Those who knew Francesca Matus agree: She had a light and energy — and a smile — that buoyed those around her.
“She was full of life, love and passion,” friend Nancy Rifenbark tells PEOPLE.
Police, who have declined to comment to PEOPLE, said in a news release that both were strangled. But no arrests have been made as the investigation continues.
DeVoursney, a Marine Corps veteran, and Matus vanished late one night last week after leaving a bar in Belize’s Corozal District. They had gathered at the bar with friends for a goodbye party for Matus, who planned to fly to Toronto the next day, while DeVoursney would return to Georgia in May.
“Francesca was like my soul sister,” Rifenbark tells PEOPLE via email. “We became fast friends and it will be a real hill to climb to get over not seeing her again.”
Rifenbark, like DeVoursney and Matus, is a North American expatriate. She moved to Belize eight years ago and says she started a local bar, called Scotty’s, with her family — the same bar, in fact, where Matus’ send-off was held on April 25 (though Rifenbark sold the business in December).
“As close as Francesca and I were, she had many friends,” Rifenbark says, adding, “Everyone that met her wanted to be her friend.”
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
Nikki-Monique Kurnath, who met Matus about a year and a half ago, said much the same when speaking to the Toronto Star.
“She was the person that would make you smile when you had a cruddy day, she would be the sunshine… She was the love and light of a cloudy day,” Kurnath told the paper.
“We’re not going to see that smile again in person, and we’re not going to feel that energy, having her hold us and kiss us and calling us ‘bella,’ and having her tell us that she loved us,” Kurnath said.
“That’s the hardest thing.”
Matus moved to Belize about four years ago, according to Rifenbark. Friends told the Star that Matus split her time between Belize — in the winter months — and Toronto in the spring and summer.
A mother of 22-year-old twin sons, according to the Star, Matus worked as a property manager in Canada, including working remotely while in Belize. Rifenbark says she also owned property in Belize.
“[Matus] only said really good things about Belize. She loved it there,” Robert Di Matteo, a friend and professional mentor, told the Star. “She loved the bay, she loved lying in her hammock, she loved the spirit and the energy that it brought.”
“Francesca enjoyed visiting, swimming, kayaking, boating, traveling inside the country of Belize,” Rifenbark says. “We did all these things together.”
There are about 300 expats in the Corozal area, Rifenbark says. Some “do run in the same circles, others keep to themselves.”
Police told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that DeVoursney’s wallet wasn’t stolen from his body and neither was Matus’ jewelry.
As rumors swirl about a possible motive or suspects, Rifenbark disputes speculation that Matus was threatened. Corozal police have raised such a possibility in interviews while also saying any threats were never reported.
“Just open threats,” as one investigator described it, according to the Toronto Sun. “I believe if a report [had been made] of that threat to Miss Francesca, maybe she would be alive today.”
But according to Rifenbark, Matus “was not being harassed or threatened by anyone.”
“She never flashed her [wealth], she wasn’t like that,” Kurnath, another friend, told the Star. “She had everything planned and she was very organized. There was no cause for alarm prior to this.”
Matus’ family, who has not commented to PEOPLE, reportedly said the Canadian government will bring her remains home. A local “celebration of life” was held for her and DeVoursney, in Corozal, on Thursday.
“It is my hope that the people responsible are apprehended quickly,” Rifenbark says.
“She really was such a beautiful person — both inside and out — and she did not deserve this,” Ivana Pucci, Matus’ second cousin, told the Star. “Nobody does.”