Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, under fire for rampant crime in his country, suggested Wednesday that the murder of soap star Monica Spear and her ex-husband was a targeted hit and not a random robbery gone wrong.
“That assassination seems more like a contract killing,” he said. “We have identified those involved in this assassination and we are going to look for them.”
Maduro provided no evidence that that Spears was the victim of a murder-for-hire. Police had earlier described the Monday night shooting as a botched highway heist and said they were questioning five people.
The high-profile shooting — which left the pair's 5-year-old daughter wounded — has sparked outrage over violent crime in Venezuela, which had more than 24,000 homicides last year.
Protesters, including some celebrities, held a march to demand better public safety on Wednesday. Maduro called a security meeting with all the country's governors and the mayors of 79 cities with high crime rates.
"If there's any sense to this pain, it has to be so that we all wake up," he said of Spear's death.
Spear's family told NBC News they had tried and failed to persuade the former beauty queen, a naturalized U.S. citizen who starred in several telenovelas, to leave violence-racked Venezuela and join them in the United States after she was robbed six times.
"She loved her country too much," said her brother, Ricardo Spear Mootz, who lives in Florida with his parents. "It was her home."
Five people have been arrested after a former Miss Venezuela and her ex-husband were shot and killed in front of their 5-year old daughter. ITV's Neil Connery reports.
Her ex-husband, Thomas Henry Berry, 39, an adventure tour operator, moved to the United States about 15 years ago after being shot, but returned to Venezuela in 2006, his business partner said.
"I think he was kind of naïve because he loved what he did and he loved showing the good side of Venezuela," Luis Dominguez said.
Although the couple split about two years ago, they remained closed and spent holidays and vacations together with their daughter, Maya, friends and relatives said.
They had spent the New Year on an idyllic road trip that took them from scenic Merida to the beach and to the plains, where Spear, 29, who was raised on a ranch, rode horses. A video she posted to Instagram showed her blowing kisses to the camera on horseback.
Monica Spear in January 2013 in Miami Beach, Fla.
On Monday night, their Toyota Corolla hit "a sharp object that had been placed on the highway," which punctured its tires, according to the director of the country's investigative police, Jose Gregorio Sierralta.
After two tow trucks arrived, so did the gunmen. Spear, Berry and their child locked themselves in the car, but the bandits fired at least six shots into the vehicle, Sierralta said.
"They fired with viciousness," Maduro said.
Spear and Berry were killed. Maya was shot in the leg but was in stable condition.
"To think there are people who can shoot a mother and father in front of their daughter is very sad and unbelievable," family friend Diego Sanchez said. "And it’s shocking when it happens to someone you know."
Five people were detained for questioning, Maduro's press office told NBC News.
Born in England, Berry moved to Venezuela with his family when he was 7 years old and grew up there. After being shot as a young man, he moved to Florida, but was lured back to Venezuela by its natural beauty, Dominguez said.
Howard Yanes / Reuters, file
Miss Venezuela beauty pageant winner Monica Spear smiles as she is crowned in Caracas, September 23, 2004.
Upon his return, he met Spear — a graduate of the University of Central Florida and winner of the 2004 Miss Venezuela pageant — and "it was love at first sight," Dominguez said.
"She was a really happy, outgoing person," Dominguez said of the actress, whose full name is Monica Spear Mootz. "She didn't need luxury. They only needed each other. She wasn't flashy. She was a beautiful person to be around."
After winning the title of Miss Venezuela and competing in the Miss Universe pageant, the actress appeared in a half-dozen Spanish language soap operas, most recently "Pasion Prohibida" and "Flor Salvaje" on Telemundo.
Her brother said she was more interested in using her fame to help people than posing on the red carpet. She tried to raise awareness for domestic violence and autism and she took a youth with Asperger's syndrome to a Telemundo gala event.
"She was a person with dreams, and a person who worked really hard for what she wanted," he said. He noted that the organizer of the national beauty pageant — known for its cutthroat competition — had called her "an angel."
"She was very humble," he said.
Dominguez said he spoke with Berry on Sunday while the family was still on the road.
"They were having the greatest time," he recalled. "He said, 'I'll see you soon.'"
NBC News' Erika Angulo and Daniella Silva and The Associated Press contributed to this report.