Venezuela arrests seven over beauty queen's fatal highway shooting

People mourning the death of former beauty queen Monica Spear at a protest in Caracas on Jan 8, 2014. Gunmen killed Ms Spear and her partner Thomas Henry Berry in front of their young daughter in an attack that shocked the crime-plagued nation. PHOTO
People mourning the death of former beauty queen Monica Spear at a protest in Caracas on Jan 8, 2014. Gunmen killed Ms Spear and her partner Thomas Henry Berry in front of their young daughter in an attack that shocked the crime-plagued nation. PHOTO: AFP

CARACAS (AFP) - The Venezuelan police have arrested seven people, including a woman and two teenagers, over the brutal double murder of a beauty queen turned soap star and her British-born partner, prosecutors said Wednesday.

The fatal shooting of former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear, an actress who lived and worked in the United States, during a vacation to her home country caused shock and revulsion, and triggered a government crisis meeting.

Ms Spear, 29, and Mr Thomas Henry Berry, 39, were shot dead after their car broke down on a highway in north-western Venezuela late Monday. Their five-year-old daughter was wounded in what appears to have been an armed robbery.

The family had locked themselves in the car in a frantic attempt to survive, but the armed men approached and opened fire multiple times. Ms Spear was killed with a single shot.

Seven people have been arrested for "presumed connection" to the attack, prosecutors said. The four men, one woman and two teenagers were found in possession of some of the family's belongings.

It was previously announced that five people had been detained over the killings in the state of Carabobo that prompted President Nicolas Maduro to vow to deal with the perpetrators with an "iron hand".

"No one can stand by with arms crossed; murders, and violent crime, and the massacre of this young Venezuelan woman and her husband is a blow to all of us," said Mr Maduro, who held a meeting of mayors and governors to draw up an emergency anti-crime plan after the killings, the latest in a violent crime epidemic in Venezuela.

"We all have to take responsibility; and I take mine," the President said on announcing that a national crime policy panel would draw up a plan within a month.

The deaths shone a light on the country's soaring crime, which has kept many Venezuelans from venturing out at night and prompted others to buy armoured cars or boost security in their homes.

Ms Spear and Mr Berry, who ran an adventure travel company in Venezuela, married in 2008 and later split up, but it was unclear whether they had legally separated.

"She was hit by a single shot in the right arm that went through her body," Ms Spear's manager Katty Pulido told CNN Espanol, noting that Mr Berry had suffered three bullet wounds.

Their daughter Maya was shot in the right leg and taken to a private hospital in Caracas, where she is in stable condition and under the care of her grandparents, Ms Pulido said.

Venezuela has one of the world's highest murder rates, with 79 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013, according to the country's non-profit Violence Monitor.

The Interior Ministry, however, has a lower murder rate of 39 homicides per 100,000.

Mr Maduro hosted a security meeting with state and municipal officials at the Miraflores presidential palace.

The meeting brought the socialist face-to-face with his opposition rival, Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, who never conceded defeat after Mr Maduro's contested election victory last year.

At a public square, meanwhile, around 200 people held a demonstration organised by artists to denounce the country's spiraling crime problem after it claimed one of their own.

"I no longer even go out," said renowned actress Elba Escobar. "When I have evening activities I prefer to go with two or three friends in one car."

As protesters released white balloons, Ms Maria Arteaga, 41, said she stopped visiting her parents because they live in a dangerous neighborhood.

"I'm afraid to go to the bank, restaurants or leave my house," she said.

Another group of artists wrote a letter that they will deliver to the National Assembly, accusing the government of "turning a blind eye" to crime.

Friends of Ms Spear said the former beauty queen decided to vacation in Venezuela because she deeply loved her country. Before her death, she had posted images of her countryside holiday on social media.

Ms Spear, a quarter-finalist in the 2005 Miss Universe contest, starred in the Miami-based Telemundo series Pasion Prohibida (Forbidden Passion) and Flor Salvaje (Savage Flower).

The family was driving on a highway when their car hit a blunt object that had been placed on the road, forcing them to pull over, said forensic police director Jose Gregorio Sierralta.

Ms Spear waved down a tow truck, which stopped to help, 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 1.5km away.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.