With questions finally answered in painful fashion, family members and friends are sharing their memories of Sara Gomez, the 24-year-old Bend woman whose body was discovered by a hiker in the Horse Ridge area last Friday, more than three months after her disappearance.
Her body was wrapped up in a tarp in a wooded area on Highway 20 about 20 miles southeast of Bend. Officials said Wednesday that an autopsy confirmed it was her.
Lauralyn Searcy grew up with Gomez and they attended school together over the years.
“When I met her, she was my first friend on the playground in elementary school,” Searcy said.
She told NewsChannel 21 on Wednesday that she and Sara would drive out to the Horse Ridge area as young adults.
She said her friend was a hard-working adult with two jobs and was trying to improve her life.
“She was my best friend. She was my non-blood sister,” Searcy said.
Searcy said Gomez kept a positive attitude. Even when she was struggling or having a bad day, Gomez kept a smile on her face.
Gomez was reported missing in February. Her ex-boyfriend, Bryan Penner, was the last person to see Gomez alive, and authorities are now sharing more details of what happened.
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel told NewsChannel 21 the state medical examiner had determined the body found wrapped in a tarp was that of Gomez.
Hummel said Penner lured Gomez into his apartment one night in February, and evidence showed he planned to kill Gomez that night.
Investigators found zip ties and heavy-duty fishing line, and some evidence was also discovered in the attic of Penner’s apartment, Hummel said.
Penner was arrested for violating his probation, but later took his own life in the showers of the Deschutes County jail.
Hummel said it was a dark day for him to learn of Penner’s death, knowing Gomez was still missing.
He said he hopes this new development will bring some closure to the family.
“Obviously, Sara’s family and friends are going to be mourning her loss for a very long time, ever after,” he said. “Perhaps they can take some solace in knowing that in Sara’s final few months, she had broken free from Penner and she was enjoying her life with her friends, and she had a new special relationship in her life. “For the past few months, she really enjoyed herself.”
The cause of death and manner of death are still under investigation by the medical examiner, Hummel said in a brief news release, one day after an autopsy was conducted near Portland.
Hummel also issued the following statement about the circumstances surrounding her killing:
“Sara Gomez was a strong, smart, and beloved member of our community. In the final months of her life, she found peace, as she had finally broken free of the abusive relationship she was in with Bryan Penner.
“Unfortunately, Penner did not accept this. Penner killed Sara because if he could not have her, no one would.
“After killing Sara in his apartment, he bound her body and transported her to (a location) off of Highway 20 approximately 20 miles east of Bend.
Elizabeth Fennell, Gomez’s sister, with the help of her fiance’ led search parties as they searched the eastern part of the county for any clues.
Fennell’s goal all along was to bring Sara home.
“It’s amazing to bring her home and to be able to have that closure and sense of closure,” Fennell said.
She said her family is grateful for all of the love and support they’ve gotten from the community.
“They literally have kept our family going,” Fennell said.
Fennell said she is in the process of working with other organizations to bring awareness to domestic violence and shed light on Sara’s story.
Once the autopsy is completed, the remains will be turned over to the family.
No funeral date has been set.