A 22-year-old Glendale woman who vanished Wednesday morning after telling her mother she was going for a jog was found safe Thursday when she walked into a carpet store in Merced, Calif., and asked employees to call 911.
Nancy Salas was distraught, did not appear to know what town she was in and told dispatchers that she had escaped a kidnapper, store employees said. But even as Salas was being brought home to the Glendale apartment where she lives with her parents, big questions remained unanswered.
The case is complicated by a strange twist: Salas appears to have been living a double life.
Wednesday morning she put on her running shoes, stopped by her mother's bedroom to give her a kiss and stepped out the door. When she didn't return, her parents became nervous and called police.
Their daughter was a devout Christian who sang in her church choir and was not the type to disappear, they told police. She was a month away from graduating from UCLA with a degree in sociology, they said. The family was planning a party.
Police scoured the rugged hills of Chevy Chase Canyon with helicopters and bloodhounds, working by flashlight until 1:30 a.m. Thursday.
When the sun rose Thursday, they had found nothing in the canyon, but they had turned up a surprising fact: Salas has not been enrolled at UCLA since the fall of 2008, according to school officials.
Glendale Police Sgt. Tom Lorenz speculated Thursday morning that Salas may have dropped out but kept the news to herself.
"She may have been leading a double life, and it was starting to catch up with her," he said. The blog and Twitter account Salas kept further suggest she may have been troubled.
"Had another awful dream," she wrote in a blog post in November. "Why are they so real? Why do the details call out to me? It was paranormal."
In March she wrote, "I think I'm turning paranoid," and described being watched on her occasional workouts. "The creepy guys that just stare when I go running up Chevy Chase completely ruin my workouts," she wrote.
Friend Grace Sangalang, 23, said Salas shared her fears. She said Salas had talked about buying pepper spray. "She just had this really heavy feeling," Sangalang said.
Of the police suggestion that she wasn't enrolled at UCLA, Sangalang said, "No, I don't believe that. She was really close with her family and she was really loyal."
She said she and Salas lived together in a Westwood apartment during the 2008-2009 school year, and she remembers Salas doing sociology homework.
Leonardo Chusan, another friend, said Salas told him she was enrolled part-time, attending one Monday class.
When Salas applied five months ago to babysit for Sheri Jennings' three young sons, she used a UCLA e-mail address and had "glowing references," Jennings said.
She worked for the family Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, but said she couldn't work mornings or Mondays because of her classes. At 11:54 p.m. Tuesday, Salas e-mailed Jennings to say that she would be late for work Wednesday because "I have office hours."
Salas' parents emigrated decades ago from El Salvador. Joanna Salas, 45, cleans homes in La Cañada Flintridge. Henry Salas, 48, works for a trucking company. Both wore UCLA T-shirts Thursday as police and media descended. The walls of their small apartment were covered with photos of Nancy and her younger brother, Henry Jr., 19, who attends Glendale Community College.
In an interview with reporters while police were still searching Thursday, Joanna Salas said she had "no doubt" that her daughter was in college.
"What is most important for us is our daughter and to know she is alright," said her father. "There is no other thing." Minutes later, the couple learned that their daughter was safe.
She walked into United Floor Covering in Merced about 11 a.m. Thursday, about 260 miles from home, according to Merced police.
Melanie Mittelsteadt, who helped Salas call 911, said the young woman told dispatchers, "I'm from Glendale, Calif., and I've been kidnapped."
She said Salas spoke of "a crazy man out there" and said she had been forced into a car by a skinny man with black hair who looked to be in his 50s and had a knife.
She was out of breath but did not appear hurt, Mittelsteadt said.
Glendale police said they were still investigating. Lorenz said that if Salas faked the kidnapping, she could be charged with making a false report.
Her parents were not concerned with the details.
"Those other things, I don't think about those things," Henry Salas said as he stood before about 20 journalists crammed into the small apartment.
A cameraman climbed on the beige couch to get a good angle. A reporter knocked over a family portrait. Nobody cared. Knowing their daughter was safe, Henry and Joanna Salas laughed through their tears.