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Murder in Belize: How a reporter found the tragic scene

My guide hacked at the towering maze of sugar cane stalks with his machete, clearing the way. A sharp cane leaf sliced his right wrist, drawing bright red blood. It was hot and sticky in there. Mosquitoes swarmed us. Finally, we reached a clearing. And that is where we picked up the scent of death and then spotted the disturbing dark stain on the ground.

Traveling to the remote cane field in northern Belize where the bodies of Drew DeVoursney and his girlfriend, Francesca Matus, were found probably wasn’t the safest thing I’ve done in my 24 years of reporting for newspapers. I had no idea if the killer or killers were still lurking nearby. But my impulses — an insatiable curiosity among them — drove me there last year.

» In depth: Mystery surrounds death of Atlanta Marine, girlfriend

» From 2017: Canadian held as person of interst in Belize murder

Let me back up and tell you about my motivations before I give you the rest of the story. My editor at the time, Shannon McCaffrey, asked me if I would travel to the tiny Central American nation and report on the mystery of what happened to DeVoursney, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran from Georgia, and Matus, a property manager and mother of two from Canada. Both had been strangled. Tape was found on their wrists.

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I felt a sense of responsibility to the victims’ families. Before I traveled to Belize, DeVoursney’s mother opened up to me about losing her son. Nicknamed “Devo,” he was intelligent and restless. He studied philosophy and theology in college before dropping out to join the Marines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Char DeVoursney and I met at a coffee shop north of Emory University. It rained steadily that day. Across Briarcliff Road, the trees bent and twisted in the wind. Big raindrops slid down the window next to Char. The gloom outside matched her mood. She told me she felt as if she were caught in a tornado and unable to land.

I also felt a connection to her son. DeVoursney did two tours with the Marines in Iraq. I reported on the war there, traveling to Iraq three times as an embedded journalist with U.S. Marines and soldiers between 2004 and 2006. We both experienced close calls there.

To do this story right I knew I needed to transport my readers to the scene. One of my former bosses, Bill Millsaps, then the executive editor of The Richmond Times-Dispatch, once told me there is no substitute for being there. So simple, yet so true. You can use all of your senses at the scene.

I landed in the former British colony on a Friday and headed about 80 miles north to the police station in Corozal. But no one there would speak to me. Frustrated, I drove to Scotty’s Bar and Grill, the place where DeVoursney and Matus were last seen before they disappeared. I interviewed several of their friends there, but none could tell me precisely where their remains were discovered.

Drew DeVoursney of Georgia and his Canadian girlfriend, Francesca Matus, were killed in Belize last year. Their murders remain unsolved. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

I went back to the police station and convinced one of the officers to draw me a map. He said their remains were found near Chan Chen, a rural village north of Corozal and near the Mexican border. I paid close attention to what he told me, kept glancing at the squiggly map he drew in my notebook and consulted the Google Maps app on my phone. Yet I still managed to get lost. I stopped and asked for directions from a pair of strangers on a dirt bike. They had heard of the killings and told me to keep heading north.

I got lost again, driving through a densely wooded part of the countryside. Then I spotted a man riding a motorcycle down the same dirt road I was on. I flagged him down. He introduced himself as Roger Keme and told me he is related to the farmer who first found the bodies. Keme urged me to follow him. This is the power of serendipity that one of my former editors, Hank Klibanoff, highlighted when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution hired me 13 years ago.

We drove a short distance to the home of Demetrio Yam, a slight farmer with weather-beaten skin. He doesn’t speak English. And I’m not fluent in Spanish, so Keme, who speaks both languages, translated for us.

Yam agreed to help. I drove as he pointed the way. Eventually, we pulled up to the edge of the sugar cane field. He was working nearby that previous Monday when he picked up on the foul scent. The terrible and insistent odor — it smelled like evil — hung heavily in the air. Dry leaves crunched underfoot. Yellow police caution tape hung from one of the cane stalks. We made our way to that unsettling dark stain where Yam found the remains in advanced states of decomposition.

I quickly scribbled some notes and snapped photos. And then I thanked Yam and Keme for their help before heading back to my hotel in Corozal, crashing hard that night. The next day, I banged out my story on deadline. It ran on the front page the following day with one of the photos I had taken of Yam and Keme in the cane field.

At the very least, my reporting showed The AJC was closely following the murder investigation — which remains unsolved today — and seeking answers from Belize police and the FBI. I’m not sure if they have read my article. But I know they are aware of my work. Here’s why: A convoy of them stopped Keme, Yam and me as we were leaving the cane field that day. The FBI agents watched from their trucks while the Belize officers sternly questioned us. When I told them I am a journalist from Atlanta and that I was there to report on the killings, they looked surprised. And then they waved us on.

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