POSTED: 08:37 a.m. HST, Jan 08, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 08:40 a.m. HST, Jan 08, 2014
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.
"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.
In response to the killings, Maduro announced that he would convene a security meeting today that had originally been scheduled for the end of January. It is to bring together state governors and mayors of Venezuela's 79 most dangerous cities.
Spear was crowned Miss Venezuela in 2004, was 5th runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant the following year and had acted in numerous soap operas, most recently in "Pasion Prohibida" for the U.S.-based Telemundo network.
She split her time between Caracas and south Florida, said Dominguez, while Berry lived in Caracas.
Berry's public-facing Facebook page features a series of photos of the couple in blissful days, including a trip to Venezuela's spectacular Angel Falls that preceded their daughter's birth.
Another view into their life was available through the Twitter account of Spear, who had more than 355,000 followers.
Her feed over the last week included brief videos sent on the popular Instagram service.
In one, posted Sunday and described as being taken on the plains, Spear looks at the camera while riding a horse, turns away and then looks back, blowing a kiss.
AP writer Frank Bajak reported from Lima, Peru.