Authorities would not elaborate on how she may have gotten to a city 275 miles north, or why, but they said she did not appear to have been physically harmed.
"She’s physically OK but emotionally distressed," Matthews said.
The Merced Sun-Star reported that Salas told the store owner and police "something about a knife and a kidnapping." The store’s owner could not be reached Thursday evening.
News that Salas had been found sent a wave of audible relief among the dozens of family members and friends who had gathered at her residence on Eleanor Drive in northeast Glendale.
Tearful and in a living room packed with reporters Thursday afternoon, Henry Salas said he did not know why his daughter was in Merced, but he was grateful the worst, and best, day of his life had ended.
"It’s my daughter, I love her, and she’s coming home to me, and that’s the only thing that matters," he said.
Glendale police were forced to switch gears Thursday morning after UCLA officials said Nancy Salas had not been enrolled at the school since fall 2008. That contradicted family members and friends, who were adamant that she was a student there and set to graduate this summer.
By Thursday morning, thousands of UCLA students had joined a Facebook group about her disappearance, with dozens more fanning out throughout the Glendale region passing out fliers.
Many of them disputed officials’ statements that she was no longer at the school, with some saying they had attended class with her this semester. Friends and family also said that Salas, who was active in several Christian outreach ministries on and off campus, would not have put up such a front.
"It’s just not in her character," said Andy Mendonca, a longtime family friend. "She is scheduled to graduate next month. We are throwing a big graduation party."
But UCLA spokesman Phil Hampton said campus officials had checked multiple records that showed she was no longer enrolled at the university.
"We double-checked it," he said.
Oscar Garcia-Johnson, regional minister for the Associated Baptist Churches-Los Angeles, took issue with reporters’ prying into Nancy Salas’ private life and drawing conclusions, calling them "inaccurate and distracting."
Merced police planned to turn over the 911 tapes, in which Nancy Salas stayed on the phone with a dispatcher until officers arrived, as well as other evidence to Glendale detectives, Matthews said.