Gunmen shot dead a former Miss Venezuela and her British-born ex-husband in front of their five-year-old daughter, who was wounded in an attack that dismayed the crime-plagued nation, authorities said on Tuesday.
Monica Spear, a 29-year-old soap opera star, and Thomas Henry Berry, 39, were killed in what appears to have been a botched robbery after their car broke down on a highway in northwestern Venezuela late on Monday, police and prosecutors said.
Their daughter, Maya Berry Spear, was wounded in the right leg but was stable after receiving medical treatment in a crime that put a harsh spotlight on Venezuela’s soaring murder rate.
Police in Puerto Cabello arrested five suspects, some under the age of 18, said forensic police director Jose Gregorio Sierralta.
The suspects have also been interrogated, Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez said after a televised meeting with President Nicolas Maduro, who vowed to use an “iron hand” to crack down on crime.
The family was on a scenic highway when their car hit a blunt object that had been placed on the road, forcing them to pull over, said Sierralta. There are suggestions the object was strategically placed as part of a planned armed robbery.
Spear waved down a tow truck, which stopped to help on the road between Puerto Cabello and Valencia in the state of Carabobo, Sierralta said.
But as the two truck workers operated the crane, five armed men emerged on the road.
The truck’s operators fled to a police station about 1.5 kilometres away while the mother, father and child locked themselves in their car in a desperate attempt to shield themselves from the killers.
But “the criminals fired multiple shots at the vehicle” before fleeing without stealing anything, Sierralta said.
“They fired with viciousness,” Maduro said of the attackers.
It could not immediately be determined if Spear and Berry had called the tow trucks, or if any of the drivers were among those arrested for suspected involvement in the killings.
The slaying of Spear and her ex-husband followed a pattern of late-night assaults carried out by disabling cars with obstacles placed on roadways.
Spear, who was a quarter-finalist in the 2005 Miss Universe contest, appeared in the Miami-based Telemundo series Pasion Prohibida (Forbidden Passion) and Flor Salvaje (Savage Flower).
An instagram post while the actress was on vacation in Lake Mucabaji, Venezuela.
The actress, who lived in the United States, was on holiday in her native Venezuela at the time of her death. She had posted videos of the countryside and herself horse riding on Instagram in the last couple of days. Her British partner, who reportedly ran a travel agency, has Venezuelan citizenship.
“This is a massacre,” said Maduro, who vowed to curb the country’s runaway violence during his presidential campaign last year. “This violence is a sickness that we have.”
Maduro called mayors and governors to an urgent meeting on Wednesday to co-ordinate action against crime.
“I take my responsibility to the maximum,” the socialist leader said, warning the killers that “whoever wants to kill will see an iron hand”.
Venezuela has one of the world’s highest murder rates, with 79 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants last year, according to the non-profit Venezuelan Observatory of Violence. The interior ministry, however, gave a lower murder rate of 39 homicides per 100,000.
The United Nations has ranked Venezuela as having the 5th highest crime rate in the world.
The beauty queen’s killing shocked fellow artists in Venezuela, a country which is passionate about soap operas and the Miss Universe contenders it regularly produces.
Known for her charity efforts, Spear took special-needs patients with her to an awards event late last year.
Actress Gaby Espino, who lives in Miami, said she would never return to her home country. “We have all left Venezuela … terrified because this is the reality of our country. And today it happened to Monica,” Espino told the Telemundo network.
“I love my country, but I won’t set another foot in Venezuela,” she said.
Telemundo, a leading Spanish-language network in the United States, said in a statement that it was “deeply shocked and saddened by the horrible crime”.
Luis Carlos Dominguez, a longtime friend and former business associate of Berry, said the couple had a good relationship despite their divorce and made it a point to vacation together.
“They weren’t together,” he said. “But they were very attached for the benefit of their daughter.”
Maduro lamented “the loss of a very spiritual young woman” actively involved in various charities, including one that helped placed mentally disabled teens in jobs.
One top opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, blamed Spear’s death squarely on the government: “This government is an accomplice of armed groups, judicial corruption, arms trafficking,” he tweeted.\
Associated Press ang Agence France-Presse