Outrage over beauty queen's slaying a call to action in crime-wracked Venezuela

  • Article by: FRANK BAJAK , Associated Press
  • Updated: January 8, 2014 - 6:16 AM
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This May 23, 2005 file photo released by Miss Universe shows Monica Spear, Miss Venezuela 2005, posing for a portrait ahead of the Miss Universe competition in Bangkok, Thailand.

Photo: Darren Decker, Associated Press - Ap

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CARACAS, Venezuela — A popular soap-opera actress and former Miss Venezuela, 29-year-old Monica Spear surely could have afforded to vacation elsewhere.

Yet she and her ex-husband, who worked in the travel industry, spent New Year's in the mountains of western Venezuela with their 5-year-old daughter then visited the plains of Apure state.

On their return by car to Caracas, Spear and Thomas Henry Berry, a 39-year-old British citizen, became the latest symbols of the rampant violent crime that is afflicting this oil-rich nation.

Robbers shot and killed the two and wounded their daughter on an isolated stretch of highway when they tried to foil the assault by locking themselves inside their car, which had been disabled by tire punctures, police said Tuesday.

The slayings late Monday outraged Venezuelans, triggering a wave of calls for action on social media. TV personality Camila Canabal expressed what many were feeling in a tweet: "Sadness, anger, indignation, impotence, shame and pain, pain, pain, dammit!!!"

"Monica and Thomas are the face of thousands of men and woman whose children have been left without parents because of the violence of Venezuela," she added.

Their daughter, Maya, was in stable condition after treatment for a leg wound and was with relatives in Caracas, authorities said.

Fatal shootings are common in armed robberies in Venezuela, and rampant kidnapping has ensnared even foreign ambassadors and professional baseball players.

Violent crime soared during the 14-year rule of Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer last March. The country has one of the world's highest murder rates — the United Nations has ranked it 5th globally.

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.

They were killed at about 10:30 p.m. between Puerto Cabello, the country's main port, and the provincial capital of Valencia, while on a badly maintained stretch of highway that is lightly traveled at that hour.

Their four-door sedan hit "a sharp object that had been placed on the highway" which punctured at least two of its tires, the director of the country's investigative police, Jose Gregorio Sierralta, told reporters.

Two tow trucks arrived almost immediately afterward, said Sierralta, and the attack occurred after the car had been lifted onto one of the trucks.

Seeing the assailants coming, the travelers locked themselves inside and the assailants fired at least six shots, he said.

"They fired with viciousness," President Nicolas Maduro said of the attackers.

Police in Puerto Cabello arrested five suspects, some under the age of 18, Sierralta said. 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.

Luis Carlos Dominguez, a longtime friend and former business associate of English-born Berry, said he was raised in Venezuela and ran a travel agency.

"He knew Venezuela a lot better than many Venezuelans," said Dominguez, describing the slain couple as people "who really loved the country," had a good relationship despite their divorce and made it a point to vacation together.

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