Anytime Cristie Schoen Codd whipped up a batch of her grandma’s crawfish étouffée – or shrimp créole, or any of the other Cajun-inspired dishes she learned growing up in Biloxi, Miss.– she always supersized her recipes. “I don’t think she knew how to make food for less than 80 people, because when she thought about sharing her table, it was with everybody,” says Julia Sachs, a close friend. And Cristie, who competed on Food Network Star in 2012 and was expecting her first baby – a girl to be named Skylar – in July, had found her perfect match in husband J.T. At Thanksgiving the couple rented out the local community center to host a feast open to all. “J.T. was so open and trusting with all kinds of people,” says Sachs.

That trust may have cost the Codds their lives. The day after relatives reported the couple missing on March 15, police in the tiny North Carolina town of Leicester arrested Robert Jason Owens, a 37-year-old handyman who had been working on the Codds’ property and had even attended their wedding last October. According to warrants released in the case, Owens— –ho has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder and the murder of an unborn child – told police he “stored and destroyed” the bodies of Cristie, 38, and J.T., 45, at his property a mile from their home, where authorities said they found human remains in a woodstove.

The warrants also revealed that J.T., who worked as a film and TV production grip, was killed when he was struck by his 2008 Dodge Ram pickup while Owens was at the wheel. (Investigators have not shared a motive or Cristie’s cause of death; at press time Owens had not yet entered a plea.)

For friends of the bighearted parents-to-be, the loss is profound. Spending time with the pair “was like being around the sun,” says pal Perry Sachs. “They had so much love for the world.” With a shared passion for adventure and the outdoors, the couple had left behind their busy lives in California – where Cristie had worked as a caterer and actress – to settle on a lush, 36-acre property with a fixer-upper house and pursue their dreams of running a hydroponic farm and café and raising a family. “She was ready to have her baby and run the farm,” says Dirk Long, Cristie’s partner in Tree Hugger Catering, which served on-location food for Hollywood films.

Cristie’s father had begun building a crib, J.T. was cleaning out a room for the nursery, and Cristie “was already stocking up and pressing baby clothes,” Long says. “She was totally organized and just so excited.”

The couple hired Owens – also a person of interest in a 2000 missing persons case (see box) – to help renovate their property and gave him some $7,000 to set up his own business. “J.T. was always trying to help the guy who was down on his luck,” says Long. “I said, ‘You can’t do that in the mountains of western North Carolina.’ My opinion is that [Owens] probably asked for more money and Cristie put her foot down.”

Now their loved ones are left to imagine what might have been. “This town was supposed to be the kind of place that accepted their generosity, where they could sit on the porch and enjoy a quiet cup of coffee,” says friend Lynne Mishele. “That was stolen from them – and their baby girl.”

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