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.
“We have been in contact with the victim’s family. The U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador, is monitoring the ongoing investigation,” a U.S. State Department statement notes.
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.
On the Ecuadorian leg of their trip, she’d lined up a crash pad at her aunt’s house in Ambato, about 70 miles from the capital, Quito.
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.