Authorities say the condition of the body discovered by a hiker Friday near Horse Ridge not only confirms their belief that it is Sara Gomez, but also that her alleged killer, Bryan Penner, acted alone.
But relatives of Gomez, including her sister, Elizabeth Fennell, still believe someone helped the Bend woman’s ex-boyfriend, “100 percent.”
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said there was plant growth on and around the body, and no evidence it had been moved recently.
“The evidence is wholly consistent with the body being there since Sara was reported missing in February,” Hummel said Tuesday.
The remains were discovered about 1:30 p.m. Friday about 20 miles east of Bend. La Pine resident Robert Biggs was walking on a dirt road parallel to U.S. Highway 20 when he discovered a body wrapped up in tarp under a tree near mile marker 21.
Gomez, 24, was reported missing by her roommate Feb. 20 after not returning home for several days. Friends and relatives papered the region with missing person fliers, while law enforcement focused on Penner, Gomez’s troubled ex-boyfriend.
An autopsy of the body was scheduled for Tuesday by the state medical examiner in Clackamas County. That would definitively determine the person’s identity and the cause and manner of death, Hummel said. The results won’t come soon, though.
“We’re thinking weeks, not days,” Hummel said.
Hummel said several factors point to the body being Gomez. First, there are no other missing people in the area the body could be. Second, the body matched the general description of Gomez, including its height and a “unique dental feature,” which he declined to describe.
There were also several items found with the body police were expecting to find, Hummel said, declining to describe them as well.
Authorities have stated since March that they believe Penner killed Gomez, and that he acted alone. But rumors have swirled about an accomplice helping him dump her body. This talk was fueled in part by several of Gomez’s personal items being found on other people following her disappearance.
But nothing found Saturday changes what authorities believe, said Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson.
“At this time there is no evidence that a second suspect was involved with Ms. Gomez’s murder,” said Nelson, after speaking with Bend Police Chief Jim Porter.
Biggs didn’t call police right away because he didn’t have a phone on him, he told The Bulletin this weekend. He waited until Saturday morning to report finding what he believed were human remains.
The first police arrived at 7:50 a.m., along with medical examiners and a representative of the district attorney’s office. Before publicly announcing the body’s discovery, law enforcement provided in-person notification to Gomez’s biological mother, the woman who raised Gomez, her sister and two of her three brothers. They also notified her roommate by phone.
The body was found within the 40-square-mile area searchers had focused on east of Bend. They originally eyed an 80-square-mile region but data from Penner’s cellphone helped narrow it, said Deschutes County sheriff’s Lt. Bryan Husband.
“It was still a huge area,” Husband said Tuesday.
Professional searchers, as a well as volunteers organized by Fennell’s fiance, had searched the general area where the body was ultimately discovered several times without finding it.
Nelson, who was at the site on Saturday, said the black tarp was “difficult to see” from the highway. And the recent warm weather might have helped draw Biggs to the body by its strong smell, Husband said.
“It’s not thickly forested out there; it’s high desert,” Husband said. “But it still doesn’t take much to conceal something.”
Ground searchers with the sheriff’s office planned to search the same area again Thursday. With the body located just 25 feet from the road, Husband said he’s “quite confident” they would have found it.
Fennell recently founded a nonprofit, Seeking Safety, to assist victims of domestic violence. It is raising funds online for a permanent memorial to Gomez.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org