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Missing Glendale woman turns up in Merced, with a false story

Nancy Salas, 22, told her mother she was going for a jog and didn't return. Thursday she walked into a store 260 miles away, saying she'd been kidnapped. Then she said she'd lied about the abduction.

May 14, 2010|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

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.

Late Thursday, one of those questions was resolved when Salas told Glendale police that she had made up the story of the kidnapping. She told investigators that she was under pressure because of her family's belief that she was attending UCLA and would graduate soon. She hadn't attended the university in more than a year.

The stress of that situation made her leave, said Sgt. Luis Pasache of the Glendale Police Department. Salas told police that she was "idolized" by her family, friends and church for being a successful student who was going to graduate from UCLA and couldn't face their disappointment.

As the case unfolded Thursday, police gave indications that they believed Salas was 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 and 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?"

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."

Of the police suggestion that she wasn't enrolled at UCLA, Sangalang said she and Salas lived together in a Westwood apartment during the 2008-09 school year, and she remembers Salas doing sociology homework.

Leonardo Chusan, another friend, said Salas told him she was enrolled part-time.

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. Henry Salas, 48, works for a trucking company. The walls of their small apartment were covered with photos of Nancy and her younger brother, Henry Jr., 19.

In an interview with reporters while police were still searching, 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. Minutes later, the couple learned she 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.

Glendale police said Salas took a bus to Merced, but she realized she was alone and wanted to be home.

Pasache said Salas and her family did not commit a crime in Glendale's jurisdiction. As for as what she told Merced police, "We're going to let them handle that."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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