadorian investigators have yet to seriously question potential people of interest. One family member says they are expected to pay money to Ecuadorian officials to get the investigation moving.
“There is no one here [with influence or money] to push the police to investigate,” the family member says.
Lopez Lema’s uncle Jamie Lopez, 56, says, “We don’t know anything — the police have not told us anything. It is absolutely horrible for us. It was something that we least expected. It is hard to put into words how horrible it is. You don’t know what to do with yourself except suffer her loss.”
Authorities have returned Lopez Lema’s clothes to the family, but, her mother says tearfully, they are keeping Lopez Lema “in the cage.” The family has asked U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer’s office to help bring her body back. “Our office was helping to arrange to get the body released and sent back to the United States,” confirms spokesman Zachary Coile.
Also working as an ambassador to navigate through the red tape is Lema’s longtime boss, Kendall, who is furious about what has unfolded since the murder. He fumes, “Gloria wants the body back here. She wants a respectable burial for her daughter.”
Corruption within the Ecuadorian criminal-justice system is endemic. With lawyers and those who wear badges often on the take, it’s hard to imagine how this overwhelmed Los Angeles family will learn the truth about what happened to their daughter.
Not long after word of Lopez Lema’s death spread around the small city of Ambato, her father received a flurry of calls from friends there whom he hasn’t seen in almost a decade. “They call me and ask me, ‘What happened with your daughter?’ ” So far, he can’t answer.
Douglas Montero contributed to this story.