Although foul play was not suspected, the reason law enforcement responded so quickly — and thoroughly — to find the missing 48-year-old mother of three was because she had been classified as an “at-risk” missing person who may have needed medical attention, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Kelly Hoover.
Lopez’s family shared a similar explanation Thursday, saying that a “medical condition” caused the concern. Lopez was found safe after an eight-hour search.
Details of Lopez’s medical condition have not been shared by her family, authorities or KEYT officials.
The story that captured the attention of those in Santa Barbara and beyond broke Wednesday after KEYT released a statement saying that Lopez was “missing.”
Lopez, who co-anchors the 11 p.m. news for the Central Coast’s ABC affiliate station, was reported missing by her family around 10 a.m. Wednesday — just 30 minutes after she had last been seen near her foothills home west of Santa Barbara.
Shortly after, sheriff’s personnel launched an exhaustive search of the neighborhood near Cathedral Oaks and North San Marcos roads.
Hoover told Noozhawk on Thursday that two K-9 units and a sheriff’s Air Support Unit helicopter searched for an hour and a half. Eight members of the sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team combed the area from 1 to 3:30 p.m.
When family members called the sheriff’s public safety dispatch around 5:30 p.m. to report that Lopez was home safe, authorities were mum on details, calling the incident a “private family matter.”
On Thursday, Hoover said Lopez did not receive preferential treatment because of her occupation or because she is married to Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa.
“We responded just as we would for any other person who was at risk and missing, according to our policy,” she said.
Whereas some cases require waiting an amount of time before reporting someone missing, Lopez was classified as “at-risk” because she met two of five criteria, Hoover said: There was reason to believe Lopez required medication attention, and she had no history of disappearing or running away.
The other criteria include a missing person who is a victim of a crime or foul play, a victim of a parental abduction or a mentally impaired person.
“We know that Ms. Lopez is well-loved and a familiar face in the community, but she did not receive any special treatment,” Hoover said. “The only part of the search that was a little different was that, due to the fact her husband is a Superior Court judge, the location of his residence is private. We had to be more vague” about the search area.
She said another missing-persons case reported around the same time Wednesday in the same area of Lopez’s home, involving a “suicidal woman,” was not related. That woman was also later located, Hoover said.
In a statement Thursday, Lopez’s family thanked the community for its concern.
“As a family, we were very alarmed because Paula was experiencing a medical condition that caused her to be unable to communicate with us,” the family wrote. “She is now receiving appropriate medical care and we hope and expect that her treatment will enable her to recover quickly.
“We would especially like to thank the representatives of the Office of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff and its Search and Rescue Unit for the diligent and professional assistance they provided to us during Paula’s medical emergency.”
KEYT general manager Mark Danielson would not comment on when Lopez will return to work, but he shared feelings of relief.
“On behalf of the KEYT family, we are thrilled to learn that our beloved friend and colleague, Paula Lopez, is now safe,” he said in a statement. “We are looking forward to her quick recovery. At the request of the family, we will respect their wishes for privacy and refer all questions to local law enforcement who worked hard to find Paula safe and sound.”
Hoover, a former journalist who called Lopez a personal friend, said authorities would not be releasing information about her medical condition.
“The reasons why she went missing is her information to share,” she said. “We’ve done our job as law enforcement to find her. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office does not consider any report of a missing person to be routine, and assumes the person is in immediate need of assistance until the facts reveal otherwise.”