December 23, 2013 12:00 PM

Afree spirit, Brittany Royal never thought twice about setting off for Ireland and Australia, or backpacking through Thailand and Malaysia. “She’s very bright, very trusting, likes to see the best in people,” her mother, Julie Royal, says. “This sometimes scared me.”

When her travels took her to the Big Island of Hawaii in January 2013, Brittany, 25, fell in love with Boaz “Bo” Johnson, 22, another visiting mainlander. In April and May, they went to their families, his in Petersburg, Alaska, hers in Tustin, Calif., to deliver big news personally: Brittany was pregnant. “She seemed finally ready to settle down,” Royal says of Brittany, the oldest of three children.

But less than three weeks after they returned to Hawaii, Bo failed to show up to a meeting with a real estate agent who was handling a deal for him to purchase 10 acres of land to start a lava-fields-tour business and organic farm. Brittany also failed to call to wish her mother a happy birthday. Then on May 28, a fisherman on a boat found Brittany’s body ensnared in monofilament in the waters off the eastern shore of the island. She had been strangled to death, her body – police told her family – “fresh” but already with damage from sharks.

Almost immediately, police knew whom they were looking for. “Developments in the investigation,” says Hawaii Police Department Lt. Gregory M. Esteban, “have led us to identifying Boaz Johnson as the suspect.” His whereabouts since the murder “are unknown,” says Esteban. Brittany’s mother initially confronted Bo’s family in an airport. “Your son killed her,” she told the Johnsons. Feeling bad about her outburst, she then hugged them and apologized, saying, “Regardless of what happened, you lost a son.” Bo’s sister Sarah Johnson says that “he’s not capable of this. He has a good heart. We were taught right from wrong.”

Last month the case took a bizarre turn. With no sign of Bo, an anonymous letter to a local newspaper suggested he too had been murdered, in a business dispute: “Haole [a Hawaiian term for Caucasian] had to be killed.” Next came strange posters tacked to trees: “You killed the baby! They killed Bo on the lava flow! Confess!” “It’s creepy,” says Tiffany Edwards Hunt, the publisher of the Big Island Chronicle, who got the note in her letters-to-the-editor PO Box. “I don’t know if this is from somebody who is deranged or is someone who actually has knowledge about the case.”

A search of the lava-field campsite where the couple had been staying while awaiting the land purchase turned up a rope encrusted with apparent blood, plus evidence that Brittany had been dragged across the razor-sharp rocks. Police still haven’t accounted for how Bo, who didn’t have a car or credit card and had only a little cash, managed to vanish – and his family fears the worst. “If he isn’t the murderer, that means he’s dead,” says Sarah Johnson. “So what do we have to look forward to? I keep praying that the police get their job done and they find this killer.”

For months, to the frustration of the families, police have said little about the case, citing the active nature of the investigation. The families have angrily complained that detectives have not returned calls or kept them updated. “Whoever killed her does not deserve to be walking around,” says Royal. “But I feel like I can’t really grieve right now because of the not knowing. It’s always there. It’s always going to be there.”

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