It was the foul stench — an insistent and unforgettable odor — that grabbed Demetrio Yam’s attention. A diminutive farmer with weather-beaten skin, Yam was toiling in his fields here in northern Belize Monday morning when he first picked up on the scent. Following his nose down a remote dirt road and then through a dense maze of sugar cane, he found a path to a clearing on his property. And that is where he discovered the bodies.
Drew DeVoursney, 36, a Marine veteran from Georgia, and Francesca Matus, 52, a property manager and mother of two from Canada, had been missing for nearly a week. Both had been strangled. Tape was found on their wrists.
Yam’s discovery has prompted a double-murder investigation drawing widespread media attention across the United States and Canada. The killings have devastated the couple’s families and friends in the Atlanta and Toronto areas and prompted many painful questions: Who could do such a thing? How was DeVoursney — a 6-foot-6-inch combat veteran — subdued? How many people were involved? And why would anyone want to kill such a kind couple?
Police have ruled out theft as a motive. The culprit did not take Matus’ jewelry or DeVoursney’s wallet and nothing was stolen from either of their homes. DeVoursney’s friends have been raising money online to hire a private investigator.
The killings are also triggering some soul-searching in this tiny Central American country, a former British colony on the Caribbean Sea that has become a magnet for North American and European expats. Bordered by Mexico and Guatemala, this nation of nearly 400,000 people — a diverse mix of Asians, blacks, Hispanics, and whites — is holding its collective breath. Was it one of their own or an outsider? And what are the implications for this country’s robust tourism industry?
Belize police confirmed Friday they had detained a Canadian man, John Deshaies, calling him a person of interest in the killings. He has been charged with stealing from a local casino in an unrelated case, police said, and sent to prison south of Belize City. Matus was his landlord in Corozal, a northern Belize city close to the Mexican border. Deshaies has denied involvement in the killings, telling local television reporters, “Not at all; she is a very good friend of mine. Absolutely not.”
On Friday as Yam was leading a reporter from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to where he found the bodies, a column of Belize police and FBI trucks drove by. Now staying in Corozal, the FBI agents declined to talk about their investigation.
A bright yellow strip of police caution tape still hung from one of the cane stalks on Yam’s property Friday, and a door lay flat on the ground nearby. Yam speculated investigators used it to carry away the remains, which were found in advanced states of decomposition.
Wielding a machete, Yam stepped amid the towering sugar cane stalks. Brittle leaves crunched underfoot. Voracious mosquitoes swarmed. It was hot and sticky in his field. A sharp cane leaf sliced Yam’s right wrist, drawing bright red blood. He reached the clearing and pointed to a dark stain on the ground where he saw the bodies.
“The path was not here. When they brought the bodies, they left this trail,” he said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. “I don’t really know exactly what happened.”
‘I’m in a tornado’
More than 2,000 miles to the north, Char DeVoursney sat in a drab DeKalb County coffee shop, facing the traffic crawling through the rain on Briarcliff Road. Under a slate gray sky, a tall stand of trees twisted in the wind and spray across the street. Big raindrops slid down the window beside her. The gloom outside matched her feelings inside. Her son Drew was gone. And her world was spinning.
“Right now, the feeling has been like I’m in a tornado with not being able to land,” said Char, a divorcee. “I’ve just been numb.”
Drew was the oldest of her two sons. Both were born in Thomasville, Ga. and raised in Nashville. Nicknamed “Devo,” Drew was bright and restless. He studied philosophy and theology at Montreat College — a private Christian school in North Carolina — on academic and soccer scholarships. He dropped out just before he was to graduate so he could join the Marines. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted him to enlist.
He did two tours in Iraq, fighting at one point in Falluja, a restive city that was the scene of intense combat after the U.S. invasion in 2003. His younger brother, David, served with the U.S. Air Force as a helicopter gunner in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having them both overseas and in harm’s way was extraordinarily stressful for Char.
Drew’s experience in Iraq, his mother said, left him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Depressed and irritable, he suffered from sleeplessness. Yet, Drew headed back toward danger, this time as a military contractor teaching Marines how to use their computer equipment in Afghanistan. He later attended a school in Texas where he learned to work on oil rigs. Then he worked at a solar company in California. A welding school in Missouri came next. He went to a scuba diving school in Florida after that. Gold mining in Belize followed.
“He couldn’t quite land,” his mother said. “He just couldn’t land.”
Four years ago, Drew bought five acres in Belize with a friend, seeing it as a possible site for a scuba diving business. He started dating Francesca a few months ago and they seemed happy.
Francesca lived in Keswick, Ontario, and owned some properties in Toronto as well as a home in Belize, said her friend, Nikki-Monique Kurnath, a Toronto area resident. A real estate investor and the mother of twin adult boys, Francesca had been wintering in Belize for the past four years. She was planning to return to Canada the day she went missing.
“She was the sun in a cloudy day,” Kurnath said. “She always had a positive attitude. I don’t think I have ever seen here upset or distraught, nothing. She was always, always, always positive and smiling and happy and full of life and full of laughter and, of course, most importantly full of love.”
Drew’s business plans in Belize weren’t working out as he had envisioned, his mother said, so he was planning to return to Georgia and attend a trade school with his brother, David, in Conyers, where they would learn how to operate heavy equipment. He was due home this week. Char brightened at the prospect of seeing her two sons back home together, smiling broadly at the thought of it.
“The fact that he was going to be living close by for a change — like I’m going to get to see him a lot? Really?” she said. “So cool.”
Now she is scrambling to handle her son’s affairs. Drew, she said, will be cremated and brought to Nashville National Cemetery in Tennessee, near where he grew up and graduated from high school. A memorial service is being planned for Francesca Thursday in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
‘Everyone is in shock’
Nothing seemed out of place the last time Bill Burch saw his friends at Scotty’s Bar and Grill in Corozal. It would turn out to be the night they disappeared.
A former Delta Air Lines worker who lived in Peachtree City, Bill said he sat in his regular spot atop a stool at the corner of the bar that evening, facing the blue-green Caribbean Sea. Drew sat across from him. Bill remembers him as friendly and always laughing. The two met playing volleyball at a local park. Drew’s height gave him a major advantage. And he used it to spike the ball.
Bill remembers urging his friend that evening to take care of a wound on his head so it wouldn’t get infected. Drew got scraped up diving into the sea after a volleyball. His head was oozing.
Francesca stepped out of the bar at one point that evening and sat on the sea wall, talking on her cell phone. That struck Bill as odd but not unusual because guests routinely headed out there to escape the noise from the bar. Bill said he didn’t see anyone else with Francesca and Drew that evening. A friend reported them missing the next day.
Bill sat in his usual spot at the bar with his wife, Belinda, Friday, wondering how the attackers overcame Drew, given his size. He speculated he was hit over the head or drugged.
“Everyone is in shock,” Bill, a tanned man with a snow-white goatee and a small hoop earring in his left ear, said in between sips of Belikin beer, Belize’s local brew. “Who would do something like that? Both of them were wonderful people. They wouldn’t harm anybody.”
Bill’s wife, who danced at the bar that night, doesn’t remember anything remarkable about the evening.
“Everything seemed fine,” she said.
With its stunning view of the sea and pounding reggae music, Scotty’s has become a popular hangout. The friendly kitchen serves Belizean-American cuisine, including red beans and rice, plantains, stewed chicken and fresh habanero peppers. Christmas lights are strung up over the square-shaped bar. A large mural on one wall depicts a lush landscape with a waterfall and a pinkish sunset.
Scotty’s sees many customers from Corozal’s diverse expat community, a mix of retirees and others from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. They are attracted by the city’s picturesque beaches, unfailingly hospitable people and the low cost of living. The U.S. dollar is strong here.
Colin McGowan, a lean and laconic native of Scotland, is one of Scotty’s co-owners. He remembers Drew and Francesca as “the loveliest people you could meet.” He saw them at the bar the night before they went missing and they both appeared happy.
McGowan, who served in the British military, coordinated a highly-organized search for the couple across Corozal. The hunt drew more than a hundred volunteers from both the local and expat communities. The search led to Francesca’s white Isuzu Rodeo, which had been abandoned in a cane field a few miles from their bodies.
“They were outstanding,” McGowan said of the volunteers. “It’s hot. It’s tiring. It’s stressful. And they did a wonderful, wonderful job.”
The bar held a “celebration-of-life” event for the couple Thursday.
“I would say there was probably a hundred people here of all walks of life, all races and all religions,” he said. “We didn’t do it as a religious service. It was just a chance to remember them and remember the happy times. There were a lot of tears.”