Sara Gomez family reacts to suspect's jail suicide

Will press on with search, now a recovery effort

Suspects death hurts search for answers

BEND, Ore. - (Update: Comments from family, DA)

The jailed ex-boyfriend of a Bend woman who disappeared three weeks ago died Monday morning at St. Charles Bend, nearly 12 hours after apparently hanging himself in a shower at the Deschutes County Jail, District Attorney John Hummel said. And now, the search for Sara Gomez has become an even more challenging recovery effort.

Bryan Michael Penner, 31, was being held on contempt of court charges, accused of violating a restraining order forbidding contact with Sara Gomez, 24, who was last seen leaving her workplace, the Albertsons in north Bend, late on the night of Monday, Feb. 19.

Around 8:40 p.m. Sunday, Penner was found by another inmate after an apparent suicide attempt in a jail housing unit, sheriff's Sgt. William Bailey said early Monday.

Hummel said Penner hanged himself in a jail shower. Another inmate found him and pushed a button to alert staff. There is no indication of anyone else's involvement or foul play, he told NewsChannel 21.

Corrections deputies and a jail nurse responded to immediately begin life-saving efforts, officials said. They continued until Bend Fire Department medics arrived and rushed Penner to St. Charles Bend, where he died Monday at 8:11 a.m., according to Hummel.

The cause of death was determined to be suicide by asphyxiation, although a multi-agency incident team, led by Oregon State Police, will continue its investigation and forward its findings to Hummel, who said he will review the facts and the law and announce his conclusions.

“Without the heroic efforts of Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office corrections deputies, a corrections nurse and emergency medical technicians from the Bend Fire Department, Penner would have died last night at the jail," Hummel said in a statement. "The focused, competent and heroic efforts of this team of dedicated and professional public servants gave Penner a fighting chance for life.”

Corrections Captain Michael Shults said Penner had shown no signs of suicidal thoughts in this or his previous times in jail.

“We are thinking of Mr. Penner’s family," he said. "Our staff are trained in the signs of suicide and suicide prevention. Penner has been in the jail since Feb. 22 and showed no signs of being suicidal or having suicidal ideations. After being evaluated by sheriff’s office mental health professionals, he was housed in a dorm setting.  

"Penner has been in the jail on 10 occasions since 2007, most recently from Dec. 11, 2017 through Jan. 6, 2018, and has never shown any signs or indications of being a suicide risk,” Shults said.

Hummel said Monday that Penner was the sole suspect in Gomez's disappearance, "and his passing makes the search for her more challenging."

“Unfortunately, as the search for Sara extended from hours to days to weeks, it became obvious we are searching for her body, and she will not be found alive," the district attorney said. 

"With Penner’s passing, our chances of quickly finding Sarah plummeted," Hummel said. "I encourage everyone in Deschutes County to report to law enforcement any suspicious tire tracks, earthen mounds or other potential evidence they might see on their property.  Sara’s family is counting on our community to bring her home.” 

Hummel told NewsChannel 21 on Monday that more evidence related to the Gomez case was found in Penner's jail cell, but no specific clues regarding her whereabouts.

“We found information in the cell that helps us in the investigation into his death in the jail," Hummel said, "and there was information related to Sara Gomez. But I won’t be releasing what we found.“

“What we found in Penner’s cell did not give us the map to her body, that detailed information we were hoping to find," he added. "The search continues, and it's going to continue, obviously, without Penner.” 

“We think she could be next door -- or in the next county," Hummel said. "We’ve had leads that we chased down that have been local in nature. Those have not panned out. We continue to chase down local leads based on evidence we found, but we're also open to the possibility that Sara could be farther away than we thought.” 

Hummel also said Penner remains the only suspect in Gomez’s disappearance.

The DA and Sheriff Shane Nelson went to the jail Sunday night and were briefed on the investigation.

"Our office takes these investigations seriously," Nelson said in a statement. "I have requested the Oregon State Police lead this investigation, assisted by the Tri-County Major Incident Team."

Days after Gomez vanished, Hummel said Penner was believed to be the only person involved in her disappearance, and that evidence linking him to the crime had been found in a raid on his northeast Bend apartment, when he was arrested Feb. 20.

Family and friends have been conducting frequent searches of an area east of Bend for Gomez or evidence regarding her disappearance. Police also had asked residents to check their property for anything suspicious or out of the ordinary, like tire tracks or shoe prints.

Police also released photos of a sea-foam green 2004 Chevy Malibu they said was involved in the case and asked the public for tips on where it was seen between Feb. 18 and Feb. 21. Gomez's older sister, Elizabeth Fennell, told NewsChannel 21 the car belonged to Penner, who had been dating Gomez for five years.

Hummel said Monday that Penner had pleaded not guilty to the contempt of court charges, with a trial scheduled for April 12. He also was being held on a Crook County warrant for violating probation in a 2016 fourth-degree assault and harassment case that led to a conviction just over a year ago, when a judge imposed 18 months probation with numerous conditions.

'Sara Strong'

Family and friends of Sara Gomez spoke with NewsChannel 21 on Monday. 

Her sister, Elizabeth Fennell, and brother-in-law, Patrick Garrett, said they will continue to search for Gomez's body and bring her home so she can be laid to rest. 

“There’s no justice that Bryan Penner is going to face," Garrett said. "Right now, it’s getting the family and getting us some closure and bringing Sara Gomez to her resting spot, laying her to rest. That is what she deserves. That is what she wants." 

The family will be hosting a fundraiser at Bouncing Off The Wall on Thursday and Applebee's will be serving a fundraising breakfast on Saturday. All of the money raised will be going to help fund further searches. 

"I just want to say that I’m going to try my hardest that domestic violence victims don’t have to go through this," Fennell said. "We’re going to be strong for them, and no family should have to go through what were going through right now."

The family has set up a website page to keep the community in touch with how the searches are going and about any help they might need. Visit it here:

Finding Sara 

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